After snipping the tattered threads along the edge of Old Glory, Trey Oates carefully folds over a few inches of the red and white striped cloth and then eases the yards of cumbersome material through an industrial-grade sewing machine.
His actions continue a tradition that has threaded through the Oates family for more than 70 years.
"We get busy with repairs this time of year; there's Memorial Day, Flag Day and the Fourth of July," said Oates, operations manager at Oates Promotional Services, a family-owned business that specializes in an assortment of American-made flags, banners and related products and services.
"These large American flags can cost hundreds and thousands of dollars depending on the size, so spending $150 to have them repaired on a regular basis makes a lot of sense."
The red, white and blue symbol of America has been at the heart of the Oates family business ever since C.R. Oates Sr. started the Oates Flag Company in 1945, when he returned to Louisville after World War II. When he passed in 1965, C.R.'s wife, Tonya, took over until 1971. Randy Oates Jr. and his brother, Reggie Oates, continued the family business until Randy’s passing and Reggie’s retirement in 2019.
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Today the Louisville business, located in the Bluegrass Industrial Park in Jeffersontown, is operated by Randy’s wife Gwynne, Trey and Julie Oates, Leigh Oates McFarland and general manager Greg Strafer.
"Selling American flags handcrafted in the U.S.A. is obviously very important to our business.," Gwynne Oates said. "There are a lot of sites online where you can buy products from overseas, but that is not an option for us."
An antique foot pedal-operated Singer sewing machine greets customers in the lobby of the facility at 10951 Electron Dr. When C.R. Oates first started the business, his flag company used the machine to produce locally made American flags.
Years later the family changed course and expanded its focus from flags to numerous other promotional items.
"We like to think of ourselves as a one-stop-shop for your branding needs," said Greg Strafer, general manager. "That's why we rebranded ourselves from Oates Flag to Oates Promotional Services."
While the locally owned business no longer assembles the Stars and Stripes, it does sell American-made flags sewn at New Jersey's Annin Flagmakers, the nation's oldest and largest flag maker and one of half a dozen larger manufacturers of flags in the United States.
"Today we offer a variety of services," Strafer told The Courier Journal. "We have all new screen printing and embroidery machines, and we offer full-service promotional items like cheer flags and banners. Customers can come in and work with a designer and everything is made in-house."
Besides the symbol of the United States, Oates carries state flags, military flags and custom flags. Also popular are Irish flags in March and the Old City of Louisville flag, which is in demand each spring close to the Kentucky Derby.
In fact, take a drive through the city, attend a sporting event or watch one on television, and from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Tennessee Titans, there is a good chance you'll see a product made at the Oates facility.
"There was a time when everything that hung in Rupp Arena we had made," Gwynne Oates said. "We've done flags and banners in the YUM Center; we've made spirit flags for so many schools — the University of Louisville, the University of Kentucky, Stanford University, Alabama, South Carolina, Ole Miss, you name it. And for local high school and elementary schools like Trinity, Sacred Heart, St. Agnes and St. Edwards."
Flags made at this iconic Louisville business were also flown during the 75th Anniversary of D-Day over the skies of Normandy, France, and over Afghanistan in 2010 during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Closer to home, Oates is responsible for the neighborhood banners you see hanging along major streets throughout Louisville.
Finishing a task handed down through the generations of the Oates family, Trey Oates clips a final piece of loose thread from the massive flag. This one belongs to a popular Louisville Chick-Fil-A restaurant. Like his father and grandfather before him, Oates understands that proper care can ensure the stars and stripes will continue to fly.
And this flag is ready to return to its flagpole and right on time for the Fourth of July.
Reach Kirby Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @kirbylouisville.
Flag etiquette guidelines
Some things to know about the proper way to display the Unites States Flag from Oates Promotional Services. For further guidelines about proper etiquette when flying the American Flag visit oatesflag.com.
Displaying the flag outdoors
On a vehicle – Attach the flag to the antenna or clamp the flagstaff to the right fender. Do not lay the flag over the vehicle.
On a building – Hang the flag on a staff or on a rope over the sidewalk with the stars away from the building.
Over the street – Hang the flag with the stars to the east on a north-south street or north on an east-west street.
Above other flags – Hang the American flag above any other flag on the same pole.
In a window – Hang the flag vertically with the stars to the left of anyone looking at it from the street.
Half-staff – This is a sign of mourning. Raise the flag to the top of the pole then lower it to the half-way point. Before lowering the flag, raise it to the top again at the end of the day.
Upside down – An upside-down flag is considered a distress signal.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: The Oates family's Louisville flag business honors Old Glory