Lobster boat engines rumble to life, lumberjacks trudge into the woods and farmers tend wild blueberries just like they have for generations here at the nation's northeastern tip on the edge of Maine. The vast wilderness and ocean meet in one of the last places on the East Coast unspoiled by development.
This is the backdrop to a family’s bold vision: a flagpole jutting upward from the woodlands toward spacious skies — reaching higher than the Empire State Building and topped with an American flag bigger than a football field. The flagpole would be 1,461 feet tall — the tallest in the world — and the proposal also envisions a village with living history museums, a 4,000-seat auditorium, restaurants and a monument with the name of every veteran who has died since the Revolution — about 24 million names in all.
To proponents, the $1 billion project would unite people of all political stripes in an era of national polarization. “We want to bring Americans together, remind them of the centuries of sacrifice made to protect our freedom, and unite a divided America," said Morrill Worcester, whose family is behind the proposal.
So far, the proposed Flagpole of Freedom Park has done precisely the opposite.
In Columbia Falls, population 485, the debate has laid bare community and cultural flashpoints. Does the quiet area want the visitors it would bring? Would the massive undertaking scar the landscape? How do you balance development and environmentalism? How do traditional industries fare?
Residents were stunned by the scale of a project that would require paving over woods for parking spaces and construction of housing for hundreds, maybe thousands of workers, potentially transforming this oasis into a sprawl of souvenir shops, fast-food restaurants and malls.
“This is the last wilderness on the East Coast,” says Marie Emerson, whose husband, Dell, is a beloved native son, a longtime blueberry farmer and university research farm manager.
It's that rugged coast and pristine wilderness that makes this corner of the world special, and a large development could destroy woodlands and wild blueberry barrens that have been here 10,000 years, with Native Americans being the first stewards. “Do you want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg?” Emerson asks.
On a recent day, Charlie Robbins found himself deep in the woods alongside peaceful Peaked Mountain Pond. In the distance stood a hill where the flagpole would tower above the landscape, topped with an observation tower with blinking lights cutting through the dark stillness of night.
“It’s like putting the Eiffel Tower in the Maine wilderness,” says Robbins.
The story of how such a place became a proposed home to the world's tallest flagpole begins more than 700 miles (1,126 kilometers) away outside Washington, D.C., at Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where sacrifices represented by headstones left an impression when Worcester was a boy. He built a successful wreath-making company but never forgot about the cemetery.
In 1992, Worcester Wreath Co. began donating thousands of balsam wreaths to adorn headstones. He later founded a nonprofit spinoff, Wreaths Across America, run by his wife, that now provides more than 1 million wreaths to military cemeteries and gravesites around the world.
Worcester unveiled his proposal for a high-flying flag last year.
“Most people were, let’s say, shocked to see that it was that large,” says Jeff Greene, a contractor and one of the town Select Board’s three members.
There was a bigger problem. The proposed site is not technically in Columbia Falls. The 10,000-acre plot is in a neighboring township overseen by a state agency. Worcester’s solution was to push through the Legislature a bill to let residents vote to annex the land.
Town residents began taking sides. Some saw a soft-spoken man trying to doing something good. Others saw a businessman accustomed to getting his way who hitched his cart to a sacred cow — the nation’s veterans. Divisive political discourse began seeping into the discussion, which saddens Greene.
“What we’re desperately in need of in this area in the country, or in the world as a whole, is the ability to listen to somebody you disagree with in an attempt to find something of value,” he says, adding: “Even if you disagree with them.”
For all the natural beauty, life is not perfect here in Down East Maine. Tourists flock here to escape cities, pollution and noise, and to enjoy clean air and dark starry skies. But behind the beauty lies a region where many are struggling. The region vies for the state’s highest jobless and poverty rates. The county’s residents are among the state's oldest. The county is dealing with rampant abuse of opioids.
In March, residents approved a six-month moratorium on large developments to give the town time to develop the needed rules and regulations. Until they figure it out, there will be no flagpole.
Morrill Worcester isn’t saying much these days. The Worcester family declined repeated requests for interviews. In a statement, the family said the project will move forward — while leaving the door open to changes.
The family is buoyed by support and respects the wishes of town residents who want more time to study the proposal, said Mike Worcester, one of Morrill Worcester’s sons, in a statement to The Associated Press.
“As we refine our plans,” the statement said, “we remain committed to our vision, and remain more confident than ever that our evolving plan will result in a place where all Americans can celebrate our country’s history of service together."
Peter Doak, an army veteran who supports the project, knows Morrill Worcester as a humble but determined man — and a visionary. He frames it like this: People thought Walt Disney World, built in a Florida swampland, was a crazy idea. They thought Mount Rushmore was outlandish. Both are now treasured.
“I’m gonna tell you right now, he’s gonna build that flagpole,” Doak says. “So why shouldn’t it be [in] Columbia Falls?”