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Old Glory at the Courthouse

Posted Wednesday, April 9, 2008, at 12:14 PM

The illuminated flag on the north face of the Saline County Courthouse tower is only partially lighted these days, but replacing bulbs and controlling the lighting sequence is no simple matter, according to those involved in maintaining the flag. (Eric Crump/Democrat-News)
When the light on the front porch burns out, the average homeowner waits patiently for a nice day to arrive. When at last the sun comes out, the homeowner grabs a six-foot stepladder, climbs a few feet up, unscrews the old bulb and replaces it with a new one.

It's so easy it's almost child's play.

Performing the same task on the lighted flag on the Saline County Courthouse is a whole different kettle of fish.

For one thing, it's not just one bulb -- to be exact, it's 110 bulbs. And for another thing, a stepladder won't quite do the job of reaching the high-flying display.

Since the flag can't be accessed from inside the building, it has to be serviced from the outside, using a crane and lift basket, and it's the work of at least half a day from start to finish.

Installed in 1917, during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the flag was paid for by the local chapter of United Daughters of the Confederacy. For the next 70 years or so, the flag continued to operate, but old age and our rough Midwest weather caused the lights to wink out altogether during the mid-1980s.

It wasn't until 2003, when the Daughters of the Confederacy again stepped up to the plate and campaigned for public and private donations, that the flag was removed from the courthouse for renovation.

Through the efforts of volunteer Robert Castle and many other volunteer employees of Kays Engineering, who replaced the control board, the wiring and all the bulbs, and H. F. Mills, who volunteered to repaint the flag, it was restored to its former glory and waved again from the courthouse in November 2005. Marshall's W.B. Young Company donated the services of the crane and operating crew, which normally rents for $200 per hour, to put it in place.

Castle, who prides himself on being a "fixer" of almost anything, said the project took almost a year longer than expected, and included a new control board, new wiring, new sheet metal, a new coat of paint and the installation of 110 new LED bulbs with an "Edison" base, each projected to last as long as 60,000 hours.

Castle said, "It's one of the most difficult things I've ever done."

He estimated between 600 and 800 man-hours were invested in the project before it was completed.

That 60,000-hour projected lifespan of the LED bulbs has prompted questions from many Saline County residents, who expected all the lights to remain lit for much longer than some of them have to date.

Castle said there are several pieces to the puzzle.

First, there's the problem of what Castle calls "infant mortality" -- bulbs that were either damaged when the sign was re-hung, or which were flawed to begin with.

Second, there's a problem with that lifespan of 60,000 hours. It's a pretty fluid number, according to industry sources. Actually, it's only an average lifespan -- some bulbs will last that long or longer, some much less.

Third, the control panel now in place on the flag is set for 24-hour service. A new control panel is available, but hasn't yet been installed. While the flag is lit on a 24-hour basis, the 60,000 hour lifespan drops from 12 years to six, or less.

Beyond those issues, our ugly winter weather, followed by spring rains, hasn't produced much in the way of "flag-friendly" days so far this year when the work of replacing the control panel and the burned-out bulbs can be done.

Northern District Commissioner Norvelle "Brownie" Brown said Wednesday, April 9, that fixing the flag is "not quite on the front burner, but it's close."

Now that the courthouse renovation has been funded by voters, Brown said, roof repairs are first up on the list of projects.

"It makes sense to fix the flag during that process," he said.

It also makes sense, he added, to fix the flag's controller so it isn't lit during daylight hours. Even that fix will take some scheduling. Although the control panel can be accessed from inside the courthouse, the drop-down stairs that lead to it are situated in the ceiling of one of the courtrooms. That means the project can be done only during hours the courtroom is not in use -- and there are not many hours when it isn't.

As Gilda Radnor used to say, "It always something."

Showing comments in chronological order
[Show most recent comments first]

Thanks Kathy, a very informative article thats brings to light the unknown costs of maintenance on the sign and other things about our court house. I've looked at the courthouse many times and wondered who replaced the bad shingles on the top and how much did that costs. It sure looks like a difficult place to get to and work.


-- Posted by John Q. on Wed, Apr 9, 2008, at 9:15 PM

Thanks, Larry - Attempts to fix the courthouse haven't gone particularly well in the past, and the shingles are a very good example of that. The peeling, cracking columns are another. The feasibility study done two years ago (we have a copy of it in the newsroom) mentions some of those repairs and the results. The people who will be doing the current project really have their work cut out for them, but when they're done, I'm sure we will all be very proud of the results.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Wed, Apr 9, 2008, at 9:47 PM

JJ, If there's any federal money involved in the restoration of the courthouse then the hiring and pay will be regulated by Davis-Bacon.

John Q.

-- Posted by John Q. on Fri, Apr 11, 2008, at 2:11 AM

To my knowledge, there are not now and will be no federal funds involved in the courthouse project. Funding will come strictly from the sales tax, except for the $90K grant recently awarded by the state of Missouri.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Fri, Apr 11, 2008, at 2:10 PM

Fred (Junie) Donahue knew more about the Court House then anyone in Marshall! He serviced the Clock and replaced the bulbs,top to bottom for years. When he was a little boy, he would wind the Clock by standing on a box. He did all the steeplejack painting! He loved that old building. I'm glad they are keeping it up.A lot of memories around that Building and in that town! Junie would be proud. Thank!

-- Posted by Jo on Sat, May 31, 2008, at 1:33 AM

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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.
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