Nebraska museum restores 38-star flag

 Photo courtesy: Kelsey Dickeson, KSNB
Photo courtesy: Kelsey Dickeson, KSNB (KFYR)
Published: Jun. 20, 2019 at 4:08 PM CDT
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The Stuhr Museum is restoring a rare piece of our country's history after hunting for national treasure in Grand Island's oldest established business.

George Bartenbach, the owner of Bartenbach Galleries, invited museum curators to search through their basement for lost pieces of history. They found a 38-star flag on a shelf inside an old vault.

"Those old Germans never threw anything away," joked Bartenbach.

The Bartenbachs were in their building in downtown Grand Island for 138 years. Time ran its course, and their store closed at the beginning of this year. The family is now in the process of cleaning it out.

This little trace of Grand Island's past is now a way for the Bartenbachs to keep their family name alive.

"A lot of the things that were here were possessed and touched by my great, great, great grandfather and grandfather and dad. It's kind of bittersweet, but it's been real interesting to go through all this stuff," Bartenbach said.

Curators speculate the flag is about as old as the building. It's 8.5 inches wide and 16.5 inches long.

Staff said it's in fair condition, with some tears and stains. Robb Nelson, an assistant curator at Stuhr Museum, said they're looking through their archives to see where the flag might've been hung.

"This is a flag that was from the Reconstruction Era, 1877 or there about. That was really a turning point in U.S. history. It kind of marks the rise to modernism following that period," Nelson said.

The 38-star flag was created when Colorado joined the Union, right before Nebraska joined. It was only the country's flag for about 13 years before more states entered the Union and the 43-star flag was made.

Now, the curators are working to restore the flag. They have to use a special vacuum with low suction, and material like a screen door to pull up some of the surface dirt. The flag is a cotton material, but they can't wash it due to its age.

"In about three hours yesterday we cleaned approximately two of the lines of the 13. It'll be a multi-day process in the end, but it'll be worth it," Nelson said.

Stuhr Museum is pairing with the Ford Conservation Center in Omaha to work on some of the serious damage. The flag won't be fully preserved for several months.

There will be a time coming up when you can check it out. Stuhr Museum will have it displayed in their Reynolds Building during their "Welcome Home" event on July 20. It's free and open to the public.

After the event, curators will continue to restore and preserve the flag.