illustration of Paul Bunyan standing at the foot of a collossal flagpole
Illustration by Jon Krause

In Columbia Falls, a Proposal for the World’s Tallest Flagpole Caused Quite a Flap

The centerpiece of a sprawling new veterans’ memorial park and tourist attraction sparked a debate over the character of the community — and spurred fresh plans for the town’s future.

By Nora Saks
From our July 2024 issue

In the spring of 2022, Morrill Worcester and his sons, Rob and Mike, went on Fox News to, for the first time, publicly reveal plans they had hatched for a swath of remote spruce-fir forest their family owns. Near the little Washington County town of Columbia Falls, they would build the tallest flagpole — 1,461 feet — the world had ever seen. Situated atop a hill, it would rise to a symbolic 1,776 feet above sea level and support the largest American flag ever flown, with an area equal to one and half football fields. It would be called the Flagpole of Freedom, and renderings showed it containing observation decks, a museum, a convention center, a theater, and retail spaces.

On the surrounding grounds, nine miles of “remembrance walls” would record the name of “every single veteran that has passed away in our history, regardless if they died in combat or of natural causes,” Rob told Fox host Pete Hegseth. There would also be hotels, shops, restaurants, and living-history exhibits, as well as parades and other outdoor entertainment. A pamphlet from the Worcesters declared that “every day will feel like the 4th of July.” All this to honor those who served and, furthermore, to create something that transcends political differences. “The country is so divided,” Morrill said on Fox, “we think this project will help that.”

“If anyone can make this happen,” Hegseth agreed, “it’s the Worcester family.”

Hegseth had in mind the Worcesters’ patriotic bona fides. Although the family runs multiple businesses down east, they are best known — statewide and nationwide — for the nonprofit Wreaths Across America. Morrill founded the organization in 2007, and it now sends millions of wreaths to veterans’ grave sites during the holiday season. In a small museum at the Wreaths Across America headquarters, next door to Columbia Falls’s town hall, walls are covered with awards, certificates, and letters of appreciation from service members, citizen groups, and political leaders.

The day after appearing on Fox, the Worcesters held a formal unveiling of their plans in front of state lawmakers at a packed press conference in Augusta. They also released a half-hour video online in which combat veteran turned motivational speaker Vann Morris breathlessly exclaims that the Flagpole of Freedom Park will be “part national monument, part historical adventure, part immersive tech-driven museum, and part architectural wonder, all combined . . . in such a way to set the tone for healing America.” The entire project was expected to take 10 to 15 years and, at the very least, cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The first phase, which would include a welcome area and the towering flagpole, was targeted to open on July 4th, 2026, America’s 250th birthday. “Washington County is fortunate to have such a national treasure in our backyard,” Washington County Commission chairman Chris Gardner said, speaking at the unveiling. “Plans for this park celebrate the character of this county without changing it. It will truly fit into the fabric of our community.”

But back in Columbia Falls, the response was mixed. Some residents were thrilled about the plan. Richie Poirier, an army veteran, owner of a local construction business, and close friend of the Worcesters, loved the idea of driving through his hometown and seeing a huge American flag rising high above the forest. “To be part of something so patriotic as that — such a symbol of what our nation is supposed to stand for, and what so many people have lost their lives for — means something,” he told me. But not everyone felt the same. A bustling lumber and shipbuilding center generations ago, present-day Columbia Falls is sleepier now, its economy tied to blueberry barrens and balsam-fir farms. At last count, fewer than 500 people live there. The most prominent landmark for miles around is the Wild Blueberry Heritage Center, née Wild Blueberry Land, a purple geodesic dome that hosts a museum, shop, and mini-golf course.

“If he’d just put up a giant flagpole, I would have had no problem with that,” said Dell Emerson, an 11th-generation farmer, former manager of University of Maine’s Blueberry Hill research farm, and cofounder of Wild Blueberry Land. For Emerson, the idea of the sprawling development around the flagpole, in a wild landscape he and many other locals grew up hunting and fishing in, was the rub. “You stop and think about that not being there anymore and what you’re getting in return for what you’re sacrificing,” he told me over haddock chowder at his home. “You can’t replace it.” 

Philip Worcester, a woodsman and army veteran who’s served on the town’s planning board since the 1990s (and is so distantly related to Morrill Worcester he says “it doesn’t count”), at first thought the proposal was worth considering. But he grew increasingly concerned by the staggering magnitude of the Worcesters’ project. “The more I listened, the more discouraged I got,” he said. “I asked [Morrill] some questions, and he really couldn’t answer them. He just said, ‘This is what we’re gonna do.’ And I started to think, this isn’t going to fly too long.”

