No one in Columbus ever had trouble noticing when George Scofield drove through town. Known throughout Polk County as “the flag man,” George’s car was always adorned with at least one American flag. “But he was really upset that no one saluted or took off their hat when a flag went by in a parade,” says
. “So he decided people needed some education.”
Robert is chairman of Columbus’ House of Flags Museum, founded in 2001 by George Scofield, who passed away in 2008. Originally housed in a vacant warehouse in Green Creek, where George displayed flags donated over the years, the Museum now resides in a remodeled firehouse right in downtown Columbus, near the town’s historic antebellum courthouse, and was dedicated to George’s memory during its opening ceremonies on Veteran’s Day, 2011. The Museum, which claims to be “the only House of Flags Museum in America” and is entirely staffed by volunteers, now has some three hundred flags on display in four exhibit rooms.
Robert, who moved to Polk County from Michigan in 1980, got involved when George decided his fledgling museum needed a new home in the heart of Columbus. With a background in structural design and engineering and a lifelong interest in flag history, Robert was the man for the job. “I told George that it was great having all these flags, but somebody’s got to tell the story,” Robert said during a recent tour of the Museum. So Robert and his fellow volunteers set about researching each flag’s history and adding explanatory plaques and a guidebook for visitors. Even though nearly all the flags in the collection are reproductions of originals made for the Museum or bought from suppliers, the stories that accompany each one give them all historical value. In the “Birth Of A Nation” room, for example, hangs a brilliant red flag with a delicate golden floral design. It was carried into battle by William Washington, George’s cousin, near Camden, South Carolina in what became known as the Battle of Eutaw Springs. “On his way to battle, William stopped by his fiancé’s home, and she noticed he didn’t have a banner to carry onto the battlefield,” Robert says. “So she made one from one of her curtains.” William survived the battle in which Revolutionary forces prevailed, and the couple married after the war.
Hanging overhead was a series of flags depicting a rattlesnake adopted by many of the colonies as anti-British sentiment grew before war broke out. “Rattlesnakes give fair warning before they strike, but their bite can be dangerous or even fatal if they’re provoked,” Robert says. “So that seemed an appropriate symbol for the times.” Further along, visitors can see the evolution of the stars and stripes, incorporating elements of the British Saint George’s Cross and the Scottish St. Andrew’s Cross, and learn that it was probably Francis Hopkinson, not Betsy Ross, who put thirteen stars on a blue background as a suggested design for a national emblem. “You can tell Hopkinson’s flag from Betsy’s because Hopkinson used six-pointed stars and Betsy favored five-pointed ones. She was married to an upholsterer and probably really did make one of the first stars and stripes, but her story’s been romanticized a lot,” Robert says. Betsy’s five-pointed stars won the day, but the familiar arrangement of stars in the upper left quadrant wasn’t standardized until 1912, with several alternate arrangements on display in the Museum.
Over a thousand visitors came to the Museum during the fall of last year for a special exhibit of three original Presidential flags from Dwight Eisenhower’s two terms in office, from 1953 to 1961, including the only flag ever produced with 49 stars, marking the entry of Alaska in 1959. It was a short-lived flag, as Hawaii became the 50th state the next year. “Eisenhower is the only president who served under three different flags,” Robert says. “There were 48 states when he took office, 50 when he left.”
Robert’s encyclopedic knowledge of flags makes him a vexillologist, a term coined during the mid-twentieth century by a noted flag scholar named Whitney Smith, who even developed the Whitney Flag Identification System still used as a shorthand to denote the origins and uses of any particular flag. “It’s a form of heraldry, really,” Robert says, “like describing coats of arms.” Vexillologists know, for example, that the arrangement of elements on a flag is always described from the flag’s point of view, so that while the head of the symbolic American Eagle, clutching its olive branches and arrows, is turned to the left
from the viewer’s point of view, it’s correctly to the right from the flag’s point of view. And Robert and his fellow vexillologists are probably the only ones who notice that in photographs of Harry Truman’s second inauguration, the presidential flag in the background is hung backwards, with the eagle’s head pointing to the viewer’s right.
Visitors to the Museum may not notice a small framed black-and-white photograph from about 1950 that hangs between the Birth Of A Nation Room and the Price Of Liberty Room. It shows a very young Robert standing with his grandfather, both dwarfed by the huge American flag that the elder Williamson always displayed. “My grandfather had a motto,” Robert said with a smile. “Every Day Is Flag Day.”