Visible for miles southeast of downtown is a symbol of the American ideals celebrated on the Fourth of July – and for the Dixie Flag and Banner Company, on every other day of the year, too.
The grand Stars and Stripes, measuring 30 feet by 60 feet, is displayed in the parking lot of Dixie Flag, a business widely known for producing hand-sewn flags in red, white, and blue, and every other color as well. It’s a sight familiar to many who pass by the manufacturer, which pulls Old Glory down from the 105-foot-tall flag pole only when winds get high, or when they replace it with a flag promoting the Spurs, Fiesta, the rodeo, Texas History month, or another occasion.
But Dixie Flag is also familiar to some of the largest flag suppliers in the nation, committed to producing American-made U.S. flags according to the certification rules of the Flag Manufacturers Association of America (FMAA). They frequently look to Dixie Flag for its expertise in designing and sewing flags of all sizes, including some of the biggest and proudest ever made.
Henry Van de Putte Sr., the son of a Belgian immigrant, started Dixie Flag in 1958 in his three-bedroom home on the West Side. His mother, Annette Van de Putte, was the company’s first seamstress and worked until she was 90. She is recalled for singing French folk songs and Latin hymns as she sewed, but also lending her son the money to start the company.
Dixie Flag is now managed by Van de Putte’s grandchildren; Vanessa Van de Putte is the president and CEO, and Bella Van de Putte-Boyar is vice president and CFO. Together, they oversee the work of 32 employees, most of whom have been with the company for years.
The founder’s son, Henry “Pete” Van de Putte Jr., whose childhood bedroom was the first sewing room, later led the company through 38 years of ups and downs in the industry. Last year, the company hosted a mega-event that combined a retirement party for Pete, a celebration of Dixie Flag’s 60th anniversary, and Vanessa’s wedding.
Pete Van de Putte still owns the company and serves as its ambassador, speaking to community groups about both Dixie Flag and the history of the U.S. flag.
It was he who designed the official San Antonio flag – a red and blue banner with a white star and an image of the Alamo. He is married to former State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, and they have six adult children.
A visit to the Dixie Flag storefront at its blue-sided manufacturing plant on North Interstate 35 can net a buyer flags from every state in the union, every country in the world, plus branches of the military and local and state university sports teams. There are flags for decorating home and garden or for celebrating a special event or holiday. But not all the merchandise is produced by Dixie Flag – it also sells flags mass-produced by other companies.
But patriotism reigns in the small, neatly-organized store not far from Fort Sam Houston where there’s also a 9/11 flag bearing heroes’ names and even a festive “4th of July” flag.
Through a window at the back of the store, shoppers can observe seamstresses posted at long cutting tables and vintage Singer sewing machines, stitching the custom flags and banners for Dixie Flag customers. Some, like Ninfa Delgado, have worked at Dixie Flag for years, expertly cutting and sewing sheets of all-weather nylon and netting that pour out from under their scissors and needles.
“There are larger manufacturers that specialize in mass production for stock flags, pumping out thousands of United States flags a day,” Vanessa Van de Putte said. “We’re not on that scope.
“What you see here [in the plant] is custom work.”
The larger flag companies, like New Jersey-based Annin Flagmakers, not only supply Dixie Flags with mass-produced smaller flags and screen-printed product, but also contract with Dixie Flags for some of their larger projects.
A large portion of Dixie Flag’s business is made up of over-the-street banners, which it makes and installs for nonprofits and community organizers to promote their programs and events. It also produces custom flags and banners for schools, businesses, and municipalities, and repairs and retires weathered and worn-out flags.
Occasionally, one of those custom orders is so large, Dixie Flag takes its assembly work to the Van de Putte family’s parish, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, which allows the company to use its community center, or to the Alamodome, Freeman Expo Hall, a hangar at Port San Antonio, or other large spaces where workers can lay out and pin the swaths of fabric.
Dixie Flag has created two football-field-sized flags for presentation during the Valero Alamo Bowl and also makes the giant U.S. flag that Catholic Life Insurance traditionally displays on its Northside headquarters tower every year to mark Flag Day.
One recent order involved a massive flag in the shape of two Southeastern states that could be ceremoniously joined on a football field. When complete, it will measure 150 feet in width. Such flags can retail for as much as $120,000 and take weeks to produce.
In 2006, Dixie Flag produced what at the time was the largest free-flying United States flag in the world – a 60- by 90-foot banner that flies on holidays at the George Washington Bridge between New York and New Jersey. Larger flags have since been produced, but on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the company reproduced that flag for a memorial at the Freedom Tower (now known as One World Trade Center).
Dixie Flag often goes big, but not always in flags. During Operation Desert Storm, Dixie Flag designed, produced, and installed a giant yellow ribbon around the rotunda of the Texas State Capitol building. In 1987, the company was enlisted to create the elaborate floral banners that adorned the altar for Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to San Antonio. Though a storm took down the altar’s scaffolding, some of the banners were installed with cranes in time for his appearance.
Not surprisingly, the homegrown Dixie Flag has created every San Antonio Spurs championship banner and retired jersey banner displayed in the AT&T Center, and manufacturers the Fiesta Oyster Bake banners, the flags that fly over the Alamo and those draped on veterans’ caskets at the National Cemetery here. But the company also holds a contract to develop every single banner hanging on the streets of Breckenridge, Colorado.
As a member of FMAA, the national association that oversees the manufacturing of American-made flags, Dixie Flag is one of five manufacturers that account for the majority of U.S. flags sold in the country, which is about 150 million a year, according to a spokeswoman.
“The United States flag is a symbol of who we are, as individuals and as a country,” Vanessa Van de Putte said. “And that means something. So knowing it’s made here and with materials made here in the United States, it’s important for that symbol.”
Like most U.S. manufacturers, Dixie Flag quit making and selling the Confederate battle flag “when it became a symbol of hate,” she said.
However, the 20- by 30-foot rainbow flag that appeared in San Antonio’s most recent Pride Parade, she said, is a Dixie Flag creation. A smaller version of that flag, a symbol of LGBTQIA pride, also is sold in the company store.
San Antonian Javier Hernandez said he remembers visiting the store two days after Sept. 11, 2001, when he went to buy a flag to express his patriotism and there was a line out the door. “They were already out of flags,” he said. “I mean, who didn’t want a flag? There were tons of people.”
In those days, most flags were sewn, Van de Putte said, but since then, manufacturers have been keeping up with demand by producing cheaper versions that are screen-printed.
While the store and the company itself are busy leading up to patriotic holidays like the Fourth of July, these days Van de Putte also is focused on helping to prepare for the 26th session of the International Congress of Vexillology, which kicks off July 15. It will be the first time the biennial event dedicated to the study of flags has been held in San Antonio; about 85 flag experts and enthusiasts from around the world will attend.
“It’s a whole bunch of ‘Sheldons’ coming to San Antonio,” said Van de Putte, referring to the “Big Bang Theory” TV show character who’s a flag expert. She attended her first vexillology meeting when she was 11 years old. “It’s all the flag nerds who do research on flags who get together once a year nationally to present,” she said of the North American Vexillological Association.
The international meeting will feature several days of research presentations at the St. Anthony Hotel and a trip to the University of Texas at Austin’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, where the Dr. Whitney Smith Research Center, said to be the largest flag research and collection in the world, is housed.
The flag designed for the occasion bears a silhouette of the Alamo and “waves” of water. It will be made with care at Dixie Flag.