City News

COLUMN: How Salem decided on its first flag in 1972

On Jan. 21, 1972, a proposal for a city wide contest to design Salem’s first municipal flag was presented to Salem City Council. The proposal outlined that the contest would be held in the month of February 1972. The initial proposal stated that the contest would be limited to entries from school children; however, the Council requested that the contest be opened to the entire Salem community.

An ad running in the January 31, 1972, Oregon Statesman explained: “You need not be an artist or graphic design expert in order to participate. The best idea or concept will be chosen and from that a flag will be developed.” The flag chosen would be hoisted at the grand opening of the new Civic Center in August of 1972. 

The 1972 flag contest announcement for the city of Salem.

Salem Federal Savings and Loan sponsored the municipal flag contest. On May 8, 1972, Richard (Dick) Hendrie of Salem Federal Savings and Loan presented winners with prizes on behalf of the bank at a Salem City Council meeting.

Each winner received a $100 savings account and a Schwinn 10 speed bicycle. The Mayor’s Flag Committee selected winners in five different age categories: Tyler Eldred (6) in the under six years old category with a design featuring the Gold Man, trees and mountains; Dean Rees (8) in the 7-9 years old category with a design featuring Mt. Hood; Holly Ann Whitney (14) in the 10-15 years old category with a design featuring cherries and doves; Curtis R. Bales (16) in the 16-18 years old category with a design featuring mountains, sun and water; and Larry Zeigler (32) in the over 18 years old category with a design feature an endless circle. 

The winning flag design from Tyler Eldred, 6, in the city of Salem’s 1972 flag contest, under 6 age group.
The winning flag design from Dean Rees, 8, in the city of Salem’s 1972 flag contest, 7-9 age group.
The winning flag design from Curtis R. Bales, 16, in the city of Salem’s 1972 flag contest, 16-18 age group.
The winning flag design from Larry Zeigler, 32, in the city of Salem’s 1972 flag contest, adult age group.

An outside local design consultant, Arvid Orbeck was hired to review the design submittals selected as finalists by the Mayor’s flag committee. After reviewing the submittals, Mr. Orbeck created a design using elements of the winning entries which was submitted to a joint meeting of the Mayor’s Flag Committee and City Council on May 4, 1972.  

As Mr. Orbeck describes, the design symbolizes the essence of the city of Salem through the star at the center, which represents the city as the state Capitol, which is represented below the star. The four broad lines converging at the star represent how decisions made here in Salem flow out of the city throughout Oregon, after input is received from throughout the state.  The colors symbolize the colors of the seasons: summer is blue for water, autumn is golden yellow, white is the winter but also peace and honor and green reflects spring and eternal hope. 

Salem’s 1972 flag as adopted was intended to incorporate elements of contest winners in its design.

An article in the May 9, 1972 Oregon Statesman reported that the flag has designs on both sides with the primary design on the front, and a second design on the back. When the flag is flipped over, the background is reversed from white to green. Orbeck stated that the different sides would create a colorful effect when the flag is hanging limply, as in a windless sky. The Salem Federal Savings & Loan Association paid for the costs of the flag contest, including radio and television advertising and Mr. Orbeck’s fee.

In August 1972 the Salem City Council adopted Ordinance 104-72, choosing this design as Salem’s official municipal flag and the City Seal. As reported by the Oregon Statesman, the new municipal flag was raised for the first time at the new Civic Center dedication ceremony on August 18, 1972. Salem’s new city flag was raised to the popular song “Charade.”

Throughout the fall the Federal Savings and Loan offered free three-color Salem Flag decals to Salem residents. The City seal was imprinted on the City of Salem’s infrastructure including the base of light poles installed downtown, some of which still are in place today.

Even in 1972, not everyone in our community loved this new flag. An editorial in the Statesman by editor Wendell Webb stated: “The new Salem flag is blue, gold and green, which is surprising. Anyone visiting the Civic Center would declare that purple, orange and red are the city’s colors.” 

A 2017 video about the city’s flag redesign effort

In 2017, I worked with several other city employees as part of our executive training program to evaluate our city flag. We learned that vexillology is the study of flags.  One of the first things our team did was to contact Ted Kaye, a vexillologist, and our local representative from the North American Vexillological Association to determine whether or not Salem’s flag had a good design.

Mr. Kaye provided us with examples of good municipal flags and bad municipal flags. He also provided us with a brochure: “Good Flag, Bad Flag”, which provided us a great foundation of five basic principles of good municipal flag design. This handbook includes examples of good municipal flags (Chicago) and bad flags (Milwaukie).  Unfortunately, the association determined that Salem’s 1972 municipal flag was a bad flag design and recommended that it be redesigned. We developed a video with an overview of why our flag needed to be redesigned.

Brian McKinley, former Historic Landmarks Commissioner and Planning Commissioner decided to embark upon the Salem Flag Project in 2020 to redesign Salem’s city flag. He established a review committee who accepted submissions between September 2020 and July 2021. The committee reviewed 175 submissions which were then narrowed down to the top four which were presented to the Salem Planning Commission in November 2021.

The Salem Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend city council adopt a new flag. The Statesman Journal ran an online poll on the four finalists, and a majority of respondents recommended a new design featuring a cherry blossom at the center designed by Salem resident Jordan Keagle. Salem City Council adopted this design as our new City flag at their July 11th meeting. The Council’s vote included a request to adjust the color of the flag from red to pink, to resemble a cherry blossom more closely. Salem City Council adopted this final color at their August 8, 2022 meeting.

Salem’s new city flag, finalized in August 2022.

Salem’s new flag will be officially unveiled at the City of Salem’s celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Civic Center on August 18, 2022. Salem’s Deputy Community Development Director, Lisa Anderson-Ogilvie said, “Salem would not have a new flag without Brian’s commitment to developing a new flag which adheres to the principles of good flag design.”

Brian has 75 new Salem municipal flags of various sizes that he will be offering to those who are interested. He also has flag pins and stickers. If you are interested in obtaining one, please reach out to Brian at [email protected] 

Editor’s note: This column is part of an effort from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. If you have any feedback or would like to participate in Salem Reporter’s local history series, please contact managing editor Rachel Alexander at [email protected].

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Kimberli Fitzgerald is the city of Salem's archeologist and historic preservation officer. She is a regular contributor to Salem Reporter's local history column.