The Freeport Flag Ladies — Carmen Footer, left, JoAnn Miller, and Elaine Greene — stand on Main Street in Freeport Wednesday for the last time, to remember the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. (Ben McCanna / Portland Press Herald)

FREEPORT — Lainey Leger, 3, was dwarfed by the heavy wet flag she held on Wednesday morning, but following the words of caution from her father, Nate, the little girl made sure it never touched the ground. 

Lainey and her dad were just two of hundreds of people who lined Freeport’s Main Street Wednesday morning to honor the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the three dedicated ladies who made sure their town never forgot. 

Lainey Leger, 3, waves an American flag much bigger than she is in Freeport on Sept. 11. (Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record)

Elaine Greene, Carmen Footer and JoAnn Miller have stood on the corner of Maine and School streets, clad in red, white and blue every Tuesday morning for 18 years, braving snow storms, rain, sleet, heat and lightning. The Freeport Flag Ladies, in their 70s and 80s, announced their retirement in June. Wednesday was their last on the hilltop. 

The three were like celebrities, fielding questions, giving hugs, shaking hands and petting dogs. Friends, families, veterans, first responders, Patriot Riders, students and Gov. Janet Mills stopped by to wave their own flags and offer thanks for the women’s nearly two decades of dedication to honoring the lives lost on Sept. 11 and in the wars that followed. 

“They are the heart of America, the apple pie,” said Stephen Betters, an Army veteran and member of the Combat Veteran’s Motorcycle Association. 

“The support they’ve given us as a veteran community … there are no words for it.”

Aside from the more than 900 Tuesday mornings on the hill, the Flag Ladies have also made countless trips to Bangor’s airport to send off soldiers and participated in honor flights, talked to students and taken part in parades and memorial events. Many of these they will still do in the months and maybe even years to come, but the weekly rendez-vous will have to cease.

As Greene said in June, “age wins every time.”

“It’s the end for them today,” Betters said, “but it doesn’t end today. These ladies, with their hearts, compassion and love for the country, they’ll stay patriots.”

Nate Leger, a Coast Guard veteran and now an employee of the veteran-owned and operated Stars and Stripes Brewing, said he used to be a police officer in Freeport, and saw the Flag Ladies every week.  

“You name it, rain, snow, they’re here. … They mean a lot to Freeport. Every Tuesday it’s a reminder,” he said, adding that they are, in their own way, a unifying force. 

“It’s cool to see everyone united, standing for the flag,” he said. “Out here, nobody knows who’s a Republican, and nobody knows who’s a Democrat. … I don’t think the Flag Ladies ever wanted it to be about them, they do it for the betterment of good Americans.” 

Joanne McMahon and John Bellino brought more than a dozen students from Region 10 Technical High School in Brunswick. 

With the exception of one student, all of the teenagers were born after 2001, raised in a post-9/11 world. They learn about it in school and from their families, and recognize the way it impacted the country. “It’s not something we should just forget about,” one of them said. 

Their teacher, McMahon, was an active duty Naval officer in Brunswick when the planes hit the twin towers. She remembers the way everything stopped and came to a standstill as they waited for more information. There were so many unanswered questions, she said, but “people just pulled together. People fed people, people took care of people. The flags came out. The flags were everywhere and I hope the flags stay. Even after today,” she said. “The flag ladies give so much to so many people. They’re a sign of hope.” 

It remains to be seen if anyone will take up the mantle and wave a flag in their stead in Freeport, but the tradition is already slated to continue in Columbia Falls starting next Tuesday through a collaboration with Wreaths Across America and Worcester Wreath Company. 

“What they do is so important,” Executive Director Karen Worcester said. “They have served this mission … with such grace and character.” Worcester said she hoped for a long time that someone would take over the ceremony and when nobody did, she decided “it would have to be us.”

Greene is glad someone will keep it going. 

“Our children need to see there are adults being patriotic without yelling and screaming some political things at each other, just showing their love of the country,” she said Wednesday. “Vote for who you want, but remember you’re American.” 

It was an emotional day, with tears from the three women and the people lined up to say thank you. 

“I’m feeling sad, but I’m feeling the deepest of gratitude for the people who chose to be here today,” Greene said.  “I’m so proud of our country, I know she’s filled with good people like this.” 

A GoFundMe page is raising money to send the three Freeport Flag Ladies to New York City to visit the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. As of Wednesday afternoon, the campaign had raised just over $1,500. 

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