 From left: one of the Pledge of Allegiance plaques on Route 1;  a patriotic roadside memorial in Columbia Falls; the Columbia Falls and Wreaths Across America welcome sign.

Driving into Columbia Falls from the east, Route 1 is lined with dozens of American flags and a series of plaques conveying the Pledge of Allegiance in its entirety, a few words at a time: “to the flag” . . . “for which it stands” . . . “under God.” Soon, several Worcester Wreath Company buildings appear. At Elmer’s Country Store, the town’s one-stop shop for gas, sundries, and fried chicken, pick-up trucks sporting assorted logos of various Worcester-owned companies roll in and out. At the intersection of Route 1 and Main Street, the large “Welcome to Columbia Falls” sign features a photo of white headstones laid with wreaths and announces the home of the national offices and museum for Wreaths Across America. There is the prevailing sense of a company town.

At the headquarters of Worcester Resources, the parent company of many of the Worcesters’ enterprises, Morrill, who is in his mid-70s and has piercing blue eyes, told me that he and his wife, Karen, “started with absolutely zero.” Fifty years ago, they bought a piece of land and started quarrying gravel from it, hatching County Concrete and Asphalt, their first company, which was followed by a horticultural peat operation, a bakery (now defunct), a blueberry farm, a tree farm, and the wreath business, which is based in neighboring Harrington. With 150 year-round employees, plus hundreds of seasonal wreath and blueberry workers, the Worcesters are the biggest employer around. “We’re not any big deal,” Morrill said, “but we make a living.”

Locals who have known Morrill since he was a kid mention that while he’s a successful businessman, he also has a reputation as something of a dreamer — starting projects but not necessarily finishing them, and not always bothering with rules. His companies and affiliates have been penalized numerous times by state and federal agencies for violating environmental and labor laws, from clear-cutting trees to failing to uphold workplace-safety standards to, most recently, not filing proper permits before beginning construction on several dozen rental cabins with a view of the proposed flagpole site. 

A sign (left)  marks the way to the Worcesters’ rental cabins (right).

The biggest controversy, though, stems from Wreaths Across America. The idea for the nonprofit traces back to 1992, when Morrill had a truckload of surplus wreaths and took them down to Arlington National Cemetery, a place that, according to a story on the Wreaths Across America website, had left an indelible impression on him when he visited as a kid. (Morrill never served in the military, but he says he’s close to many veterans — and Maine has more veterans per capita than almost every other state, while Washington County has the most veterans per capita in Maine.) However, for years, Wreaths Across America has contracted out its wreath supply to one particular company, Worcester Wreath Co., to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. 

Morrill isn’t officially involved with Wreaths Across America anymore, but his wife, Karen, is its executive director, and several other members of the family are involved with it too. The family’s nonprofit benefiting the family’s for-profit business doesn’t break any laws, but it doesn’t sit well with everyone. “The town has always been divided, in many regards, about the Worcesters,” selectman Jeff Greene says. “There are those who see the Worcesters as helping bring attention to veterans’ issues. Then, there are those who see it as hitching a wagon to a sacred cow that you cannot criticize that will make them money.”

Money had a lot to do with the pitch the Worcesters made to their community about the flagpole project. Not only would the memorial park be an exercise in patriotism, they argued, but also a major driver of tourism for a town that most people cruise right past. “If it was going to bring people to this neck of the woods, it had to be pretty grand,” Rob said. After all, he added, there are plenty of veterans’ monuments across the country. “If it was going to be the Flagpole of Freedom, we wanted it to be the biggest symbol of freedom it could be.” 

Washington County is one of the least-populous and lowest-income counties in the state, but the Worcesters projected the park would generate thousands of well-paying jobs in Columbia Falls and surrounding communities, both during construction and after opening, drawing millions of
visitors every year. “We export all of our high-school graduates,” Rob said. “There’s no work for them. The workforce here has to be brought back.” Plus, Morrill said, they were setting up the park as a for-profit enterprise so that it would be a boon to the local property-tax base and, consequently, take a burden off homeowners.

The Worcesters were frustrated, then, when the focus began to shift in both the press and the local government to whether Columbia Falls could bear the impact of development on such a scale. “We kept hearing it was going to be another Disney World,” said Morrill, although he seemed to object to the comparison based on the nature of his project, not its size. “This park, it really was about 43 million veterans, right? Disney World is about two mice. I think there’s quite a difference.”

