Cottage Grove’s community Christmas tree tradition turns 100

Photo Courtesy of Cottage Grove Museum

December 9 - It was a century ago when enough enthusiasm grew around Cottage Grove to have the city stage a community Christmas tree lighting. The Cottage Grove Sentinel first reported on Nov. 24, 1922, after most businesses favored the plan, “Such a tree would be placed at the heart of the city and would be prettily lighted and decorated.”

Local charitable organizations, churches, and service club members were asked to aid in fundraising for the project. By then, many cities in the valley made the community Christmas tree an annual tradition, but Cottage Grove had yet to come together on an event.

Sought after by families across America to display on Christmas Day and well known for their durability and beauty, the majestic noble firs that surround the South Lane vicinity give this area a natural Winter wonderland. Over 2,000 trees were shipped from Cottage Grove to San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1922.

Oregon in general continues to be a top producer, exporting over six million Christmas trees out of state, although numbers are down by two million trees from previous years. An exodus from the business should also be noted, with approximately half of the annual tree growers leaving the field, causing a shortage of suppliers and a rise in prices.

In Cottage Grove, an announcement was finally made on Dec 15, 1922, that the setup of the community tree would be accomplished by the following day, with the tree carrying many electric-colored lights placed by the Mountain States Power Company, now known as Pacific Power. It stood in the middle of the intersection of Main and Sixth streets, “arranged so that it will not interfere with traffic and will be aglow every night.”

In the next Sentinel edition, on Dec. 22, 1922, it was recorded that there was a visit with Santa, who had already been making annual visits to Cottage Grove, where he spent the day traveling around the city in a horse-drawn buggy from which he distributed small gifts among the hundreds of excited kiddies who followed him. Additional candy was placed inside the tree as a gift for the children on Christmas Eve.

The lighting of the first community Christmas tree was a celebrated event that brought holiday spirit to the people in town. Business owners were pleased by the steady foot traffic circulating through Cottage Grove, while passing shoppers observed the merchants decorated store windows.

The following year, on Dec. 13, 1923, at the start of Cottage Grove’s “first real winter,” another short announcement was made by the Mothers Club in the Sentinel, where another community Christmas tree was proposed. Merchants and other citizens were once again brought in to help solicit contributions and secure funding for the tree.

“A large community Christmas tree was placed on top of a turning plate sign, where it will remain until after Christmas, The Sentinel reported.

The placing of the tree was superintended by R.L. Stewart, a local manager of Mountain States Power Co., which furnished the “juice” for the lights, free of charge. The town once again rejoiced; however, this time, continuous inclement temperatures dropped as low as half a degree above zero by New Year's Day.

Once the temperature rose to 33 degrees the next day, almost five inches of snow fell. When it stopped, citizens were finally able to navigate out of their homes and walk down Main Street. “Because of the low temperature, the snow was ‘dry,’ and remained on the ground. The city’s Christmas tree, in its new dress of white, was made wondrously as the lights played on it at night, reported The Sentinel in Jan. 3, 1924.

Later in the year, the city again brought a large community Christmas tree back to the center of town on Sixth and Main. This time however, “Small trees have been placed along the streets by merchants and business houses,” was reported on Dec. 22, 1924. It continued, “Combined with snow that year, and the merchants' decorated window displays of Christmas goods, it gave the city a traditional Christmas atmosphere.”

By Dec. 21, 1925, the community Christmas tree measured 30 feet tall and again, was placed at the intersection of Sixth and Main. This time however, “the lower branches were removed for the convenience of traffic,” stated a Sentinel article. S.L. Godard, S.L. Mackin and the Mountain crew secured and lit the tree. It was regarded as “a thing of beauty.”

Within an hour, the tree was hit by a passing car. It was noted in the following Sentinel edition, that the “gaily lighted tree was wrecked Tuesday” when it was struck again immediately after the first incident, by a different motorist, J.B. Potts, who then, drove the same car into the front door of a restaurant, the Tourist cafe on the corner of Seventh and Main. He was accused of driving drunk on “moonshine,” posted the $50 bail, and demanded a jury trial.

The city concluded, “The fact that it was hit twice indicates that the traffic regulation to keep to the right is not observed.” After the second accident, the community tree was removed from the street.

A letter to the editor of the Sentinel was published in the following edition, on Dec. 24. The author of the letter wrote, “There are too many such fellows loose today, making it unsafe on the streets for our wives and children. These are not my sentiments alone, for I know the people of Cottage Grove and the public in general demand that the reckless drivers be denied the use of our streets and public highways.”

The town has now been hosting an annual Christmas tree lighting event for 100 years. Last Saturday, on Dec. 3, was the latest tree lighting experience, during the Christmas Kickoff event put on by the Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Cottage Grove and the City of Cottage Grove.

Hundreds of folks of all ages and abilities lined Trailhead Park for the lighting, which took place at 6 p.m. and was promptly followed by Christmas caroling. The tree will remain lit at night for citizens to enjoy at Trailhead Park and another tree at Opal Whiteley Park throughout the festive holiday season.