Did you ever wonder how Iowa got her “official” state flag? Well, thanks to Dixie Cornell Gebhardt – one determined patriot from Knoxville, Iowa – the Hawkeye State finally adopted her design – nearly 75 years after becoming a state!
When Iowa became the 29th State in the Union – December 28, 1846 – there was no “official” state flag – nor was there any other iconic symbol that represented the Hawkeye State. The only designation Iowans had to proudly display their new-found statehood was the 29-star U.S. Flag – which at the time had no “official” layout of white stars on the blue field. As you can see from the pics below – there were several different designs of the 29-star flag – so basically – you could choose the one you liked! Read more here.
When Iowa joined the Union on December 28, 1846, the U.S. Flag “officially” added a 29th star on July 4, 1847. The flag shown above (left) is the 29-star flag in the House Chamber of Old Capitol in Iowa City – with the 29th star (Iowa) larger than the others. (C-0199) (C-0263) In 2000, the USPS issued a series of flag stamps and here is yet another version of the 29-star flag used when Iowa became a state. Prior to the 48-star flag designed in 1912, there was no set pattern for arranging stars on the American flag.
One of the initial acts of the First General Assembly – meeting in Iowa City in 1847 – was to create the Great Seal of Iowa. The seal pictures a citizen soldier standing in a wheat field, surrounded by farming and industrial tools – with the Mississippi River and the Steamboat Iowa in the background. An eagle is overhead holding in its beak a scroll bearing the state motto: “Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.” The motto was the work of a three-member Senate committee and was incorporated into the design of the seal at their suggestion. It was this bald eagle and state motto that would later go into the design of the “official” Iowa State Flag – but that didn’t happen until nearly 75 years later – 1921!
Notice that this Iowa flag pictured (below) on an Allen & Ginter Cigarette Card – in 1888 – looks nothing like it does today – but it did utilize the state motto.
(M-0006) 1888 – IOWA “Hawkeye State” Allen & Ginter Cigarette Card from the Flags of the States and Territories Series. Allen & Ginter was a Richmond, VA tobacco manufacturing company formed in 1865. In the late 1880s, Allen & Ginter began to release cigarette card sets as promotional items for its cigarette brands. Topics varied from birds and wild animals to American Indian chiefs or flags of the world. Allen & Ginter’s baseball cards were the first of the tobacco era baseball cards ever produced for distribution on a national level.
The first step taken toward an “official” state flag adoption began in 1913 during the 35th General Assembly. Introduced by Senator Frederic Larrabee – from Webster County – on April 15, 1913, the resolution was as follows…
As it is typical with governmental “commissions” – nearly four years went by and on March 24, 1917, the State Flag Commission reported back to the 37th General Assembly that – in its opinion – Iowa should have a flag but it had found no suitable design, and the Legislature adjourned without further action. Ba-boom.
Meanwhile, in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched 75,000 National Guardsmen to the Mexican border after Mexican rebels attacked the U.S. Army garrison at Columbus, New Mexico. All units of the Iowa National Guard were mustered into federal service to the
Mexican border, and it was one of these units that reported back home that regiments from other states had banners, and that it only be right for their Iowa unit to have one as well!
The Iowa Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) was the organization most interested in the matter of providing the Iowa National Guardsmen in Mexico with a regimental banner, but the threat of war with Imperial Germany began to loom larger. U.S. forces were gradually withdrawn from Mexico – and by January 1917 – all Iowa troops had returned. The United States would enter World War I just a few months later. Having already prepared several designs for a banner to be used in Mexico, Mrs. Lue B. Prentiss, the chairman of the DAR’s Flag Committee, Mrs. Dixie Cornell Gebhardt, and others appeared before the State Council of National Defense on May 11, 1917 to present a new flag design that had been prepared by Gebhardt – the DAR organizer in Knoxville.
Dixie May Cornell was born on November 18, 1866, in Knoxville, Iowa to Dr. Norman Riley Cornell and Mary Fletcher Timmonds. Her father was a pioneer Knoxville physician who served as an army surgeon in the American Civil War with the Iowa Infantry. With the exception of a year spent at a Visitation School for Girls in Ottumwa (1883), Dixie lived all her life in Knoxville – Marion County – graduating from high school in 1885.
Dixie taught briefly following her graduation, but returned home to care for her aging parents and on March 20, 1887, she became a member of Knoxville’s Chapter M of the P.E.O. Sisterhood – an international women’s organization. During her long membership, she served as chapter president and also held offices in the state and supreme chapters. In June 1900, she married George Tullis Gebhardt.
