Four decades into his campaign, Lee Herold may see his dream come true: A new Minnesota state flag
Legislation to jump-start a redesign process is working its way through the Minnesota Legislature.
ROCHESTER — For the better part of four decades, Lee Herold has campaigned for a redesign of the official Minnesota flag. And for all of that time, the Rochester vexillophile has seen his hopes frustrated.
This year, it might actually happen.
Herold, a soft-spoken, even-keel person, says he is “ecstatic” about developments in St. Paul, as a proposal for a state flag makeover has been gaining sponsors and momentum. And should the state choose to move forward with a redesign, Herold has a flag contender waiting in the wings.
Herold, owner of Herold Flags in Rochester, doesn’t say the current Minnesota flag is terrible or it stinks. It’s not his style. But he says the state “muffed it” when the flag was redesigned in 1957, when Herold was in high school.
A bad design?
It fails on multiple levels to this day. There is a simple test whether a state flag has the “it” factor, said Herold. And it comes down to this: Is it memorable? Can you conjure up its imagery and symbolism in your mind’s eye? Maybe you can with the Minnesota flag. You would be unusual.
The Minnesota flag is busy and cluttered. What’s more, its critics say, it fails as a unifying symbol. Its depiction of a Native American man on horseback riding west toward a setting sun is not a happy image to Indigenous Minnesotans. It suggests a people being driven out. In the foreground, a settler works his field, his rifle propped against a nearly tree stump. Native American leaders call it divisive and unwelcoming.
The Civil War was the impetus for the creation of many flags. Minnesota's 11 Civil War regiments each had a flag of their own.
In preparation for the 1893 World's Fair, a contest was held to design a Minnesota flag. The winner, Amelia Hyde Center, won $15 for her design. That first version of the flag flew from 1893 until 1957, when it was redesigned for the 1958 state centennial - the aforementioned "muff" job. In 1983, the flag was altered again to reflect changes in the state seal. Designers also changed the direction of the Indian so it appears that the Indian is greeting the farmer. But “I don’t think anyone’s fooled,” Herold said.
While tweaked and tinkered with, the flag's overall design elements have largely remained the same. What is being proposed today is a major makeover.
Minnesota isn’t the only state with a bad flag. Most state flags are not good. There are only a handful of states that have truly distinctive and elegant flags, and they include Texas (the Lone Star), California (the bear) and Arizona (gold star with alternating red and yellow rays).
“My definition of a good flag: is it popular, and do people like it? And Minnesota has not really passed that test yet,” Herold said.
Herold senses a new receptivity to the flag’s redesign apart from the flag’s troublesome racist connotations, and he’s not sure why. Back in the late 1980s, when he began to talk up the idea of a flag makeover, he would go to both major parties’ state conventions to push for a change. People would get angry at the suggestion.
“(People thought) we’ve got better things to do. Don’t bother me with this. But that changed about seven, eight years ago,” he said.
What flags can do
Why the fuss over a flag? Herold argues that a well-designed flag can create a distinctive brand. It can be used as a branding opportunity on everything from packaging to football helmets to tourism. Exports are at an all-time high in Minnesota. A good flag can help to sell the state.
Flags also operate on a psychological level. Studies have shown that flag usage goes down when things are calm and going well. But in times of trouble, it goes way up — and not just the flag itself, but the imagery itself becomes ubiquitous. People find solidarity and comfort in a flag. They feel less alone.
A study in Israel showed that just having the Israeli flag in a room reduced partisanship, even if it did not eliminate it. Herold said that after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. flags flew off the shelves in stores across the country.
“That tells you something about the power of the flag,” he said.
Herod said the idea of a flag do-over has enjoyed support from both DFLer and Republicans at times in the past. But partisan politics has stymied past efforts. Just when one party seemed to embrace the idea, the other party would say no.
The bill, which would establish a commission to adopt a new design by Jan. 1, has passed out of committees in both the Minnesota House and Senate, something that has never happened before. It also has a growing list of sponsors. The DFL, which controls the governor’s mansion and statehouse, supports the idea.
Herold’s proposed alternative for the state flag hangs inside his new store at 1216 Seventh St. NW. (The store will officially open next Monday). The flag was created by the Rev. William Becker and Herold in 1989 when they were making their first big push for a redesign.
“When we started this, we decided that you can’t go in front of legislators and groups and say, ‘We need something new.’ And just stand there. So we came up with that as well,” he said.
Called the North Star flag, the flag consists of a blue background with a yellow five-point star. It has green and white wavy horizontal stripes. The blue represents the state’s lakes and rivers, the green farmlands and forests and the white winter. The waves represent the name Minnesota, a Dakota word for “sky-tinted waters.”
The flag has been endorsed by state politicians and newspapers. And it was the winner of an unofficial contest by the St. Paul Pioneer Press for a new state flag.
“Democrats have a one-vote margin in the Senate,” Herold said. “Things could go awry. But as of now, it looks really great. I think it will pass.”