Here is the story of how Cedar Springs, Michigan became the Red Flannel capital.
In the winter of 1936, in the midst of the great depression, the whole country was in the throes of a harsh winter with temperatures below zero and heavy snows. A feature writer for the New York Sun newspaper attempted to locate good old fashioned long red underwear to help ward off the bitter cold. He declared them to be OBSOLETE having searched as far west as Cleveland!
The editors of the Cedar Springs Clipper, Grace Hamilton and Nina Babcock (known to all as the Clipper Girls), saw the Sun story. They knew that long red underwear was a common site in Cedar Springs which got it start as a lumber town in the mid 1800’s. So they asked the owner of a local dry goods (department) store, Jack Pollock, if he had them. He didn’t bat an eye. He reached back and pulled a pair right off the shelf behind him as he asked, “What size?” (What the Clipper Girls may not have known is that had they asked Jack about a tutu for an elephant, he would have said, “What size?”) Never the less, it was determined that Pollock’s Store sold them to deer hunters and local farmers and had plenty in stock.
Nina wrote an editorial in the Clipper in reply to the Sun as follows: “Who but a New Yorker would conclude that all the world doesn’t because we don’t? Or who but a Gothamite would expect that there are no Red Flannels just because Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord and Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman don’t wrap ‘em up for their clients? Wait, don’t write off us lumberjacks yet; we’ve got plenty of Red Flannels in Cedar Springs.” It seems that the Associated Press wire service picked up the Clipper story and ran it nationwide.
For the next two years, orders for Red Flannels continued to arrive as the supply dwindled. By 1938, the shelves were nearly bare. After a considerable search Jack found that a woolen mill in Winstead, Connecticut was only manufacturer still making red long johns. With a source supply assured, the it was decided to hold a festival and to proclaim Cedar Springs as “the Red Flannel Town.” There were a few dissenters who objected to having their town associated with underwear but the nickname was eventually approved.
The First Red Flannel Festival was held on November 11, 1939. Featured crowning of a Queen by the local congressman at half time of the high school football game, a parade down Main Street, a lumber jack supper, numerous arrests by the Key Stone Cops of anyone failing to wear something red, and induction of local dignitaries into the Order of the Knights of the Red Flannel Drawers (the password was “itch.”).
With the exception of the World War II years, Cedar Springs has continued the tradition. Some of the highlights over the years were: 1) the story in the December 19, 1949 Life Magazine featuring a full page color photo of the aforementioned Jack Pollock, attired in Red Flannels, taking a picture of seventy-five similarly attired school kids, 2) the establishment of a local Red Flannel manufacturing facility, first by Mae Oppeneer then by Sally Wall, and 3) then-Congressman Jerry Ford leading the parade in 1973 the day after he had been designated as Vice-President of the United States.
This all may sound a bit corny but after ten years of the great depression, this Red Flannel thing helped put a little spring back into every one’s step back in 1939. It has helped ever since to keep a small town of 2000 residents on the map when many towns like it were fading away. So if you are ever in the Midwest on the first weekend in October, head on over to Cedar Springs for a slice of small town America at is best.
Cedar Springs is located 20 miles north of Grand Rapids.
The History of Red Flannel Royalty from the Red Flannel Festival website.
Red Flannel – Cedar Springs, Michigan 1949 from The Bulldog Vintage blog.
Photograph featured in Life Magazine, December 19, 1949, showing two gals wearing their red flannels on their way to the Red Flannel Festival in Cedar Springs.