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A Salute to Red Flannel Underwear
By Linda Branyan

Few cities would admit their claim to fame is underwear, and they probably wouldn’t hang the flashy colored garments from the city’s lamp posts. But to the residents of Cedar Springs, there is only one kind of underwear and the scarlet drop seats are proudly displayed on the city’s lamp posts for all the world to see.

“Red flannels are our heritage, our history. It’s who we are,” says Mayor Linda Hunt, who served as director of the Red Flannel Festival for many years. “People would miss the red flannels hanging from the lamp posts.”

The Two Skirts
Cedar Springs’ love affair with red flannels began in 1936 when Grace Hamilton and Nina Babcock came to town and purchased the local Cedar Springs Clipper newspaper. The two “skirts,” as disgruntled Cedar Springs businessmen referred to the New York City women, stirred things up when they penned a response to an editorial that appeared in the New York Sun daily newspaper bemoaning the fact that “in the midst of an old-fashioned winter...there are no red flannels in the country to go with it.”

Nina’s response was succinct: “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, Wanamakers, Lord & Taylor, and Bergdorf Goodman don’t wrap ‘em up for their clients? Don’t write off us lumberjacks; we’ve got plenty of red flannels in Cedar Springs.”

Within days the Associated Press had picked up the story and orders began pouring into town with Cedar Springs merchants happily supplying the country with red flannels.
By 1938, the city’s businessmen had more orders than they could fill and the Clipper Girls figuring they only had a couple of years to play out the thriving red flannel business, came up with the idea of a Red Flannel Festival. In later years, Nina reminisced that certain townsfolk thought it was “indecent to talk about underwear,” and “those Clipper Girls were ruining the whole town.”

But once again, the two ladies proved the naysayers wrong and today the Red Flannel Festival is still going strong. This fall the city will observe its 70th Red Flannel Day celebration. The theme for this year’s festival is appropriately entitled “Soaring at 70...and beyond!”

The Beginnings
The city’s favorite underwear was first manufactured by Mae Oppenneer who began sewing the garments in her home in 1949. In 1952 she sold the business to Sally Wall who ran the business for

20 years. The Red Flannel Factory has changed hands and locations several times since then. Today the red flannel garments are once again being manufactured in the home. Seamstress Pam Mauric took over the operation of the Red Flannel Factory in January 2007, and is the sole seamstress of red flannel apparel operating out of her Rockford, Michigan home.

Mauric spends five to eight hours a day at her sewing machine. “I sew all year long,” she explained. Her goal is to finish eight to 12 garments a day. Since the Red Flannel Factory is no longer a Cedar Springs owned and operated business, Mauric offers her red flannel garments for sale locally as well as running an online business at www.redflannels.com.

When tourists come to Cedar Springs on Red Flannel Day, held each year on the first Saturday in October, Mauric is there to offer her red flannel apparel. She opens up her “store” in a booth at the annual arts and craft show. “People are so excited to see the red flannels,” she said. “Lots and lots of people come to town specifically looking for red flannels.”

Red Flannel Day is a “big day,” for her, she explained. When she runs out of clothing, she takes orders and ships out the garments the following week. The town’s legacy—the drop seat long johns—are her biggest seller.

Another business that promotes red flannel apparel is Flaunt It Sportswear. Co-owners Karen Fudhoff and Lea Dillard have supplied red flannel t-shirts for the festival for years. Red Flannel Day “brings a lot of people to town,” Fudhoff said. “They are looking for anything red, as well as umbrellas if it’s raining or blankets if it’s cold.” The company screen prints 500 t-shirts with the festival’s logo for the Red Flannel Festival to sell, and then produces another 100 generic t-shirts they offer for sale in their Main Street shop on Red Flannel Day.

“Last year we were slammed,” Fudhoff said. “We were hopping all day. We had to shut our door before the parade started because we had nothing else to sell.”

Big Business to a Small Town
The Red Flannel Festival is big business to Cedar Springs. The influx of an estimated 35,000-40,000 people into the city to participate in Red Flannel events has a huge impact on the business community. “We’ve had business owners tell us if it weren’t for Red Flannel Day and what they make on that day, they wouldn’t be able to stay open the rest of the year,” said Michele Tracy Andres, president of the Red Flannel Festival Committee.

Community Share
If the Red Flannel Festival is important to the business community, it is an even bigger boon to local non-profit organizations who volunteer hours to help make the festival a success. Last year the festival implemented a Community Share Program whereby local non-profit organizations volunteer time to certain festival-sponsored events such as the Chili Cook-Off, Queen Pageant, and others. The amount of money each group receives is based on the number of people and hours worked by the organization. Last year the festival donated over $4,600 to local non-profit groups and expects an even bigger response to the program this year.

“It’s a nice thing for us,” Andres explained. “We struggle with the need for volunteers and it’s a way for a small group to make some money by volunteering.”

The Red Flannel Festival is put together by a seven-member festival committee. All are volunteers. “We’ve had 70 years of people putting this festival together with no paid staff,” Andres said. “Most of us work full-time and pulling this together is a lot of hard work. You step in and do your part and carry it along to pass it off to someone who can do something else with it.”

In 2002, the festival’s operating budget was $41,000. This year’s budget is $75,630. They have added 16 new events in the last seven years. Among them are a professional lumberjack show, a teen dance, a grand lodge, photography contest, mule pull, wine tasting, horseshoe throwing, and judgment day pullers.

Money Stays in the Community
Equally important to the festival committee is that monies stay in the community. Approximately $27,000 is spent in Cedar Springs’ businesses each year and all banking is done locally.

The Cedar Springs community has stressed the importance of education by supporting the festival’s efforts to improve the Red Flannel Queen’s Scholarship. Donations to the annual scholarship drive have allowed the festival committee to double the yearly scholarship dollars awarded the queen and court from $3,000 to $6,000. One hundred percent of the donated monies are used toward the scholarship. The money is invested annually and the committee has set a goal of awarding a four-year tuition for the queen by 2010.

The festival now has a place to call home. For all the years it has been in existence, it rented space to run its operation. In 2006, the festival committee purchased the building at 21 E. Maple St. in downtown Cedar Springs and started a capital campaign to pay off the mortgage. It rents the front portion of the building to help offset expenses and was awarded a Downtown Development Façade Improvement Grant by the city for improvements to the building’s façade. “This was a dream,” Andres explained. “What does it say to the community if we are renting after 60 years? This building is a formal statement about the festival’s presence in Cedar Springs.”

The city of Cedar Springs fully supports the Red Flannel Festival through donations of time and labor supplied by the department of public works for setup and clean-up before and after the festival, as well as supplying police officers for crowd control. It also promotes the festival on Facebook, “We Celebrate Underwear” www.facebook.com. “It’s our way of connecting to the millennial generation and keeping them informed on the happenings in Cedar Springs,” said City Manager Christine Burns who started the page that now boasts over 400 members. “Any time there is something happening, I can write one email and get the word out to over 400 people. It’s a great advertising tool.”

Each of the past seven years Andres has placed flowers on the graves of the Clipper Girls in the weeks before the festival. “The first year, I just asked them to help me get through it,” she said with a smile. “It hasn’t rained or snowed in seven years. Some of the things we do with the festival we do with them in mind. Seventy years later, I like to think they would be proud of us.”

For more information, please visit the Red Flannel Festival website at
www.redflannelfestival.org, or through a link at the city of Cedar Springs’ website at www.cityofcedarsprings.org.

 

Linda Branyan is the clerk for the city of Cedar Springs. She may be reached at 616-696-1330 x 103 or labranyan@wingsisp.com.

 

 

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