SHEBOYGAN — The 400-foot-tall flagpole here isn’t a pole at all, and the chances of it falling over or swaying significantly in the wind are remote.
A pole doesn’t have an interior ladder with a lift system to help those who climb it. Nor does it have platforms every 60 feet on the inside or a hatch door at the base to allow access to the ladder.
A pole typically doesn’t house controls that raise and lower a 220-pound flag flown during normal weather conditions and a 350-pound flag used during harsher weather.
But Acuity, a regional insurance company founded in 1925 with $3 billion in assets and $1 billion in annual revenues, paid for the project and is calling the structure a flagpole. So a flagpole it is, built by Broadwind Towers, a Manitowoc company that makes wind turbine towers.
“We knew it was in our wheelhouse,” said Phil Plesetz, a project manager at Broadwind who attended last week’s dedication ceremony. “Everything that we did in here is typical of what we do every day.”
Only because this tower is a pole and is used exclusively for flying a flag, it has the distinction of being the tallest flagpole in North America. The tallest in the world is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where a 557- foot pole was completed in 2013. In 2011, a 541-foot pole was built in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
More than 1,000 people filled folding chairs, lawn chairs and blankets on Monday in the Acuity parking lot along Interstate 43 to take in the pole’s dedication. Danny Gokey, an “American Idol” finalist from Milwaukee, sang the National Anthem. Gov. Scott Walker spoke, and skydivers floated from above as the 60-foot by 120-foot flag was raised with the help of about two dozen military veterans who work at Acuity.
“Inspiration,” said Ben Salzmann, Acuity president and CEO, when asked why his company needed to build such a large flagpole. “A lot of people are going to see it and, hopefully, just feel good. That’s our goal. If nothing else, you can say we’re persistent.”
This is the company’s fourth try at a flagpole.
The first was a 150-foot-tall pole built in 2003 that fell on New Year’s Eve 2004 after being extended by 50 feet.
That led the company to build a more-than-300-foot-tall pole in 2005 that was replaced with a 338-foot-tall pole in 2008.
However, the pole swayed so badly in just 15 mph winds, (the YouTube video is remarkable) that it was taken down shortly after completion.
The latest project is more like a building. It weighs 420,000 pounds; 680 cubic yards of concrete were used in its foundation and more than 500 gallons of paint were needed. The pole is 11 feet in diameter at the ground and tapers to 5.5 feet in diameter at the top. The pole has three pendulum-style tuned mass dampers to reduce movement and vibration and is taller than the 330-foot-tall Sky Trek Tower at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois, that opened in 1977.
Salzmann, who grew up in Wausau and graduated from UW-Madison, declined to say how much it cost to build the flagpole but said it amounted to less than a penny per policy holder.
“The reason we’re not going into price is that no matter how little, it’s too much. No matter how much, you could have spent more,” Salzmann said. “We had three poles go down, so obviously we should have invested even more the last three times. It’s a challenge.”
Acuity has been named one of the best medium-sized workplaces in the country by Great Place to Work the past four years and for good reason. Perks include free iPads, a cafeteria with items that are 50 percent subsidized, a chocolate fair, stand-up comedians at lunch and a Ferris Wheel in the company lobby. The building is also adorned with an impressive art collection that features glasswork, sculptures and paintings, including four works by Salvador Dali.
The flagpole is the company’s most visible investment, passed by nearly 50,000 vehicles a day.
Joe Wilson of Sheboygan Falls, a Vietnam veteran, can see the flagpole from his home nine miles away. He watched the construction progress and visited the site on a regular basis since construction began this spring. He has used his Nikon to take more than 1,000 photos of the flagpole since mid-April.
“Look how many of the people here today have fought to keep this country free. To me, that means a lot,” Wilson said. “And to have somebody recognize it by doing this, yeah, it’s worth it.”
Wisconsin has its share of large flagpoles.
Perkin’s restaurants have impressive poles, and Bergstrom Cadillac in Madison has a large pole along the Beltline, where the the U.S. flag is replaced with a motion W flag after wins by the Badgers football team.
In Middleton, a pair of poles rise over the fire station and double as communication towers. Across Lake Michigan, a car dealer in Redford, Michigan, dedicated on June 14 a 150-foot-tall flagpole that flies a 30-foot by 60-foot flag, while a bank in Lorado, Texas, has the second-highest flagpole in the country at 308 feet tall.
But size doesn’t matter when it comes to patriotism.
Some wear small lapel pins, patches and hats, and have memories of war that go unspoken. Children attach tiny flags to the handle bars of their bikes at Fourth of July while many of us show our colors by flying a modest flag off the front porch.
One flag that stood out last week was as inspirational as the Acuity flag but only a fraction of the size and cost. After a tornado ripped through the Southwest Side of Madison, a stepladder was set up along Friar Lane in the midst of twisted and broken trees and shattered homes. It supported an American flag.
Allen Nohl, 64, served in the Army from 1969 to 1971 and was in Vietnam in 1970. He spent 38 years at Johnsonville Sausage in Johnsonville, and started with the company when it had just 14 employees. Nohl, commander of American Legion Post 387 in Franklin, which is near his home in Johnsonville, has a purple heart.
“It does and it doesn’t,” Nohl said, when asked if the size of the Acuity flag and flagpole matters. “We all like to lay claim that we’ve got the best and the biggest. This was Acuity’s choice to do this. It’s their freedom, and us veterans fought for that.”