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Neighbors of DuPage

A flag for the ages: a Darien relic comes home

Jun 29, 2018 10:15PM ● By Tim

by Tim Sullivan 

 In 1861, the annual 4th of July Independence Day parade in Cass (now Darien) was proudly marshaled in with an 11 foot, hand sewn, woolen American flag, with 34 stars arranged in the shape of a star…a flag that had been sewn the night before by a determined group of women from Cass.

The Confederate cannon fire that rained down on Fort Sumter April 12, 1861, igniting civil war, and ensuing conflicts, were distant unheard events to the women of Cass, whose patriotism was alive and unfettered. Until that attack, most Americans expected the conflict between the northern and southern states to be quickly resolved. Kansas had just been added to the Union in January as a “free” state following eight years of bloody confrontation over the issue of slavery. Still, it was inconceivable that this young, expanding country, that had survived under one flag since 1776, could be torn in two by civil war. With 34 states the American democratic “experiment” was gaining international acclaim.

Since July 4, 1777, when the Philadelphia congress adjourned and celebrated the first anniversary with bonfires, bells and fireworks, Americans have celebrated this day with patriotic fervor. By 1861, parades were common and fireworks were a long time tradition. The nation had grown from 13 colonies to 34 states; from 2.5 million to over 31 million people (including four million slaves). Illinois was the fifth most populous state counting 1.7 million, all free (in 1818, the year of statehood, Illinois population was just 35,000). Its vast idyllic prairies offered a paradise of farmland. Accessible through the Great Lakes, Illinois was an Eden of sorts to settlers. Chicago was designated a “city” in 1837, population: 4,170. By 1861, 24 years later, Chicago was the ninth largest city in the country with around 112,000 residents.

As Independence Day approached, Cass (a small community 20 miles west of Chicago) was excited about their upcoming celebration. But just days before the parade they had no stars and stripes to lead it. Undeterred, 19 year-old Elijah Bartlett rode 20 miles into Chicago to purchase a flag but “there was none to be found.” He returned empty-handed. It was July 3. Undaunted, George Heartt rode into Chicago and bought all the red, white and blue wool fabric necessary to sew all the flag the women could want.

From a letter recounting the task (believed to be written by Maude Cobb), “The day before the Fourth Mr. George Heartt rode twenty or more miles to Chicago and back on horseback and purchased the material for this flag. That night the young ladies (my mother and aunts among them) held a sewing bee and with thimbles, needles and thread worked most of the night to make this flag by hand so that the young men could carry it in the parade and dedicate it with fitting ceremonies at the Fourth of July Celebration of 1861.”

The original Lace School at the corner of 75th and Cass Avenues was built in 1856. This "point" was the center of life in the Lace community. The Old Lace school house is now the home of the Darien Historial Society, and keeper of the 1861 Cass flag. 
Photo: Tim Sullivan

Through the night of July 3rd and into the morning of the 4th, under dim mustard light of kerosene lanterns, Eliza Smart and the young determined women of Cass cut and sewed tirelessly. When daylight broke on that fourth of July morning, the kerosene lamps were extinguished, and the sun shown on an American flag that spanned 11 feet with 13 perfect rows of red and white around the blue corner of 34 bright white stars, symmetrically arranged in the shape of a star.

This is not a story about an American flag. It is a story about the American resolve that permeated every small community in America, as far west as Cass, Illinois and beyond. By July, 1861, Illinois boys were signing up to serve and save the Union. Over the course of the war 260,000 Illinois men joined the cause. Only three states contributed more soldiers.

The Cass American flag was used on many occasions during the war. After the war, the flag was stored in the barn of Cass resident Mr. Elisha Smart.

“…after his death it was given to Mr. George Heartt, the purchaser of the material, a member of Company B, Thirty-third Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry and it was in his possession and that of his family until placed in the collection of war relics in the Public Library.”

The Cass flag was not seen again until January, 1986, when the Downers Grove Historical Society received it in a box from the estate of Florence and Helen Clifford, former residents of Downers Grove. Eventually, it was moved to the Alexander Bradley Burn American Legion Post 80, Downers Grove for safekeeping. Through the efforts of David Wisbrock, historian and post member, the flag has been returned to its “birthplace,” and is now in the care of Darien Historical Society, at the Old Lace School, on corner of Cass Ave. and 75th St. It seems fitting that this Civil War flag now rests in the school room where its creators learned reading, writing, arithmetic and, unknowingly, “sewed” into history an important part of the Cass and Lace community past.

In part, through the generous donation of an anonymous donor, the fragile, deteriorating Cass flag will be restored (estimated cost is $8,000).

The members of the Darien Historical Society are planning fundraising and special events related to this flag.

“The flag is more than an artifact of the past,” says Historical Society President Dean Rodkin. “It gives us insight into the people who lived in Cass. Until the flag came into our possession, we knew names and not much more. The story of the flag lets us know that they were involved in their community and were motivated by a willingness to come together to accomplish something worthwhile for the benefit of all. Obstacles didn’t deter them; they persevered. We can sense their pride when the flag led the parade on July 4, 1861.”  

Publisher’s note: The members of the Darien Historical Society specifically requested that they not be photographed for this story. They wanted this story to be about the flag. But it is important to note that it was the unselfish volunteer efforts of Cass women that made that flag possible in 1861, and it is the unselfish volunteer efforts of Darien women that are allowing that flag, and all that it stands for, to live on in 2018.