While the Worcesters were busy courting potential funders and promoting the project on the state and national levels, they seem to have skipped a crucial step: getting local decision-makers on board. Rob says that early on, the Worcesters had a number of “pretty positive discussions” with town leaders, at least the ones who held office at the time. But a number of seats between both the select board and the planning board turned over, and current members noted that they were caught off guard by the whole issue. Talk of a much smaller flagpole — a mere few hundred feet high — had been batted around for years by the Worcesters, but retired coastguardsman and current planning-board chair David Perham says the first inkling local officials got of the super-sized version was at an invitation-only gathering at the Worcesters’ house, in early 2022. Attendees were asked not to take pictures or notes and to keep what they learned under wraps. “It’s like [Morrill] started from the top down, instead of from the bottom up,” fellow planning-board member Philip Worcester says. “To build a house you’ve got to have a foundation. But he started on the second floor and went up from there.” 

The initial caginess was a sticking point, and another hurdle arose too: the Worcesters wanted the town to annex some 16 square miles of their property. Perham says he first heard annexation mentioned at that clandestine meeting. “And I’m like, What? Where did that come from?” he recalls. “After the presentation, they asked by show of hands who was in support of the project. And I abstained because I didn’t know what to make of it.”

The parcel where the Worcesters wanted to build the flagpole park was, in fact, not located in Columbia Falls but just outside, on adjacent land that’s part of Maine’s vast unorganized territories, not run by a municipal government but instead managed by the state’s Land Use Planning Commission, which has strict zoning and environmental standards for new development. Aga Dixon, a land-use attorney and former senior planner with the commission who was hired by the town in 2022, wasn’t surprised to see annexation on the table. “Under state zoning,” she says, “[the Worcesters] would not have had a chance. I’m convinced that they pursued the annexation to try to bring that land base into Columbia Falls, which had no zoning in place.”

It’s typical of small down east towns to have relatively lax regulations, Dixon says. “The folks who live there tend to be really independent-minded. They’re self-sufficient. They place a lot of value on self-determination. And that was all reflected in how town officials conducted business day to day.” Essentially, Dixon says, developers could come into town and build without any significant oversight. For a long time, developers hadn’t eyed Columbia Falls — or other Washington County communities — for major projects anyway. Lately, though, that has started to change. In Jonesport, a Dutch company has proposed a 93-acre land-based yellowtail farm. In Gouldsboro, a Norwegian company recently scrapped plans for a salmon farm. In Steuben, an aerospace company wants to build a launch site for rockets. When a large solar farm was pitched for Columbia Falls — even though the idea ultimately fizzled — it got some in the community worried about a day when something even bigger would come knocking. If the prospect of the solar farm was the match that lit a spark and left it smoldering among town officials, Perham says, “the flagpole was a blowtorch.”

Shortly after the Worcesters unveiled the flagpole plans, Governor Janet Mills signed off on a bill — sponsored by Republican State Senator Marianne Moore after being approached by the Worcesters — authorizing the town’s annexation of the land, as long as Columbia Falls residents voted to do so. Philip Worcester says people there increasingly doubted whether the town had the resources to keep such a massive project on the rails. “If [Morrill] had gone to the town four or five years back, we’d have had time to work on it and put our ideas in, and it wouldn’t have been quite so scary,” Philip says. “But if you jump right in and throw a bomb in this room, people are gonna run away.” 

Before a referendum on annexation was brought to local voters, town officials wanted to make sure the community was fully informed about the implications. Newly elected selectman Jeff Greene says they tried repeatedly to get the Worcesters to address some basic concerns: What economic and environmental studies would the state require? Had the property been surveyed, and where exactly were the boundaries? Who would pay for planning costs associated with annexation? Could the park ever switch to nonprofit, taking it off the local tax roll? What sort of civil infrastructure would the park require?

Sitting at his kitchen table, surrounded by thick binders full of documents, meeting minutes, and notes, Greene told me the scrutiny was only a matter of doing his job. “I have nothing against the Worcesters,” he said. “But I’m an engineer, okay? And one plus one will equal two, goddamnit.” 

“This park, it really was about 43 million veterans, right? Disney World is about two mice. I think there’s quite a difference.”

Frustrated by what he and others characterized as a lack of communication and transparency from the Worcesters, Greene called a public informational meeting in June. It got heated. “As soon as the unveiling happened, the select board, instead of just hand-clapping without questions, asked questions,” Greene says. “And that’s all it took to knock it over.” 

