Pat Colyer opens a triangular display case and carefully unfurls an antique version of Old Glory. It has 44 stars, the number on the American flag that became official July 4, 1891, a year after Wyoming was admitted to the Union.
To Colyer, who lives in Mukilteo, the nearly 10-by-6-foot flag is a history mystery.
“As I was out pulling weeds the other day, I was writing a story in my head from the flag’s standpoint — what it had seen through the years,” the 92-year-old widow said Thursday.
Colyer believes the flag may have been acquired by her daughter and son-in-law, both now deceased, during their extensive travels through the American West.
Her son-in-law, Gregory Franzwa, was a scholar focused on the trails that led pioneers and covered wagons out West. A founder of the Oregon-California Trails Association, he wrote “The Oregon Trail Revisited” and other books. He died in 2009.
With his wife, Kathy Franzwa, Colyer’s daughter, he visited sites along the Oregon Trail, California Trail and Mormon Trail, all of which had crossed Wyoming. The couple lived in Tooele, Utah, near Salt Lake City. Kathy was staying with her mother in Mukilteo when she died last year of ALS, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“I can imagine this flag flying from an Army post,” said Colyer, who suspects the couple may have purchased it, perhaps at a former military fort, along one of the trails.
The flag is frayed along the bottom edge and has several small holes. Its white stripes are weathered to a cream color. The stars, 3 inches wide, are stitched on. It has metal grommets, and the fabric has the feel of linen.
“Early American flags were made from wool, cotton, linen or silk,” according to Barbara Gatewood, professor emeritus of textile science at Kansas State University. Her expertise was featured in a 2013 article on the university’s website. Since 1777, there have been 27 officially mandated flags and 11 unofficial flags, according to Gatewood.
“This old flag, it’s been flown in a big windstorm,” said Colyer, although she doesn’t know that for sure.
The 44-star flag would officially fly for five years, during the presidencies of Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland.
Stars on Colyer’s flag aren’t lined up precisely like the rows on the 44-star banner shown on a Chamber of Commerce webpage, which has images of all official U.S. flags. That wouldn’t necessarily hinder the authenticity of Colyer’s flag.
According to the Smithsonian Institution, neither the configuration of the stars nor a flag’s proportion was prescribed until 1912, when President William Howard Taft signed Executive Order 1556. “Flags dating before this period sometimes show unusual arrangement of the stars and odd proportions, these features being left to the discretion of the flag maker,” says the Smithsonian’s “Facts about the United States Flag.”
It was 1889, a year before Wyoming joined the Union, that statehood came for Washington, along with North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. Idaho, which became a state in 1890, was included in these states that added five stars to make the 43-star flag. It officially flew in only 1890 and 1891.
At 92, Colyer is only 38 years younger than the presumed age of her antique flag, She lives independently, drives and gardens. “I can’t ski anymore,” she quipped.
And this daughter of a career Army officer continues to learn history through The Great Courses. On Thursday, she was awaiting the shipment of a course about World War II in Europe. “I remember a lot about World War II. I was 11 when Pearl Harbor happened and 16 when the war ended,” she said.
Her late husband, Bob Colyer, was a World War II veteran and Boeing retiree who grew up in New Jersey. He died nearly six years ago.
He worked on the Apollo space program in Florida, she said. One of his family’s ancestors, Colyer said, was involved during the Revolutionary War in the Hudson River Chain. The chain booms were constructed to keep British vessels from sailing upriver. A section of the preserved chain is on display at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.
“I was an Army brat,” said Colyer, who was born at what was then Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C. She met her future husband while studying at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. She worked with high school science students and taught swimming in Deerfield Beach, Florida. That’s near Palm Beach, “45 minutes south of where ex-President Trump lives,” she said.
Colyer wonders if someone with an interest in American flags, or perhaps an organization, may want hers.
“There is no great rush, but maybe other people have old flags and do know the history,” she said. “Or if a Boy Scout troop wants to have a flag-burning ceremony.”
Julie Muhlstein: firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out the Smithsonian Institution’s “Facts about the United States Flag” at www.si.edu/spotlight/flag-day/flag-facts.