SHELBY — In 2004, six veterans from the Shelby area put their heads together to formulate a plan to pay tribute to the servicemen and women of Montana.
The original plan was to erect a large flagpole using a budget between $10,000-20,000 dollars. The money was to be raised locally and all profits would go back into maintaining the site. The announcement of the plan brought in so much excited, the project’s budget quickly ballooned to $150,000, and on July 4th, 2005, a 110-foot flagpole hoisting a 50 by 30-foot American flag was unfurled.
“We had the whole community jump in and help,” says former U.S. Marine John Alstad.
“Everything was team oriented and that's the thing. When you join the service, you go in. It doesn't say individual. It talks about teamwork. And we just applied that teamwork that we learned to this project,” says Chairman of the Flag Committee, Bob Longcake.
Piping for the flagpole was secured by Hank Coolidge, an oil contractor working at the time for a company just south of Havre. Additional resources were pooled from all over the country, from states like California, and even Louisiana.
Now the veterans are getting older. Some of the original contributors including one of the six original veterans have passed on. The time to tell their story is now.
“We aren’t spring chickens anymore,” says Alstad.
It was John Alstad, who crafted all of the metalwork seen within the Veterans Memorial Site, just south of the flagpole. The pavilion was added in 2010, and includes an iron eagle perched on a steel pentagon stand, featuring the five branches of service. The most striking feature, however, is the metal-sheet replica of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, sculpted by Alstad.
“It’s actually two pieces,” he says. “It was so big and so large inside of my shop that I didn't have enough lifting equipment.”
So he enlisted the help of his friend Coolidge.
“Hank rolled in with trucks and helpers, and for the first time in the whole job I sat on my butt. I didn't say a word. I just sat there and watched it. But when he erected it in the shop, it brought tears to my eyes,” Alstad reflects.
The site also features two steel display tables, dotted with “Patriot Markers." These markers are engraved bricks featuring the names of Veteran’s from Montana who served; some who made it home — and some who never returned.
The cost of the bricks are just one way the the site sustains itself using the Toole County Community Fund which shaves interest off of a 501(c), which is also tax-exempt.
Much of the donations are used to purchase new flags. The committee goes through around five flags a year, due to the class IV winds which whip through the Hi-Line. These winds can shave off 8-10 inches of cloth in a matter of weeks.
Toole County has always had a strong military presence. In fact, during Desert Storm, 108 of Toole County’s roughly 3,500 residents were deployed. This sense of duty and valor resonates strongly within the memorial.
For Longcake, the price of honor is never too great.
"My goal is to be sure that the flag will fly 50 years from now and when my grandsons drive down the interstate, they can look up there and see it,” he says.