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When Old Glory needs a bath
By Josh Stockinger | Daily Herald Staff

Autumn Bailey of Marberry Cleaners and Launderers in St. Charles presses an American flag.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

Autumn Bailey of Marberry Cleaners in St. Charles folds a flag after cleaning and pressing it.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

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Published: 8/30/2008 11:48 PM | Updated: 8/31/2008 12:37 AM

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Joe Hunter doesn't believe in part-time patriotism.

That is, if you fly an American flag - and you should, he says - do it every day. And, when Old Glory gets a little dirty, well, clean it.

"They should be flying 365 days a year," says Hunter, a U.S. Army veteran who served at the tail end of the Korean War. "It's as simple as that."

Hunter is in a unique position to help when it comes to keeping your stars and stripes shining brightly, as co-owner of Marberry Cleaners and Launderers.

Like some others in the business, the suburban dry cleaning chain, which Hunter helped start 36 years ago in St. Charles, makes a point of offering free American flag cleanings in the hopes of encouraging locals to show their patriotism year-round.

It's a service Hunter and co-owners, the Marberry family of LaFox, have always offered, but one they began to promote more heavily in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The idea, he said, is to encourage the patriotic momentum that some say has dwindled in the seven years since the attacks.

"It's just a way of showing people who fly their flags that we support them," Hunter said. "If you fly a flag, we'll clean it for free."

The process is relatively simple and not much different from dry cleaning a shirt, said Dave Marberry, one of the owners of Marberry Cleaners, which has locations in Aurora, Barrington, Geneva, Glen Ellyn, Lombard and North Aurora, in addition to two in St. Charles.

Depending on the flag's size, it's first cleaned with a petroleum-based solvent in one of three industrial sized washers, then dried. Flags are later pressed, with employees taking care not to let them touch the ground, Marberry said. Some stains can be spotted out.

Two of the largest orders to arrive at Marberry Cleaners in recent years involved gigantic flags - 40 feet long or more - for the Aurora Fire Department and for a large event featuring former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Regular orders tend to pick up around Memorial Day and July 4th, the owners said.

"There's not much we can do about fading," Hunter said. "But (dry cleaning) definitely will extend the longevity of it."

There is no hard and fast rule regarding when to dispose of a flag rather than clean it, veterans say. The general goal is to avoid major color fading and tears, particularly the shredding commonly seen on flags flown outdoors, said Steven Schaefer, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2992 in Des Plaines.

Most VFW and American Legion halls, as well as some scouting groups, have ongoing collection drives for people who want their worn flags to be disposed of properly. These usually involve drop-off areas at the individual establishments.

Eric Behler, a service officer at Carpentersville VFW Post 5915, said his group typically conducts official disposal ceremonies twice a year, although this year's haven't been set. As is the case in Des Plaines, Behler said, a collection of flags is typically incinerated in a controlled fire, with the ashes to be buried later in undisclosed locations. There also are readings about the flag's history and meaning during ceremonies.

"Usually, hundreds come in - sometimes more," Schaefer said of flags dropped off in Des Plaines. "Sometimes we do them behind the post, just ourselves. Sometimes we get scout groups that want us to show them how we do it."

Schaefer said at least one local dry cleaning business, The Cleanery, also offers free flag cleanings to the post, which typically has its parade flags washed there every year.

Behler added that anything local businesses can do to encourage proper flag care is greatly appreciated by those who put their lives on the line for that symbol of freedom.

"More people should get involved and show their flags," he said. "It's an excellent idea."

For the official rules on flag care, visit