Originally a member of the Abigail Adams Chapter of the DAR (Des Moines), Gebhardt became the organizer and charter member of the Mary Marion Chapter in Knoxville in 1917. She served as Iowa DAR Recording Secretary (1913-1916), State Regent (1916-1918), and later as a DAR Genealogist at Continental Hall in Washington D.C.
As we said earlier, in May of 1917, the DAR Flag Committee presented Dixie’s design to the State Council of National Defense (see below) for their approval as a regimental banner for use in the war.
Later in life (1945), Dixie wrote about her flag-designing project – a work she described as her greatest life achievement and one she actually began researching eight years earlier in 1909…
The state’s National Defense Council quickly approved Dixie’s design for use by Iowa soldiers serving in the war, and the DAR had a number of flags manufactured and presented to each of the Iowa National Guard regiments, one of which – the 168th United States Infantry – was already in France.
By 1918, Dixie’s Iowa flags were being manufactured by the nation’s leading flag and banner company – Annin’s of New York City – and distributed state-wide by the DAR. The only problem, however, was that the Iowa General Assembly in Des Moines had never “officially” recognized the design as the Iowa State Flag!
So, in February 1919, Senate File 66 – Adopting a flag for the state of Iowa – was introduced in the 38th General Assembly, but, surprisingly, the bill was met with great resistance. One state senator read a letter from his son, written from a WWI camp in France, saying: “I hold that one flag is enough for American soldiers, and that the Stars and Stripes is sufficient for all purposes.” Thus, even after the acceptance of the banners manufactured by the DAR, on February 17, 1919, Bill 66 was soundly defeated – 30 nays to 14 ayes.
After the war ended (1919), a different attitude toward an “official” state flag developed, and by the time a new flag bill was proposed at the 39th General Assembly in 1921, Dixie’s design was admired state-wide and had been “unofficially” displayed on many public occasions around the state. So, on March 29, 1921, House File 398 was signed by Governor Nathan E. Kendall, “officially” adopting Dixie’s design as our new State Flag of Iowa.
Dixie Cornell Gebhardt died at age 88 at the Collins Memorial Hospital in Knoxville on October 16, 1955, and is buried at Graceland Cemetery. In 1956, the Iowa chapters of the DAR presented a portrait of Dixie to be hung in the Governor’s mansion in Des Moines.
In 1998, a plaque was placed on the south side of the Marion County Courthouse in honor of Gebhardt. On March 29, 1996 – the 75th anniversary of the state flag – a monument to honor both the flag, and Dixie was erected at 217 S. Second Street in Knoxville, now the home of Jacobsen Travel. It was determined by the Iowa Sesquicentennial Commission that the site was the home of Gebhardt when she designed the flag in 1917. Gebhardt Street in Knoxville is also named in her honor.
In 2015, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad proclaimed March 23–29 as Dixie Cornell Gebhardt Week statewide in anticipation of Iowa Flag Day on March 29. That year the Library of Knoxville partnered with the area Chamber of Commerce to sponsor a community celebration in Gebhardt’s honor. The celebration was held at the Dixie Cornell Gebhardt House and included a flag raising, historical games, a history walk, and open houses for the Marion County Genealogical Society and the Daughters of the American Revolution.
(P-0002) (S-0042) (C-0140) In 1946, at Iowa’s Centennial Celebration, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp featuring the Iowa State Flag. (S-0047) In 1976 – as part of the U.S. Bicentennial Celebration – the USPS issued 50 state flag stamps, and again, in 2008 – yet another flag series appeared. (S-0052)
Thank you Dixie Cornell Gebhardt – Iowa’s Betsy Ross – your eight-year flag project, indeed, turned out to be a productive effort for all Hawkeyes!
Click here to read more about December 28 Statehood Day celebrations.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
State Symbols of Iowa, The Iowa Official Register, Iowa.gov
100th Anniversary of Iowa’s State Banner, Pieces of Iowa’s Past, Legislative Services Agency, March 24, 2021
The American Flag, The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries Vol XVI, January-June, 1913, William Abbatt, NYC, pp 205-206
‘Iowa’s Betsy Ross’: Remembering Dixie Cornell Gebhardt, the Knoxville woman who designed the Iowa state flag, Chris Higgins, The Des Moines Register, November 20, 2021
Dixie Cornell Gebhardt, Wikipedia
Lue Bradley Prentiss, Find-A-Grave
Dixie Cornell Gebhardt, Find-A-Grave
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