In December 1976, I was working as a secretary for U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph in Washington, D.C. It was an exciting time for a 23-year-old small-town girl.
Jimmy Carter had just been elected the 39th president of the United States. The city was abuzz with plans for his January inauguration. It was also the final month of America’s Bicentennial celebration. And Christmas was coming, filling me with a wealth of emotions, not the least of which was homesickness.
So imagine my excitement when I learned that the Capitol Christmas tree — the bicentennial Christmas tree, no less — would come from my little hometown of Richwood, West Virginia.
But it almost didn’t happen.
According to a detailed account by Ron Scott, who was chief ranger of the Gauley District of the Monongahela National Forest in Richwood at the time, the Capitol tree was a political consolation prize.
Randolph had just suffered a major defeat on a bill that would have greatly limited timber harvesting on National Forest lands. The “Randolph Bill,” driven by dire prognostications of clearcutting, was defeated in a vote of 98-1.
Instead, it was replaced by Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey’s National Forest Management Act. Opposed by conservation groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, the NFMA would indeed lead to more clearcutting and an expanded use of forest resources for commercial and industrial purposes.
In October of that year, Randolph set up a meeting in Elkins with Scott and other rangers. “It was scheduled as a peace-making meeting between the Forest Service and the senator after the congressional defeat of the proposed Randolph Bill,” Scott recalled. “Sen. Randolph turned to [us] and said, ‘How would you like to provide this year’s Bicentennial Capitol Christmas Tree from the Gauley Ranger District?”
Problem was, another district, the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, had already been promised the honor of supplying the tree.
“Just let me make a call,” Randolph said.
To find a suitable tree in the 3,000-foot-high Kennison Mountain, cut it, prepare it and ship it over mountain terrain to Washington, D.C., in a matter of weeks was no small feat. According to Scott’s account, technician Chester Carden had been grooming and pruning several natural red spruce trees in the area for years. “It was his personal stash of Christmas trees.”
At last he found it: a magnificent red spruce, 45 feet tall and 16 inches in diameter, growing at an elevation of 3,475 feet.
In a blinding blizzard, over 200 hardy souls drove up on the mountain on Dec. 2 for the cutting. The Forest Service employed Webster woodchopping champion Arden Cogar to fell the three-story tree. Richwood trucker Junior Mullens brought a brand new red, white and blue Mack semi-tractor.
With the help of Mon Power, the crew mounted a crane and gently laid the tree on a flatbed trailer. Richwood’s Boy Scout Troop 269 was on hand “to help with the tedious, but necessary task of tying in the tree’s branches and then wrapping it fully with a protective canvas cover,” Scott said.
Strike up the band. The next day was a scene straight out of Mayberry.
The tree was paraded through Richwood and parked in the town square, where the high school band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Master of Ceremonies Ed Pratt read aloud Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees.” Hot chocolate was served by the local bank, and politicians — including State Sen. Carl E. Gainer and State Commerce Secretary Ralph Albertazzie — made speeches.
On Dec. 4, the tree left Richwood. Scott described the ceremonious transport:
“Wilson Freight Company [of Ohio] sent their most senior and award-winning driver in full dress uniform to handle the driving job. He was a real joy to work with, and a photo of him sitting in the Ford’s cab with the tree in tow made the cover of Ford’s monthly magazine.”
A West Virginia State Police trooper was assigned to escort them across the state line, where a Virginia State Police trooper met them for a continued State Police escort through the state of Virginia. Along the way, they caught the attention of truckers who blasted messages on their CB radios. Motorists wanted to pose for a photo with the tree when they stopped.
When the Kennison Mountain spruce arrived in the Capitol, it was greeted by Sen. Randolph, Congressman John Slack and Richwood Mayor John Shuttlesworth. “There on the Capitol lawn,” said Scott, “the tree was to be unwrapped and untied, unloaded, erected and decorated by the Capitol workers under the supervision of the Capitol’s landscape architect.”
The people of Richwood raised enough money in two weeks to send the entire Richwood High School marching band to the Tree Lighting Ceremony on Dec. 15. They performed with the U.S. Marine Corps band. Elementary school children sent hundreds of handmade Christmas cards, and the Boy Scouts who helped prepare the tree got an all-expense-paid trip to the ceremony.
My husband and I bundled up and joined the crowd of several home folk — our hearts brimming with pride — to watch the official lighting of the Kennison spruce that had grown from a sapling a few miles from where we had grown up.
While West Virginia and the town of Richwood got some favorable press over the whole event, this happened, according to Scott:
“Unfavorable press was generated around the project by a staff writer of the Charleston West Virginia Daily Mail newspaper. The title of the news article was ‘Nation’s Tree Gone Forever.’” The issue, again, was clearcutting. “In the writer’s view, even the U.S. Forest Service cutting this single tree to provide the Nation’s Capital Bi-Centennial Christmas tree was wrong.”
So the very Boy Scouts who came to the aid of the Forest Service went back up the Kennison Mountain where the 45-foot red spruce had been removed and planted five new trees in its place. According to Scott, “The news media followed up on our replacement tree plantings and reported in a much more favorable article without any mention of clearcutting.”
Author’s note: Many thanks to retired forest ranger Ron Scott for sharing information from his book in progress. Scott, 83, still consults with the Huron-Manistee National Forest in Michigan.
Editor’s Note: 1976 wasn’t the only year Richwood supplied the tree. A Norway spruce came from the Monongahela Forest in 1970. The Capitol tree is not to be confused with the National Christmas tree at the White House, which is a live tree. On four occasions, West Virginia has supplied the official inside White House tree for the Blue Room.