Timber! Picking the Perfect Christmas Tree

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records.

On November 14th, 1962, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (DRGRR) pulled two 53 foot flat cars, numbers 21025 and 2106, into Salida, Colorado. On hand were several U.S. Forest Service (USFS) officials as well as the DRGRR Vice President of Traffic, R.K. Bradford, all to oversee the loading of the VIP cargo – that year’s National Christmas Tree. It wasn’t an entirely smooth evolution. The tree was so massive that the bottom 15’ of branches wouldn’t fold and so they were cut off, to be reinserted when, after three more railroads and nearly 1800 miles of travel, the tree would arrive in the nation’s capital. A few days later, the forest supervisor wrote Colorado Senator Gordon Allott and sent along a San Isabel Forest hard hat joking “…as you may have heard some San Isabel trees get out of control at times.”

The National Christmas Tree being a living tree is a relatively new phenomenon; during President Kennedy’s tenure the tree was still harvested from various National Forests and shipped to Washington DC. This photograph was taken December 15, 1962, and the caption reads “Test lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse in President’s Park, Washington, D.C. The White House is visible in the background” (Credit Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum). Correspondence from Senator Allott found in our USFS holdings noted he was there that day inspecting the progress.
Letter from Senator Allott to the USFS thanking them for the tree (NAID 38992858).
Not everyone was happy with the harvesting of the tree – this letter “from all of us” was saved by the USFS (NAID 38992858).

A cliche today in academic writing, the Eldorado National Forest opened their 1930 “Report on the Cutting of Christmas Trees Including Appraisal of Prices” with a definition of a Christmas Tree – “a tree displaying a short internode combined with a symmetry of form that is pleasing to the eye.” Across Record Group 95: Records of the U.S. Forest Service and Record Group 75: Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs holdings at the National Archives at Denver are numerous files regarding the tradition of harvesting or topping trees to use as holiday decorations.

The earliest files regarding Christmas trees found in the USFS regional and local forest offices typically start in the 1930’s and largely consist of reports, as quoted above. Another such report dated 1937 from the Shasta National Forest was sent to the Intermountain Regional Office and is loaded with action shots.

Partial shot of handmarked map noting area for tree cutting in Shasta National Forest. (NAID 37596287).

Given the USFS’s large operations, commercial tree growers started writing the agency as to best growing and harvesting practices. The agency embraced the expert role they now filled, working to explore methods of tree storage and the use of tags on the harvested trees to increase publicity. Maintaining tree freshness became a concern in the early 1940’s and memos on methods to preserve trees were shared with forests. An internal USFS letter from 1941 fretted on recent failures by independent researchers – chemicals caused the needles to drop off, the trees weren’t worth enough to use commercial refrigeration units, and standing them up in moving creeks was infeasible. At the bottom, however, a USFS staffer noted in pencil to drop the matter; leaving them where they are cut until shipped has worked fine.

The issues didn’t end there. With the country plunged into total war in 1942, could any of the nation’s rolling stock be spared for shipping trees? In August 1942 regional foresters were notified that the War Production Board and Office of Defense Transportation agreed that while gondola and flat cars were unavailable, box cars could be used to transport Christmas trees that year, civilian morale being a consideration.

Statistics were commonly kept by the USFS offices; here is one sheet noting the 1940 tree harvest in national forests within Idaho (NAID 37596287).
1940 memo noting methods of keeping cut trees fresh (NAID 37596287).

With the growing popularity of harvesting Christmas trees and the variations in forest procedures, in the late 1940’s the USFS had a panel of forest supervisors address policies and enact standards. While Christmas trees were considered a secondary forest product, harvested only to improve conditions for primary products like saw logs, the agency also recognized the revenue and public relations boost realized from the harvesting. The topping of trees was discontinued, with only whole trees now allowed to be cut. Cooperative agreements were made with private landowners adjacent to cutting lands and the USFS would roll in the administration of tree cuttings on their land as well, for a fee. The agency established standards for contractors harvesting trees and formalized free cutting programs for local residents in well forested areas. All of these improvements led to such events as San Isabel National Forest’s 1956 “Family Christmas Tree Cutting.” Despite nine inches of snow falling the night before, on December 8th locals braved a one way road a mile north of Lake Isabel, about 44 miles southwest of Pueblo, Colorado, to find the perfect tree.

Nearly ten years later we find files on the Pike National Forest’s 1965 public tree cutting, held the first two weekends in December from 8:00 AM to 3:30 PM. Whether you wanted a Douglas Fir, Engelmann Spruce, Blue Spruce, or Ponderosa Pine – each tree cost $1, regardless of size. Individuals were allowed up to five and groups, such as churches, were allowed up to 20.

Map of tree cutting area, 1965, Pike National Forest (NAID 38993275).

Commercial Christmas tree harvesting wasn’t confined to just USFS lands. Many allottees and tribal nations on reservations with significant tree cover also contracted to sell trees and these files show up in the Bureau of Indian Affairs holdings. For instance, if a family trimmed a tree purchased from the J. Hofert Company between 1930-1960 there’s a chance it was in fact harvested on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Tree cutting permits from the Flathead Indian Reservation – timber of kind noted? “Xmas trees” (NAID 2569235).

John Douglas, San Isabel National Forest Supervisor, put it best in November 1962 when he wrote to Senator Allot about the Nation’s Christmas Tree. “It is our sincere wish that its dedication to peace throughout the world will result in some easing of tensions in these troubled times.” To all of you from all of us, here’s to a very happy, safe, and peaceful holiday season.

With so many records detailing the harvest of trees, here is a photograph from our Still Pictures branch USFS holdings showing the final destination for them – in someone’s home, decorated, and presents piled underneath. (NAID 7037027, Local ID 95-GP-4252-162353).