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Rutherfordton Christmas tree still brings families to town

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Courthouse lawn. Contributed photo: Romantic Asheville.

More than 90 years ago members of the Rutherfordton Junior Woman's Club planted a medium-size, seven-foot tall Deodar cedar tree on the Rutherford County Courthouse Lawn.

Folks around town, the county and state know that same tree today as North Carolina's oldest largest cedar tree.

During the Christmas season the tree draws people to the courthouse lawn from across the state and Southeast.

Many stories have been written and hundreds of photographs taken of the more than 40 foot tree as a popular tourism stop during the Christmas season.

The late Viola Young was interviewed for a story in the local daily paper in 1994 at which time she said the tree in its previous years was decorated with homemade ornaments and local school students brought strands of popcorn for the tree.

She said the day the tree was planted, "It was a beautiful winter day and I remember it being very cold."

The 40-members of the Woman's Club bought the tree from a local nursery, Young said in the interview. She added, the tree probably wasn't expensive otherwise the club could not have afforded to buy it.

In the 1930s, Young was a first grade teacher at Rutherfordton Elementary School and she said she would bring her first graders to town to help the Woman's Club decorate the tree.

Other teachers did the same with their students - walking the short distance from the school to the courthouse lawn for a festive day of outdoor fun.

Decorations were made at home or at the school and included ring chains, popcorn chains, berries, tinsel and an assortment of homemade ornaments.

Lights were not added to the tree until many years later.

Putting lights on a tree in the 1930s was not popular. Mrs. Young said the reason was so many people went home before dark and there was no reason for the lights on a tree.

Young also remembered how many years prior to 1994, families would come to the courthouse just to see the tree with or without lights.

"Back then a lot of people came to town with their families just to stand around the Christmas tree and sing carols," she said.

When Mrs. Young was interviewed in 1994 (at the young age of 88) standing beside the tree, she was quoted in the newspaper, "It makes me feel so good to know that I was a part of the tree being on the courthouse."

She also recalled the Woman's Club members transporting more than 250 children to downtown Rutherfordton from the orphanage in Union Mills to visit the tree. The club hosted a Christmas party for the children that was held under the tree.

At the time of the 1994 interview, Young was the only remaining member of the Woman's Club who was present when the tree was planted.

Over the years as the tree grew bigger and taller, the town of Rutherfordton, took over decorating the tree.

"The tree was just too tall for us to handle," Young said.

Today the town of Rutherfordton maintains the decorative lights for the tree and the star that tops the tree. The town is responsible the electric bill for the tree lights. The town buys the replacement lights and upgrades all the electrical writing.

Rutherford County pays the bill for the courthouse lights and also maintains the health of the tree by having arborists examine it as needed.

When the branches were hanging over the sidewalk some time ago, they had to be trimmed by an expert arborist so as not to damage any of the tree.

"The County does a good deal of the work," Rutherfordton Town Manager Doug Barrick said. "They have taken care of it."

Rutherfordton's Electric Department replaces any bulbs that aren't working and also upgrades the wiring.

Several years ago, Barrick recalls when townspeople and organizations raised money to keep the lights on the tree for Christmas. There was not enough money in the town's budget for the tree lights and without assistance from the public, the tree would not be lit. Enough money was raised by the community to keep the lights shining.

Barrick added it is likely in 2024 that City Council will discuss a fundraiser to pay for replacing all bulbs with LED bulbs. Some have already been replaced, he said, but by next year all will be replaced.

Eventually all the old electrical writing will have to be replaced. A scheduled tree lighting ceremony on Dec. 2 had to be canceled due to unpredictable weather, however as the annual Christmas parade units marched along Main Street, the state's largest living cedar tree was shining bright for the Christmas parade.

Viola Young and the Woman's Club would be proud.

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