Red Flannel Festival

Festivals, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on January 21, 2001

When Roger Gren, the new police chief in Cedar Springs, Mich., attended a town council meeting in 1999 and suggested the patches on his officers uniforms be redesigned, he came dangerously close to inciting a riot.

The chiefs request, though the innocent error of a newcomer, was that new patches be designed without a red flannel underwear logo. He soon realized that those vermilion, three-button, drop-seat underduds featured on the old patches, and on virtually every lamppost in town, are the personification of Cedar Springsits claim to fame, its legacy to the world.

He even came with samples, recalls Shirley Merlington, executive secretary of the Red Flannel Festival committee and a lifelong resident of Cedar Springs. There was an uproar. The old patches stayed.

Cedar Springs (pop. 2,669) relationship with red flannel dates back to the cold, snowy winter of 1936 when a New York feature writer claimed there were no red flannels available across the country.

His declaration incensed the owners/editors of the Cedar Springs Clipper. Nina Babcock and Grace Hamilton, remembering the red they sometimes saw hanging from mens trousers as they walked down the street, responded with a flaming editorial, criticizing the writer for being so insular.

Who but a Gothomite (New Yorker) would expect that there are no red flannels just because Saks Fifth Avenue, Wanamakers, Lord and Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman dont wrap em for their clients? the editors wrote. Wait, dont write off us lumberjacks yet; weve got plenty of red flannels in Cedar Springs.

The story was picked up by The Associated Press, and orders began pouring into Cedar Springs from all over the country.

Who first produced the crimson undergarments in Cedar Springs and exactly when is unclear. However, by 1949, Mae Oppenneer was stitching the undies in her home. In 1952, they were manufactured by the Francis Lee Red Flannel Factory, which later became the Cedar Springs Red Flannel Factory.

When financial difficulties forced the factory to close in 1994, Karen Williams, proprietor of Cedar Sweets and Specialty Shoppe, stepped in to keep the towns legacy alive. Not being a seamstress herself, she enlisted the help of several women who were.

It was a stop-gap to get us through, recalls Williams. That year, there was never anything on the shelves because it was bought up as soon as it was made. People ordered and came back a week later to pick them up.

Today, a dozen local women stitch a wide variety of red clothing in their homes. The traditional red flannels now are made of a stretch cotton/polyester blend so when wearers bend over they, dont pop their buttons. Other products such as boxer shorts, shirts, and nightgowns still are made of red and plaid flannel.

Each September, the garments and red flannel souvenirs are proudly displayedand soldduring the Red Flannel Festival. The celebration has been happening, with the exception of some war years, since 1939.

Over the years, the towns warm relationship with red flannels has brought Cedar Springs national attention. Merlington remembers Gerald Fords 25 years of parade participation during the annual festival, and when Life magazine came to town, and, more recently, when the Cedar Springs trademark was featured on the Donnie and Marie show. She remembers Emery Munro, a resident with Down syndrome who, in 1983, at the age of 54, was parade grand marshal.

Cedar Springs is the kind of town where people take their red flannels seriously, and where Merlington says the bottom line is, Dont mess with our underwear.