On a crisp evening in Philomath last Tuesday, a good crowd, many with small children scampering about, gathered on the lawn of the Benton County Historical Museum. Families gathered around the giant sequoia out front as the hour grew close to 7 o’clock for the countdown to the lighting of the community Christmas tree.
It’s the 10th year anniversary of the event, which has become an annual tradition to welcome the holiday season — a vision the celebration’s founders had hoped to see.
“It started a new tradition for us to all get together and remember our community and friends and family,” said Debbie Thorpe, who served as the Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce president back in 2007 when the new event was organized for the first time. “It’s great to have something to bring our community together.”
Before the 2007 tree lighting ceremony, Philomath’s holiday tree could be found on Main and 19th streets. But the Oregon Department of Transportation’s highway couplet project, which involved widening Main Street, led to the tree’s removal. The old sequoia had also encroached on neighboring structures with its massive root system.
“That was something that everybody was so drawn to,” Thorpe remembered. “When you came over the hill, there was our tree all lit up. It made everybody in town smile.”
Approximated to be about 90 years old and 105 feet in height, the tree’s removal in March 2007 was a sad occasion for many locals.
“We're sorry to see it go. It's been a landmark here that we've watched through the Christmases,” local resident Fred Grediagin told the Corvallis Gazette-Times that spring while watching limbs fall to the ground.
A group of volunteers immediately joined forces and raised money for a new community Christmas tree. Jeff Lamb chaired a planning committee that worked on the project, which in all raised in the neighborhood of $16,000.
Committee members put in appearances at open house events, such as those at the elementary school with hopes of students asking their parents to chip in a buck or two, Thorpe recalled.
Eventually, an agreement for a living tree to be planted on the museum’s grounds materialized. Museum campaign director Ron Thiesen stepped in to help as well as historical society board president Rod Harvey.
“Everybody just kind of wanted something, a positive event to focus on after the growth issues that Philomath had gone through,” said Chris Nusbaum, who served as Philomath’s mayor from 2003-08. “I enjoyed being able to speak and give a Christmas message at the first one. It was just a very, very positive thing for the community to experience.”
The first year of the celebration featured a temporary tree that went in thanks to a donation and arrangements from Bond and Bart Starker. A 30-foot noble fir was put into place by Starker Forests employee Paul Mortensen and it lit up the evening of Nov. 29, 2007, with an estimated crowd of at least 400.
The committee continued the effort to bring a permanent tree to the location.
“We all met Chris (Shonnard), who lined up places for us in the Portland area,” Thorpe said. “He took us to three or four places to look at big trees and we found a really nice one.”
In November 2008, a crowd gathered to watch the new tree go into the spot that it still occupies today. E.D. Hughes planted the giant sequoia.
Committee members at the time included Lamb, Thorpe, Harvey, Shonnard, Mortensen, Thiesen, Terry Osborne, Rollie Bowers, Norma Jean Kearsley and Pat Dixon.
This year, Shonnard’s Nursery with the help of Pacific Power again tackled the tree decorating duties. Heath Honeycutt of Mid-Valley DJ Services provided holiday music, Philomath Rental and the public works department installed lights to illuminate the area better and Lauri Lehman emceed her final public event as outgoing president of the chamber board.
Little faces lit up with the arrival of Santa, who made a grand entrance into the museum parking area onboard a Philomath Fire & Rescue engine. The jolly elf handed out candy canes and posed for photos with the assistance of Philomath Frolic & Rodeo queen Rachel Cihak.
Mack the Knight and Lil’ King from the Corvallis Knights entertained the kids and the College United Methodist Church provided refreshments again this year. Joel Shonnard flipped the switch to light up the tree and immediately afterward, “O Christmas Tree” played through the night air while the museum’s bell sounded to ring in the season.
Portions of the old tree that had to come down back in 2007 can still be seen in a few unique ways around town. Park benches located in Marys River Park were made out of the tree and stumps were used to make the welcome logs placed at the east and west entrances into town. A Starker Forest employee even made some bowls out of the tree’s wood, one of which can be seen at City Hall.
Nusbaum said he felt privileged to be a part of the inaugural event.
“I’m very appreciative of all the people who put it together,” he said. “It’s exactly what the community needed at the right time.”