Christmas Tree Capital of The World

Led by Eureka, Northwest Montana once shipped more holiday trees than anywhere else in the country

By Tristan Scott
The 1958 White House Christmas tree en route to Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the Heritage Museum in Libby.

By the time Eureka earned its designation 80 years ago as “Christmas Tree Capital of the World,” the region’s tree-cutting industry had already established roots dating back at least a decade in nearby Warland, the tiny, stump-studded logging community that now lies submerged beneath Lake Koocanusa.

But in 1924, a half-century before Libby Dam first plugged the Kootenai River Valley, Warland’s swaths of piney parcels made it a prime location for cutting and shipping Christmas trees, particularly given its residency along the densely forested Kootenai River and the Great Northern railroad line northeast of Libby.

That much was clear to a pioneer citizen of Eureka named Leland Tripp, who, prior to serving as Eureka’s Justice of the Peace, worked as Warland’s resident forest ranger, which is how he arrived at the idea to ship the region’s first railcar of Christmas trees.

“From there it multiplied rather quickly,” according to Darris Flanagan, a retired teacher, historian and writer who’s been connected to the region’s tree industry almost since its inception, and who has written two books on it.

Flanagan’s maternal grandfather sold trees in the 1930s, and his father began cutting wild Douglas fir in the early 1940s. When he was old enough to pitch in, Flanagan helped with the harvests.

“My grandfather started cutting in 1928, and our family cut right up until the mid-90s,” he said. “We still cut a few trees, but mostly for the wreath industry.”

Flanagan explained that a Christmas tree is a second-generation forest product, and when his family homesteaded the valley, the forests were wild.

“There were second-generation trees all over. When we were kids we would cut an area every three years, then it would thin out and the new growth would come in really quickly,” he said. “They were beautiful trees.”

For the better part of the 20th century, the Tobacco and Flathead valleys led the American Christmas tree industry.

The business began in the 1920s with a nationwide shortage of Christmas trees. Few tree farms existed, and national forests were being heavily logged. Eastern and Midwestern markets were desperate for trees.

“When they looked westward, all they had was plains. Then they reached the mountains, and all they had was trees. And these ones in Northwest Montana were pretty special because they held their needles,” Flanagan said.

The demand for Montana Christmas trees came mostly out of central states like Illinois, which in 1948 imported 584,000 Montana trees, earning Eureka its nickname as the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World.”

In 1931, the first tree yard was established along the rail line through Eureka, where tree cutters would bundle the trees into bales and ship their pine-scented freight cross-country. In 1934, Eureka shipped about 70 carloads, a figure that more than doubled the following year. In 1938, Eureka shipped 300 carloads, or about 1.2 million trees.

In 1956, at the height of the boom, 4.2 million trees came out of Montana, about 80 percent of which were harvested from Flathead and Lincoln counties.

“By the 70s, Kalispell and Eureka were producing about the same volume of Christmas trees, and that is also right about the time the industry started declining,” Flanagan said.

The demand began to decline as wild Douglas fir, known to hold its needles longer than other conifers, fell out of favor and customers grew drawn to the more symmetrical, plantation-raised varieties.

It was partly to honor this family history that Flanagan, a Fortine resident, decided to write about the area’s Christmas tree industry. When he first considered writing a book, Montana was still a major tree producer. By the time “The Montana Christmas Tree Story” was published, however, the business had long since folded and was in danger of being forgotten — the Treasure State harvested only 9,028 Christmas trees in 2012, compared to 32,104 in 2007 and 43,793 in 2002.

This holiday season, there’s good reason to think about the Kootenai National Forest’s legacy of providing Christmas trees to the nation at large, however.

Every year since 1970, one of the country’s national forests has been selected to furnish the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol with a Christmas tree.

This year, the iconic holiday tree was harvested from the Kootenai National Forest, which has a unique history of providing the nation’s Capitol with its seasonal ambiance.

In 1958, prior to the Capitol Christmas Tree tradition’s official beginnings, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower hit the lights on a 75-foot Engelmann spruce from the Kootenai during the annual celebration on the White House Lawn, urging international peace.

Then in 1970, the Capitol Architect asked the U.S. Forest Service to begin providing an annual Christmas tree, and ever since a different national forest has been chosen each year to provide the so-called “People’s Tree,” as well as smaller companion trees for government offices in Washington, D.C.

Montana, with its sprawling forested parcels, was a natural choice.

In 1989, to commemorate Montana’s centennial, the Kootenai National Forest was selected to provide the U.S. Capitol with its Christmas tree. Capitol Architect Paul Pincus chose a 60-foot Engelmann spruce from the Pipe Creek area north of Libby as the People’s Tree.

Bill Crismore, a former state senator and then-president of the Montana Logging Association, as well as the 1983 Montana Lumberman of the Year, was given the honor of chopping down the 60-year-old pine tree.

The second Capitol Christmas Tree selected from Montana was in 2008, when a 78-foot sub-alpine fir from the Bitterroot National Forest made the trip to the Washington.

But the Kootenai still has maintained its edge as the Christmas Tree Capitol of the World.

In July, Superintendent of the Capitol Grounds Ted Bechtol and his staff visited the Kootenai National Forest and inspected a half-dozen candidate trees. After careful consideration, he made his selection — a 79-foot tall Engelmann Spruce, located at the Upper Ford administrative site on the Three Rivers Ranger District near Troy.

With the selection and location of the tree, Forest Service law enforcement officers began providing 24-hour security of the tree until it was harvested on Nov. 8.

The actual felling of the tree was a closed event, as space and safety concerns were paramount, according to Sandy Mason, Kootenai National Forest tree project leader.

The tree was escorted from its home in the Yaak through the cities of Troy and Libby so the communities could view the tree, which was delivered to the U.S. Capitol grounds Nov. 27 following a 3,000-mile journey.

“This is an honor for the Kootenai Forest to provide the Christmas tree for the Nation,” said Kootenai National Forest Supervisor Christopher Savage in a statement. “We’ll look to provide employees and partners to engage in activities and events for the Capitol Christmas tree preparation.”

The journey of the Capitol Christmas Tree included a series of community celebrations and culminated with the official tree lighting in early December, followed by a dinner featuring Montana fare prepared by Andy and Jim Monroe, owners of Front Porch Grill House in Eureka, home of the world-famous Bubba Burger, which in 2009 was voted best burger in the Ultimate Hometown Grill Off sponsored by the television show “Live! With Regis and Kelly.”

The couple will also debut its new Montana Huckleberry Burger, an artisan burger that is topped with a dollop of huckleberry ice cream and bacon.

A classically trained chef, Monroe said he’s excited to put Bubba back in the national spotlight.

“They wanted the Bubba Burger,” Monroe said.

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