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By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — When Gary Swartz saw a shelving unit that had been donated for the Colfax Elevator Commission’s thrift sale at the fairgrounds in August of 2019 that did not sell, he took it home.
The shelving unit has now been turned into three flags — a United States flag, a 13-star Betsy Ross flag and a Wisconsin flag.
The flags are on display at the Colfax Public Library, and they have been put up for silent auction as a fund raiser for the Colfax municipal building elevator project.
Swartz is a member of the Colfax Municipal Building Restoration Group and also is a member of the Colfax Elevator Commission.
The proposed elevator project would make all three floors of the Colfax Municipal Building handicapped accessible, with bathrooms on all three floors, and would include renovation of the basement to make it into a usable space for meetings and events.
“I had always wanted to join the Colfax Municipal Building Restoration Group, but working two jobs didn’t allow the time for that until about five years ago,” Swartz said.
“When the elevator commission was formed, CMBRG was asked for a representative to be on the committee. When no one volunteered, I did, having a construction background and sitting on the executive and building committees for the new history center/genealogy building in Chippewa,” he said.
“Understanding the building process and seeing how the capital campaign was run in Chippewa was my way of helping get the elevator funded and built,” Swartz said.
After the elevator commission’s thrift sale — which was wildly successful both in terms of donations and in sales that earned $6,000 for the elevator project — the shelving unit was among those items that had not been sold.
The shelving unit was made of “real nice one-inch by 12-inch pine boards and plywood,” Swartz said.
“I took it home to repurpose the boards for a future project. During the COVID stay-at-home order last spring, I was looking around the shop for something to do and decided the wood was the right size for a two-foot by three-foot flag I could put up on my 40-foot windmill,” he said.
The first step was lightly sanding the wood and then screwing the boards together, using plywood from the back of the shelving unit, followed by two coats of white paint, Swartz explained.
The layout for the flag was the part of the process Swartz said he liked the best and which involved holding a straight-edge and marking off the even numbers to end up with 13 stripes. When the blue part of the flag had been marked off, it was covered, and the white stripes were taped off. Red spray paint was applied for the red stripes, and when the stripes were dry, the rest of the flag was covered and blue spray paint was applied.
As one might imagine, the stars on the flags were a much bigger challenge.
Painting the stars free-hand “was not an option and stenciling 50 would take too long, so I found star stickers online,” Swartz said.
As it turned out, the 1.5 inch stars would fit the field nicely, so then it was a matter of laying out the lines, which had to be perfectly straight across as well as vertically and diagonally, he said.
“I did the odd rows first (30) and then the even rows (20), checking, and happily finding out they were in line after some of the evens were in place,” Swartz said.
Once the stars were applied, the flag was painted with multiple coats of clear exterior polyurethane to seal it.
While he was working on the project, Swartz started thinking of ways the flags could benefit the effort to put an elevator in the municipal building and renovate the basement.
“As I did the work, I thought it should go back toward the 2020 elevator thrift sale, which we had to cancel,” he said.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions on the numbers of people who could gather indoors, elevator commission members decided against trying to hold another thrift sale in the summer of 2020.
Swartz said after he had taken care of his gardens and firewood last fall, he was ready to get back into his shop.
“There were enough boards left to make two more flags of the same size, but I don’t like to make the same items over and over again. So I decided the 13-star flag would be a fun challenge, and what else? After some thought, I decided to make the Wisconsin state flag, (which I think) should be displayed more and looks great,” he said.
The 13-star flag, also known as the Betsy Ross flag, also presented a challenge.
While the 13 stripes were the same as the first flag, the star circle required some planning, Swartz said.
After figuring out the size of the circle, Swartz cut a circle out of cardboard.
“Putting a mark on my circle and a line on the cardboard, I rolled it across and put another mark on the sheet where the circle line came back down. I did the same two inches away, then connected the lines, giving 13 even spaces. Then I rolled the circle, this time marking the circle as it crossed each line on the cardboard — 13 perfect spaces,” Swartz explained.
The cardboard was taped to the flag, “and the stars were easily placed,” he said, adding that once the Betsy Ross flag was finished, it, too, was covered with clear exterior polyurethane to seal it.
Although Swartz had hoped to find the state seal on the Wisconsin flag online in vinyl, all he could come up with were small car window stickers.
“I needed one much larger, but there was nothing that size. I ended up using a picture, but it only printed out half the size I needed,” he said.
The solution to the problem, as it turned out, was at the Chippewa County Genealogical Society where Swartz works every week.
Using “our excellent copy machine,” Swartz increased the size of the picture to 200 percent.
“That left a fairly clear seal of the right size, then I printed out the ‘Wisconsin’ and ‘1848’ at 150 percent for the lettering,” he said.
The Wisconsin seal could not be glued to the flag because glue would cause the paper to warp.
Instead, Swartz used double-sided tape to attach the seal to the flag and then again used exterior polyurethane to seal it.
“This one needs to be displayed indoors or under a glass frame outdoors so the paper doesn’t peel off,” Swartz noted.
Over the years, “I’ve done many building and woodworking projects in the area when that was my job, or second job, but I just don’t have much time for it these days, to do fun projects for myself or friends,” Swartz said.
“Recently I made a small two-inch cedar anchor for my friend who wants to get a sailboat,” he noted.
“I’ve always thought Colfax should promote their historic sandstone buildings more than they do, and here [with the silent auction] is an opportunity to help preserve one of our more visible buildings,” Swartz said.
Swartz also noted that Colfax has a walking tour map of the locally quarried sandstone buildings with a description of each building.
The walking tour map and brochure were developed for the Colfax Sesquicentennial.
“More tourism means more money spent here. On my travels, I’ve never pulled over to check out a pole shed,” Swartz said.
The silent auction for the three flags ends April 24.
If you would like to make a bid on the flags, they are on display inside the Colfax Public Library.
As of Friday, March 26, bids on the flags were $35 for the American flag, $50 for the Wisconsin flag, and $35 for the Betsy Ross flag.
The Colfax Public Library, 613 Main Street, is open from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and Thursday; from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.