How the flag ended up on one Carneros tree
By HOWARD SENZELL / Towns Correspondent
If you’ve traveled through Sonoma’s Carneros region and wondered about the gigantic American flag atop an isolated tall tree just off Highway 116, you’ll be interested in this story.
The keepers of the flag are Paula and Ed Robles, and the 145-foot tree from which it flies is located on their two-acre property on East Bonneau Road.
Some think the flag was first hoisted on the property after the 9/11 tragedy, but that’s not the case. The first flag went up in 1999 on a thin eucalyptus that at one time was in a grove of more than 30 similar trees.
Why the tree was spared when those around it fell victim to woodcutters starts the story.
“Most of the eucalyptus were on a neighbor’s property, and he decided he’d rather have a vineyard,” Ed Robles explained. “There was a row along the property line that was serving as a windbreak. We had six on our land.”
The day the trees were being cut, the Robleses took one last look and what they saw decided the fate of the eucalyptus that now carries the flag.
“There’s a tuft of greenery about 10 feet from the top,” Paula Robles said. “While we were looking at the tree one last time, we saw a red-tailed hawk fly into the greenery. The hawks were using it as a nest.”
Being animal and bird lovers, the Robleses didn’t have the heart to cut it down. At that time, it was around 20 feet tall. Eucalyptus can grow more than 12 feet per year until reaching a plateau.
“I mentioned to one of the tree guys that it looked out of place, standing by itself,” Ed recalled. “He took a look and said, ‘Put a flag on it.’”
The Robleses didn’t need any more encouragement.
Ed began looking for a flag large enough to be seen by all in the Carneros region and Paula asked her father, Keith Sedgwick, a retired Air Force officer living in Windsor, to fill her in on flag etiquette.
It was decided the fast-growing tree, which is 900 feet from the highway, could handle a flag that was 30 feet tall and 45 feet wide.
“Back then, flags that size were selling for $1,200,” recalled Ed, who runs Line Locators in Sonoma. “With the constant wind we get, I was told the flag would get tattered and we’d wind up replacing it once a year.”
Doing the math, the Robleses realized replacing the flag, putting pulleys on the tree and having it trimmed was going to be expensive.
“Online, I found a place in Sacramento, epicflag.com, that agreed to sell me flags at cost,” Ed said. “The owner is familiar with the Carneros region and knows how many people would see the flag. He thought it was a patriotic thing to do.
“So instead of paying $1,200 for a flag, it only costs us $545.”
The flag has been replaced eight times since 1999.
Having the tree trimmed is the other big expense. Branches and suckers are cut once a year. The tree is kept barren except for the flag and the tuft of greenery that is still home to red-tailed hawks.
Several tree trimmers have been used over the years. They go up the tree in early morning when the wind is calm and also check the pulleys and hooks. The job gets tougher each year as the eucalyptus grows taller. It has yet to plateau.
“I tried doing it myself one year,” Ed said with a laugh. “I got about 35 feet in the air and lost my footing. I was just hanging by the rope until I could get my legs around the tree and shimmy down. Since then, I’ve always called a professional.”
After 9/11, the Robleses installed lights to shine on the flag.
“We did that until we found out that etiquette states flags should not be lit up at night,” Ed said. “That was kind of a relief because our PG&E bill had tripled.”
Another year, the family had Christmas lights on the tree leading up to a star of Bethlehem.
The flag is also lowered to half-mast after tragedies and deaths of presidents.
Earlier this year, passers-by were stunned to see the tree standing but not the flag. Turns out wind had knocked an eye-bolt loose and the flag floated to the ground.
“We decided to leave it down until spring when the weather improved,” Ed related. “The tree has been amazingly sturdy through the years. It has withstood gusts of 100 miles per hour.
“When the wind blows 28 miles per hour, the flag flies flat. Where we live, we get that much wind every day.”
From the highway and surrounding roads, it looks like the tree and flag sit alone in a field.
“People who know it’s on our property have been supportive,” Ed said. “Several friends have helped with the cost, which is $125 a month.”
At the behest of friends, he opened a flag account at Bank of the West in Sonoma to help defray cost. The family has also held a flag party for friends.
“We haven’t received any complaints,” Ed acknowledged. “Well, I take that back. People complained when we turned the lights off. It was breathtaking seeing that big flag flying straight at night.
“Through the years, we’ve had a few people figure out that the flag is on our property and come up to the house. The other day, a young guy showed up and told me, ‘Man, I love your flag.’ ”
He spoke for a lot of people.