Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Hundreds of Glendive residents lined up for the chance to sign their name on the tarp covering the tree.Ornaments already adorn the 79-foot tall Englemann spruce cut out of Montana’s Kootenai National Forest, glimpsed through an open flap at the rear of the trailer.

Hundreds gather to see Capitol Christmas Tree

A native Montanan spent the last of its many nights under the star-studded blanket of the Big Sky in Glendive Friday night, then, on a chilly Saturday morning, its fellow Montanans from the Gate City feted it with their songs, blessings and well-wishes, sending it down the road on the final leg of its life’s journey where it will stand before the people’s house to serve as a symbol of peace and goodwill for all Americans.
 
Glendive had the honor of being the “Send off City” for this year’s U.S. Capitol Christmas tree as it departed its native state for the last time. A 79-foot tall Englemann spruce estimated at 76 years old, the tree was cut in northwest Montana’s Kootenai National Forest. The truck carrying the tree left Great Falls early the morning of Nov. 17, making several stops along the way and finally arriving in Glendive at about 8 p.m., where it was securely stored overnight in the Montana Department of Transportation’s yard complex on River Road.
 
The following morning, the truck pulled into the Albertsons parking lot, where hundreds of locals gathered to give it an old-fashioned Glendive send-off. Hot chocolate and donuts flowed through the icy air, carols were sung, Santa made an appearance and the crowd jostled to sign their names to the tarp covering the tree to wish it well on its long journey to Washington, D.C.
 
Local residents Emily and Mark Smith were there with their four young children, and said they wouldn’t have missed it for anything in the world.
 
“I think it’s a very special experience,” Emily said, adding that the family has been to the tree lighting ceremony in Washington before, so it was a neat bookend experience to get to see the Capitol tree on this end. Moreover, the kids were thrilled about it.
 
“We were super-excited. We talked about it (with the kids) and told them where it goes. And last night, they were like, ‘Mom, we get to get up and go see the tree tomorrow!’ They were so excited,” Emily said.
 
Mark, who is originally from Eureka, not far from where the tree was cut, said it was neat for him to look up and see the signatures of classmates and people he knew growing up on the tarp covering the tree, noting he hasn’t really been back to Eureka since he left after high school.
 
“It’s pretty cool seeing the names I grew up with up on it,” he said.
 
Glendive City Councilwoman Betsey Hedrick, who helped organize Saturday morning’s festivities, said it was “an honor” that this year’s Capitol tree not only comes from Montana, but that Glendive was the last Montana town which got to see it off. She added she was ecstatic with the number of people who showed up for the send-off event and the enthusiasm people showed for it.
 
“Glendive did good. The city was a great host,” Hedrick said.
 
This wasn’t the first time Glendive has hosted the Capitol Christmas tree. The last time was in 2008. That year the tree – cut out of the Bitterroot Valley – spent the night in the Glendive Department of Public Works shop. Mayor Jerry Jimison recently wove a Christmas yarn during the last city council meeting of how current Chief of Police (then a captain) Brad Mitchell spent the night under the tree to protect it, while Fire Chief George Lane sat outside in a fire truck all night “in case anyone wanted to set it on fire,” and Recreation Department Director Dean Svenvold “spent the night skiing around it to watch out for predators.”
 
The man primarily responsible for taking care of this year’s tree on its long journey across America is truck driver Larry Spiekermeier, a 49-year trucking veteran and employee of Whitewood Transport, the company tasked with delivering the tree. Spiekermeier, a resident of Plains, Mont., said nothing in his long career has equaled the honor of delivering the nation’s Christmas tree.
 
“This is the crown jewel of driving a truck right here, to have this honor,” Spiekermeier said.
 
He added he has been buoyed on his long journey with the tree – nicknamed “Lady Elaine,” he noted – by the outpouring of support and enthusiasm he has seen in Glendive and every Montana town the tree passed through before it.
 
“I think the joy I’m having driving it is well represented by the people who come to see it,” Spiekermeier said.
 
U.S. Forest Service employee and current Capitol Christmas Tree Program coordinator Sandi Mason also said she has been moved by the people of Montana’s outpouring of support and enthusiasm for the tree.
 
“Every town that we have went to has been phenomenal. It’s just heartwarming to see the enthusiasm with this,” she said.
 
Mason is proud of the tree Montana is sending to the nation’s capital, saying it’s “nice and full” and will “make a wonderful Christmas tree.” And it won’t be alone, as 74 more “companion trees” from Montana are headed to D.C. as well to decorate various government offices around the city. Finally, the star which will top the Capitol Christmas Tree was crafted in Montana, made with Montana copper and designed in the shape of the Montana state flower, the bitterroot.
 
“It’s going to be a pure Montana donation to the Capitol and people have just really, really come together and made it happen,” Mason said.
 
The tree arrived in Washington on Sunday, and was erected on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The annual lighting ceremony will be held sometime during the first week of December.
 
Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.
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