Winnsboro, La., has earned its stripes—and its stars. The town officially was declared the “Stars and Stripes Capital of Louisiana” in 1991, after Winnsboro veterans inspired a patriotic fervor that continues to wash through the state.
James Nugent remembers the night a small group of local Veterans of Foreign Wars got the idea to promote patriotism. About 14 of them were sitting around the VFW hall trying to figure out how to foster more appreciation of the flag—to help people understand its significance from the perspective of a war veteran.
“We decided to try to borrow the flags that had been draped over deceased veterans’ coffins and use that as a theme for a Memorial Day display,” says Nugent, who received a Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge, two Silver Stars, and other citations for service in both World War II and the Korean War. The group received seven flags from local families for that first holiday and 25 for the following July Fourth. The collection has grown to more than 600, or one-tenth of the town’s population.
“It was so impressive,” Nugent says of the flags which line a nearly two-mile stretch of Highway 15, “it just caught fire.”
The mayor supported the effort and offered to provide permanent foundations and poles for a regular display. The space allows 330 flags to be flown for several days surrounding each Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Armistice Day. So many civilians and veterans volunteer to help raise and lower the flags, the enormous job takes only an hour.
Though the flags that are presented to the families of deceased veterans are treasured mementos, the families find little use for them after the funeral; most end up stored in a closet or chest. By flying them on national military holidays, Nugent says, the flags can continue making a symbolic impact on the community.
“When the wind is blowing and people look up at those flags and know that they’ve been draped over some patriotic veteran’s coffin, I think it has more meaning,” he says.
Lillian Baker, a member of the local Daughters of the American Revolution, says her deceased husband would be proud to know his flag is among those flying on Highway 15.
“He was a member of the VFW and a veteran of WWII,” she says. “I was glad to donate his flag.”
Nugent says he definitely detects more respect for the flag since his VFW group began the project. Even local businesses have erected permanent flagpoles. “When you come through Winnsboro anytime, you’ll see flags flying throughout the town,” he says. “No doubt about it, it brings us a lot of pride.”
One of the most satisfying results of their efforts, though, has been watching the idea flourish throughout the state. So many other towns and villages began displaying flags that nearly 70 miles of Highway 15 have been designated “Veterans Memorial Highway.”
“We’re just very military-minded,” says Rosa Morrow, a veteran of World War II and the first female commander of the local VFW. She cites several other Winnsboro programs that incorporate veterans, including a catfish festival and a ceremony at the local Princess Theatre.
Since the flags began flying on Highway 15, other groups have been inspired to create permanent memorials. The Oakley Chapter DAR raised $45,000 to purchase and erect the state’s largest U.S. flag—measuring 40 feet by 75 feet—on Patriot Square in the center of town, and the American Legion Post built a walkway through the Franklin Parish Memorial Park using bricks engraved with the names of deceased veterans.
“It is wonderful,” says Jack Hammons, Winnsboro’s current mayor. “These efforts really put a lot of spirit and pride into our community.” Though he doesn’t have a military background himself, he adds, “We all participate and support them anyway we can. We do realize what our veterans have sacrificed.”
And now, local veterans know that their contribution to freedom will continue to be remembered in their hometown, perhaps long after they’re gone. “A lot of veterans tell their families, ‘When I die, I want my flag to fly on Highway 15,’” Nugent says.
He’s one of them.