Once upon a time, in the city of Salem long ago, there was a little Christmas tree, a Norway spruce to be exact. The tree was planted on the grounds of the old Marion County Courthouse by longtime public servant, Judge T. C. Shaw. He was known as a very congenial, rotund man with a ruddy complexion and gray whiskers, which call to mind another well-known jolly old Christmas figure. Could the judge have possibly imagined that warm spring day, that the tree he planted would grow to become, with some help, Salem’s beloved Christmas tree? A symbol of peace and hope in the darkest of times and the lighting ceremony an event that brought the community together not only to celebrate but as an opportunity to serve their fellow men.
The little Christmas tree grew to a height of approximately forty feet by 1913 when it attracted the attention of brothers Richard and Frank Barton, newly arrived electrical engineers from New York City. The brothers owned Salem Electric Company located on the ground floor of the Masonic building on High St., directly across the street from the Marion County Courthouse. Both men were keen to bring electricity to the homes and businesses of Salem, but faced the uphill battle of any new technology, convincing people of its safety and necessity.
Onondagan yearbook photo from Syracuse University 1903, courtesy of Ancestry.com
Frank Barton was a graduate of Syracuse University with a degree in electrical engineering. Prior to the move west he spent eight years with the General Electric Company, overseeing turbine generator projects for the subway system and as the engineer in charge of New York & Queens Light and Power Company. He was also an artist, decorator and designer who managed to combine his knowledge and skill in the science of electric installation and service with beautifully designed globes, lamps and appliances.
It must have seemed quite natural for Frank’s thoughts to turn to the idea of lighting the beautiful, stately evergreen. After all, the year before New York City boasted the first ever illuminated community Christmas tree in Madison Square Garden. The Barton brothers pitched the idea along with a couple of other local businessmen to the newly-organized Cherrians civic organization. After some discussion and a bit of research, the group adopted the idea for their own and proudly boasted in the local paper that Salem’s Christmas tree would be the first live (uncut) community tree in the United States to be decorated with lights. The tree would be a gift given to every man, woman and child in the city as a public demonstration of rejoicing and thankfulness. Bags of candy, nuts and delicious apples from nearby orchards would be given to each child that attended the tree lighting ceremony, rich or poor. A donation drive was begun by a ladies’ auxiliary committee assisting the Cherrians, which solicited money, food, toys, and articles of clothing to be shared with unfortunate families throughout the city.
Salem’s Christmas Tree on the grounds of the Marion County Courthouse. WHC 85.051.0013.012
On the historic evening of December 24, 1913, the first tree lighting of the Marion County Courthouse tree took place on the courthouse lawn. The spruce tree was beautifully decorated with a lone star at the top of its lofty branches along with 50 brilliantly colored lights and garlands of ornaments suspended from its boughs. The evening began with a parade led by the Cherrian band in their white uniforms. Thousands were in attendance. Then came the ceremony in which the tree was dedicated in honor of all the children of the community and Christmas treat bags passed out. Next, a musical program featuring leading soloists and singers from the city including “Oregon’s Nightingale” Hallie Parrish Hinges with a memorable version of O Holy Night. The concluding speaker of the program was Reverend H. E. Marshall. After the ceremony, the crowd dispersed, some to attend local church services, while hundreds of children headed for Ye Liberty Theatre with tickets the Cherrians had tucked into their treat bags.
The beautiful Christmas tree with the sponsorship of the Cherrians served as Salem’s Christmas tree for 38 years, continuing to grow in height and numbers of electrical bulbs and ornaments. Each year it would be lit from the week before Christmas until after the New Year had been ushered in, apart from three years during World War II when the city was under blackout regulations. And each year the lighting ceremony continued to bring the community together in unity and service.
The tree’s final year of Christmas service took place in 1951. At 72-feet tall the tree had become difficult and dangerous to decorate and a new, larger county courthouse was planned to replace the old, the siting of which would necessitate the removal of several trees. The stately evergreen boasted thirteen hundred lights for the special occasion. Invitations were sent to all grade school children and thousands attended the lighting ceremony that featured four singing Santas, Christmas music, a recounting of the history of the tree and the distribution of candy to all children. A glorious celebration befitting the Christmas tree of Salem.
Sadly, on August 18, 1952, the 70-year-old tree met its end. A bulldozer bared the roots of Salem’s faithful Christmas tree and then pulled it over with a cable. It was later burned along with three other evergreen trees from the block. A sad ending, reminiscent of an old Hans Christian Anderson story, The Fir Tree. But the Christmas joy and love it gave will long live in Salem’s memory.