The Eternal Flame in the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial

The Eternal Flame

Story & Photo by Jeffrey W. Babcock

The History

The Eternal Flame is a monument located in the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in the heart of the City of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Situated on North 18th Street, in the island in the center of the road, near Evergreen Cemetery, it is a natural gas burning torch dedicated to the veterans of Manitowoc County. (It was originally on the east side of the road, but due to street expansion in the '70s it's now in the center island.)

On February 27, 1969, Glenn C. Ferdon, Adjutant of Drews-Bleser Post 88 of the American Legion signed a letter written to then Honorable Mayor Robert J. Rand, requesting permission to place a "Flame of Freedom" at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial. It was understood at the time that the Legion would pay all expenses incurred, including the purchase, placing and operation of the flame.

On March 5, 1969, the Common Council of Manitowoc, in a unanimous decision, approved the placement. Mr Ferdon received notice of the resolution, from City Clerk June E. Fetzer, March 11th of that year.

Bids were accepted for manufacture of the torch and the Scottsdale Gas Company, producers of "Scottco Gas Lighting Fixtures" of Scottsdale Arizona, was selected. On Memorial Day, May 30th, 1969, the torch was dedicated and lit in a program led by Parade Marshal Norbert Nelson. The cost of the original torch was $358.71.

According to information from Wisconsin Fuel and Light, the City of Manitowoc assumed responsibility for the natural gas bills associated with the flame on May 20, 1974. Prior to that time the gas bills had been paid by the American Legion Post. (Historically the torch used about 150 therms of natural gas per month when it operated 24 hours per day-about enough to heat two average homes in Manitowoc.)

Because of torch malfunctions, the rising cost of gas and the impending energy crisis, the torch was turned off in mid 1974. On March 3, 1975 the American Legion Post 88 began a crusade to relight the Eternal Flame. Efforts commenced with a letter to then Mayor Anthony Dufek asking for his help in relighting the torch. Ideas to conserve energy included, an electric eye to monitor the burning the torch from dusk until 2:00 AM, rather than 24 hours a day. An agreement was reached between the Manitowoc County United Veterans Council and the City, to relight it. The Veterans Council and the Senior Class of Manitowoc Roncalli High School each pledged to cover the costs for six months. Also, the Veterans Council pledged to campaign for donations to keep it lit.

In 1979, the Public Service Commission issued a directive that all decorative outdoor lighting using natural gas be extinguished by January 1, 1980. In an article published in the Manitowoc Two Rivers Herald Times Reporter, Mayor Dufek announced that in order to comply with the PSC regulation the City would extinguish the Eternal Flame by November 5, 1979.

On December 3rd, the newspaper reported that State Senator Gary Goyke, a Democrat from Oshkosh would appear before the PSC to ask that the Manitowoc landmark be excluded from their order so that the City may honor its veterans. The article stated that the flame was extinguished several weeks previous. December 11th brought good news to Manitowoc. On that day the HTR reported that the PSC had voted, earlier in the week, 3-0 in favor of the veterans memorial.

The Cost

Over the years many repairs to the torch were necessary. Due to the fact the Public Service Commission had ordered the extinguishing of all decorative gas lighting, the search for repair parts was extremely difficult. The companies that had manufactured repair parts either went out of business or got into a different line of work. In May, 1983 the decision was made to order a brand new torch because repair parts were no longer available. Again the Scottsdale Gas Co. was contacted and they designed and manufactured a 2nd "Scottco" torch. The 2nd torch didn’t work out quite as well as the first one. After being in and out of service for a year, the torch was dismantled and returned. In April, 1984, a pre-owned torch was then purchased from Wisconsin Fuel and Light. That torch remained in service for approximately 13 years. In 1997, again because the repair bills mounted, another torch was purchased. Due to inflation, the cost of the newest torch was a bit more than the original. At a cost of $2,625.00, the Eternal Flame was relighted and dedicated on Memorial Day, 1997.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, the cost inherent in its operation became a burden due to major rate hikes for natural gas. Because of the energy problems the country faced during this time, the price of all fuels skyrocketed. The local American Legion Post was forced to ask the city for monetary assistance. So at the Common Council meeting on May 5, 1980 the City agreed to pick up 50% of the annual cost for the natural gas and electricity used by the monument. This agreement then was in effect until it was rescinded with an unexpected letter received from local attorney Reginald P. Buran.

At some unknown point in the mid 1980's Attorney Buran informed the City of Manitowoc, and United Veterans Council, which had taken over the operational costs from the American Legion, that a local philanthropist, Ms Fannie Angus Healy, had left in her Last Will and Testament, a sizable bequeath to the Eternal Flame and 6 other charitable causes. Those 7 included the Eternal Flame, the local YMCA, Holiday House, (a sheltered workshop for the developmentally disabled), St Mary’s Home for the Aged, the Salvation Army, the Shiners Hospital of Chicago and Holy Family Memorial Medical Center of Manitowoc. The Eternal Flame Fund received $87,200.00. This wonderful news, not only ended the joint venture of the veterans and the city, but assured the future of the flame. At the present time the interest earned on the account more than covers the annual expenses, so the flame should continue to burn for many, many years into the future.

The author of this essay would very much like to express a sincere "Thank You" to the following people. Dr Kerry Trask, Professor of History UW - Manitowoc, it was through his guidance this project was under taken and completed, Norbert Nelson of Manitowoc, the notes, receipts and recollections of Mr Nelson were invaluable, Ms. Debbie Neuser from the Manitowoc City Clerk’s Office, and finally Mr James Rosenberg, Public Relations Director, Wisconsin Fuel and Light, without their assistance this project never would have been accomplished.

Jeff Babcock © 2009 Jeff Babcock