On a wintry New Year’s day in 1776, Somerville became the site of the first flag raising in the country. Back then, it was called the Grand Union flag—featuring a British Union Jack in the upper left corner where the 50 stars now reside, and thirteen red and white stripes.
One day later, the words “United States of America” appeared in print for the first time in a letter written by George Washington’s Secretary and Aide, an Irish-American named Stephen Moylan, in Cambridge during the Siege of Boston.
“Boston is inundated with sacred grounds for the foundation of our country,” says historian Byron DeLear, author of “The First American Flag—Revisiting The Grand Union at Prospect Hill.” “Prospect Hill is definitely one of them.”
DeLear has devoted years of his career to meticulously researching the 30-day period between Dec. 3, 1775—the date that the Grand Union flag first debuted over the continental navy—and Jan. 2, 1776. And he’s not alone.
Lawrence Willwerth—a third-generation Somerville resident, docent, Somerville Museum trustee, and Vietnam War veteran—is also a self-motivated U.S. history buff. Willwerth relays facts about the nation as naturally as he does those about his own life, often remembering exact dates and times of events few have even heard of.
He now co-organizes the First Flag Raising reenactment on Jan. 1 at Prospect Hill each year, alongside Executive Director of the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission Brandon Wilson. Starting in 2000, Wilson planned the reenactment with help from the city’s preservation planner, Kristi Chase, and Somerville Museum’s executive director, Evelyn Battinelli. Turning the event into a community-wide staple sponsored by the city was enthusiastically supported by then-Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay and Community Development Executive Director Stephen Post. In recent years, Chase has taken a backseat.
Before the city and Wilson began hosting the event, residents Isobel Cheney and Fred Lund primarily got people out to Prospect Hill annually, every year since 1976, says Battinelli.
Willwerth was inspired to get involved with the event about 11 years ago, when he realized that he was unsure who from The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts—the oldest chartered military organization in the western hemisphere, of which he is a member—was in attendance back in 1776. This sparked his love of independent research, and he was shocked to learn that, at the time, the majority of the members were loyalists.
“That has been a historic ride that I’m still spending time on,” Willwerth says. “What a wonderful way for a citizen to get involved in their community, find out what their roots are.”
Now, he has the planning down to a science. He begins during the summer, finalizing everything by November, and he always has a plan B ready to go in case something goes wrong on the day of the event.
The day begins with a procession from City Hall to Prospect Hill, followed by a program that Willwerth personally fact-checks. He takes pride in the fact that the ceremony never exceeds an hour. Afterwards, all attendees are treated to a brunch at the Mt. Vernon restaurant in Winter Hill—one of Willwerth’s favorite spots.
His involvement with the Artillery Company has led to a large number of reenactors participating in the event, which wasn’t the case before, says Wilson. Another staple of the reenactment is a speech performed by George Washington, played by John Koopman this year.
Somervillians like Willwerth and Battinelli, as well as transplant Wilson, all take pride in reclaiming the city’s history.
“Somerville’s history unfortunately gets kind of hidden because at the time of these events, we were part of Charlestown,” says Battinelli. “We didn’t separate until 1842. So, that whole period gets celebrated as Charlestown. That’s why we always have to fight to get recognized.”
From a distance, the flag that had been flying on Prospect Hill before Jan. 1 was entirely red—historically, a sign of protest, DeLear says. According to the three primary sources available about the ceremony, one of which comes from George Washington himself, 13 gunshots were fired, followed by 13 hurrahs shouted in commemoration of the United States. And then, finally, the first flag of the United States was raised.
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