by Susan Taylor Block
The “World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree” was a project of James E. L. Wade, Commissioner of Public Works who thought the enormous oak was appropriate particularly because Hilton Park was Wilmington’s first playground for children. “Hugh MacRae’s Tide Water Power Company furnished all labor, most of the wiring and 750 light globes for the tree,” reported the Morning Star, Christmas Eve, 1929. “The moss in the tree, if it were carried away, would take three 2-ton trucks to do the work.”
Prizes were awarded under the tree for outdoor decorations across town, a contest also instituted by James E. L. Wade. In 1929, judges included Mrs. Walter Sprunt, Mrs. J. B. Cranmer, Mrs. Henry Peschau and Mrs. R. C. Cantwell. In 1930, the giant Hilton Christmas tree was declared “the most beautiful of its kind in the state and nation” by the National Federation of Women’s Clubs.
On January 1, 1933, 5000 people gathered at the tree to hear “a program presented by negro residents of the city.” Participants from Williston High School Glee Club and St. Stephen’s, St. Luke’s and Central Baptist churches mesmerized the crowd; city fathers requested an encore performance the following evening.
In 1935, the city added fireworks shows near the tree and strung 2800 25-watt bulbs across town. Motorists cruised the city, from Dry Pond to Hilton, during New Year’s celebrations in the early 1930s. Celebrants dragged cowbells and tin cans tied to their rear axles and “let them bump deliciously along the streets,” according to newspaper reports. “At midnight, there was the usual wild outburst. Bells clanged, horns tooted, sirens shrieked, firecrackers roared, pistols barked – so did the dogs.”
In those years, there were few arguments about Wilmington possessing the largest living Christmas tree, but it was not the largest tree in the area. Members of the Stamp Defiance Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, addressed the subject of historic trees in 1939. They chronicled the dimensions of several, including the Christmas Tree at Hilton, and the record gives arboreal perspective.
D.A.R. members recorded the trunk’s circumference at fifteen feet – an interesting fact in view of a measurement they took on Wrightsville Sound that year. A live oak on Annie W. Pearsall’s property, now known as the Gray Gables subdivision, measured a whopping 20.5 feet. No record survived of the Airlie Oak data or of the enormous live oaks that once graced the sound side of Gabriel’s Landing, on the northern side of Airlie Curve. Chances are, they also rivaled or bested the municipal Christmas tree.
As late as the 1950s, a visit to the tree provided a heavy dose of Christmas spirit. Colored lights above and soft white lights below cast shadows and hues that dappled the heavy Spanish moss and enormous limbs. A glance upwards into the stalwart live oak was almost spooky. Choirs sang traditional Christmas carols while Santa took orders from little ones who waited in line, often shivering in the cold Hilton Park breeze.
In 1965, botanists claimed the tree was 400 years old. At that time, the tree was 75 feet tall and had a limb spread of 110 feet. City workers draped the tree with 5,000 bulbs that year. Recorded music played every hour the tree lights burned.
Currently, the Christmas Tree is still decorated each year. Hurricanes and time have taken their toll, and road construction has ruined the charm of the old approach. It’s still a moving experience to see the lights again against a black sky particularly if you are old enough to remember the tree in its glory days. As of 2009, the tree has been lit every year since 1929, with the exception of a few Christmases during World War II.
Update: Today, October 5, 2010, the Star News announced the tree will no longer be lit.
(Portions of text from the panoramic photograph anthology Wilmington Through the Lens of Louis T. Moore, by Susan Taylor Block. firstname.lastname@example.org Published by the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society and New Hanover County Public Library, Copyright 2001.)
For a related article, see: http://susantaylorblock.com/2012/11/11/the-christmas-windows-at-belk-beery/