Realizing from this process that they needed to better prepare for development pressures, from flagpoles or otherwise, Columbia Falls officials hired Dixon, the land-use attorney, and other consultants, to help chart a path forward. Early on, Dixon proposed the idea of a moratorium on large-scale commercial and industrial development, defined as any projects that would involve building higher than 100 feet or disturbing three or more acres of land. She describes the temporary measure as “a very common land-use tool that municipalities use whenever they’re confronted with something new.” The idea was to give residents some breathing room to consider what they want Columbia Falls to look like a couple of decades from now, then to develop a regulatory framework to suit those goals. “Everything I recommended to the town,” Dixon says, “stemmed from this core purpose of empowering the residents to really decide their future.” 

The Worcesters opposed the moratorium, as even the suggestion of it raised doubts among prospective financial supporters of the flagpole park. “It’s [the town’s] prerogative,” Rob says, “but it was just bad timing with the discussions we were having.” In August 2022, less than six months after the family had gone public with their plans, the Worcesters’ lawyer told the select board they were re-evaluating the project, and it was on pause. 

In early 2023, the town surveyed residents on what kind of future land use they wanted to see in Columbia Falls. The general sentiment, Dixon says, was “we really like the way things are, and we would like them to stay that way.” That March, a vote at the annual town meeting put into place a six-month moratorium on major development, passing 63 to 17. In August, the moratorium was extended another six months. By then, the Facebook page for the Flagpole of Freedom had gone dormant, and their fundraising website had stopped working. Local officials say the Worcesters stopped showing up to meetings, and communication with the family had fallen off.

Reflecting back, Morrill regrets not speaking up more, especially in the press. “I’m not a great one to try to put my side in,” he says. “What we do speaks for itself, we thought. And that was not the case.” He believes a silent majority of residents favored the flagpole project and puts most of the blame on the current slate of officials on the select board and planning board. “This annexation would have gone through like nothing with the original selectmen,” he says. “Frankly, I’m very surprised at the town, not even giving it a chance. And they’re selfish. They didn’t want any change. They wanted the town to stay the way it was regardless.”

He also reserves some ire for journalists, who he says overhyped the local controversy and downplayed “what we could accomplish with this project and what it meant for future generations,” hurting their ability to raise funds and rally support. “You know, the real patriots in the country were right behind us, they really were,” he says. “And if we hadn’t had all the bad press, it would have been fine.” 

Even as the Worcesters pumped the brakes on their plans, town officials continued developing a new land-use framework. “We’re not full-time, paid people,” Perham says. “We’re just doing this because it’s something that needs to be done.” 

This past February, two years after the Worcesters announced the flagpole, their lawyer told the Maine Monitor they had decided to drop the project entirely. A month later, at the annual town meeting, residents voted in favor of adopting a 158-page land-use code. In dry municipal-legal jargon, the new rules establish four clear districts designated for different uses, but they don’t represent a radical departure overall. In fact, almost everything previously permissible remains permissible, Dixon says, and what’s not allowed is generally a matter of scale. Still, if anyone wants to build something bigger or for different uses than currently permitted, they have recourse: they can ask residents to approve a zoning amendment. “This is a living document,” Perham says, “and it’s ultimately up to the voters to say yes or no.”

Already, Columbia Falls officials have been getting inquiries from leaders of nearby municipalities looking for a local model for managing development. Greene, who’s a local contractor, says the point of the work he and other board members put in isn’t to discourage businesses from coming to Columbia Falls but only to create clear guidelines. “I do believe it will deter developers that we don’t want here,” Greene says. “Developers that are looking for shortcuts. Shortcuts that the community will pay for in the long run.” 

Morrill feels the new rules were designed specifically to target the flagpole project. “Now they’ve got these ordinances, and many of them really are pointed right at us,” he says. “[The town] just plain went overboard. I suppose they won, they got rid of the project. But then they just kept kicking us when we’re down.” He doesn’t intend to pore through the new rules himself. “Many people have, and they’ve told me about it,” he said. “I’m aggravated, so I don’t even bother.” 

The wounds, clearly, were still fresh. “I’m known from coast to coast because of what we’ve done with Wreaths,” Morrill said. “And I’m more respected across the whole United States than right where I live. And that’s awful.” But with all of his businesses and landholdings based down east, he was feeling stuck. “Frankly, if it wasn’t for that, my wife and I would be gone. We’re not really liked here.” 

Rob piped up, though, that he and Morrill and the rest of the family aren’t inclined to abandon their flagpole ambitions forever. “We’re not giving up on it,” he insisted. 

Even if the Worcesters do continue to believe a towering tribute to America’s veterans is in Columbia Falls’s best interest, Greene points out, reviving that project under the town’s new codes would prompt another kind of exercise in patriotism. “The community,” he says, “has to decide if they’re willing to take on the responsibility of their freedom and show up and vote.” 

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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