Last year, Christine Richards made a spur-of-the-moment decision, but one that was also two centuries overdue and will forever alter the history of Peru, Mass.
“I decided we needed a flag for the town,” declared Richards, the part-time town clerk for Peru, a hill town in the Berkshires with a volunteer fire department, a single blinking yellow light, and little else.
So Richards enlisted one of her 846 fellow Peruvians, town accounting officer Sharon Greule, and together they designed a flag to show the world what Peru pride looks like — a snowy mountain landscape, and the year 1771, when the town was incorporated. The image they used on the flag was drawn by Tom Keefe, a late resident who had painted it for the parks and recreation department in 1990.
Peru can now take its honored place among the 321 cities and towns that have flags hanging in the Great Hall, beneath the golden dome of the State House on Beacon Hill.
Peru is part of a trend, as once flagless towns in the Commonwealth adopt flags, after a bit of coaxing from constituents and state lawmakers, who say a flag is a way to instill community pride and to remind the rest of the world that their municipalities matter.
Towns, of course, don’t need flags. Unlike countries that wage battles or race to the moon, or states that christen dams and tunnels, many communities have been content with humbler markers of their domain, such as seals and stationery.
“We’re a small town and a lot of times people don’t even know where Peru is,” Richards said. “We just felt like we should be represented along with all the other towns.”
Senator Benjamin B. Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, has made flags a personal mission. Three years ago, he noticed that about 20 towns in his Western Massachusetts district lacked flags, a rather high ratio in a district of 48 communities. When residents from these towns toured the State House, and looked for their flags in the Great Hall, they saw only a barren pole.
Downing wanted to right this wrong and he alerted town managers and selectmen, many of whom were unaware of their failure to properly commemorate their local sovereignty.
Several formed committees or held contests. Pittsfield designed its flag just in time for its 250th anniversary in 2011, after holding a contest. Otis held a contest in 2009, in time for its bicentennial. Worthington, Mount Washington, Tyringham, and Monterey followed suit. Northfield seemed close, but an artist’s proposal inspired by schoolchildren’s renderings was rejected at Town Meeting in 2011, over what some believe were budget concerns.
Is 351 flags, one from each Bay State community, within reach?
“I’d like to get them all in there, but I’m under no illusion that I will,” Downing said, lamenting how flags may not be at the top of everyone’s agenda.
The state began asking for flags two decades ago. The initial impulse was more logistical than civic. Former governor Michael S. Dukakis had covered a large atrium in the center of the State House, known as the Great Hall, to use for events. But the acoustics were terrible, and after a number of experiments, the state Bureau of Office Buildings determined in the early 1990s that municipal flags would solve the problem, while further connecting constituents to their capitol.
New England, it turns out, already had an unusually rich tradition of municipal flags, often with displays of pastoral imagery, said Hugh L. Brady, president of the North American Vexillogical Association, an organization dedicated to the study of flags.
Not all of them were prizewinners. In 2004, the vexillogical association conducted an online survey to find out which among 150 municipal flags from around the nation was the most aesthetically pleasing. Washington, D.C., ranked first, followed by Chicago. Boston’s flag, featuring a yellow seal across a turquoise background, ranked 133d. Worcester, with a heart in the middle, fared slightly better at 77.
Despite the region’s proud tradition, many Massachusetts cities and towns still had no flag in the early 1990s. So they improvised, by using their town seals, said Susan Greendyke Lachevre, art collections manager for the Bureau of State Office Buildings, who was working for the state when the flags were first collected for the Great Hall. Others chose more innovative ideas, like the wagon used by Amesbury. Most flags now on display in the Great Hall are handmade, lovingly sewn together by seamstresses, according to Greendyke Lachevre.
Still, not everyone is so enamored. Chilmark was incorporated in 1694, and still has no flag.
“I don’t think it’s ever occurred to us,” said Selectman Warren M. Doty. “I’ve been a selectman for 15 years and no one has ever asked me if we have a flag.”
Doty has no plans to initiate an effort, and he does not believe anyone else in town will either. “We are a very modest place that is very low key and understated,” he said. “We don’t name buildings after people. It’s just a very old-fashioned town.”
But there are others who have found deep meaning in their flags, new sources of civic pride. Karen Amanti, a 49-year-old graphic artist from East Otis, won a contest to design the flag for the town of Otis in 2009. It’s a simple, yet bold hand-sketched portrait of fall leaves, campgrounds, ski slopes, and the Otis Reservoir. Together, the colorful images make the town feel like a much fuller destination than its population of 1,612 people might otherwise suggest.
When the flags were unfurled for the bicentennial celebration, everyone in town wanted one. They were handed out at parades, put up in front of homes, flown by an East Otis church, and replicated for use on the police department’s patch. Town officials ran out of the first two printings of 302 flags, and are considering a third order.
And Amanti became a celebrated figure in her own right, besieged by elders from the neighboring town of Tyringham to design its flag as well.
Both flags now have her initials signed in the corner. But the Otis flag is the one that instills personal pride. It is her home.
She brought her mother to the ceremony at the State House and shook hands with all the dignitaries who came to celebrate, along with a busload of her neighbors.
“It’s something that’s going to go down in history for me,” she said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story may have left the impression that two employees involved in producing the town of Peru’s flag had drawn the illustration. In fact, they used an image drawn by Tom Keefe, a late resident who had painted it for the parks and recreation department in 1990.