‘At This Place in History,’ we are in Ripton, Vermont at the site where the first national Christmas tree was cut and shipped to Washington, D.C. during the Coolidge Administration. Filling in for Steve Perkins is Amanda Gustin, the Public Program Manager at the Vermont Historical Society.
“Calvin Coolidge, very famously a son of Vermont — from Plymouth, Vermont — is President of the United States,” said Gustin. “And there’s this guy who was his press aid in the Commerce Department. His name is Frederick Fiker, and he comes up with this idea to decorate a National Christmas Tree on the grounds, outside the grounds of the White House.”
“So he goes to the Administration and Coolidge okay’s it,” added Gustin. “They call up Middlebury College, and president Paul Moody of Middlebury College at that time, and they come up here to the campus of the Bread Loaf School of English, which is part of the much, much larger, almost 15,000 acres of the Betel Wilderness. They go out into the woods with a guy names Colonel Theodore Woolsey, who is a forester and a decorated army officer retired, and they go out and they find a balsam fir tree that’s somewhere between 35 and 50 feet, all the newspapers all reported a little bit differently.”
“The president of Middlebury College, makes the first cut with the axe, they bring it by horse and wagon, all the way down what’s now Route 125, down into Middlebury itself. If you’ve been into that marble works area, which is where there’s a marble company that has two things that they need next: a crane that’s capable of lifting 35 to 50 foot tree and access to the railroad lines.”
“So they lift the tree out of a wagon, they put it on a special express car. And it gets shipped down to Washington DC, where it arrives a little bit later. And they erected on what’s called the ellipse which is part of the grounds of the White House. They add the electric lights that Frederick Ficker wanted on the tree. Three thousands electric lights,” said Gustin. “On Christmas Eve, Calvin Coolidge, he doesn’t give a speech – famously a man of few words – just flips the switch and the first national Christmas tree lights up.”
“People love the National Christmas Tree, they do pageants around it. There are choral concerts, people come and see it and marvel at the lights. They do press releases about all the technology it took to make it work. So next year, they say we definitely have to do this again and Coolidge says it feels kind of wasteful to cut down at enormous, 50-foot tall tree and ship it from somewhere every single year,” said Gustin.
“So he’s against the idea of having a tree at all, so what they do is they source a live tree that they dig up and they plant roughly where that first one was in 1923. In almost a century since then, there have been a tree or a number of trees in that roughly that same spot,” said Gustin. “Sometimes they’ve been live trees and sometimes they’ve had to cut new ones. It’s a little bit more complicated from there, but the tradition did get started with Calvin Coolidge from Vermont, and that tree from here on the grounds of Bread Loaf.”
‘At This Place in History.’