December 1998 Feature of the Month

Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of America's First Living Christmas Tree... from Yorktown?

Note: This article features several "thumbnail" photographs. Click on any photo for a detailed view and the caption.

This year President Clinton will once again light the National Christmas Tree, a living spruce tree planted in our nation's capital for that one month of the year when most Americans celebrate their faith. The tradition of using a living tree goes back 75 years with one 20-year hiatus from 1954 to 1973.

1924 Christmas Tree Lighting

According to American Forests Magazine, December 1973, "the custom of having a National Christmas Tree started in 1923 when President Coolidge accepted a giant fir sent him from Middlebury College in his native state of Vermont." It was then suggested "that it would be even nicer if the following Christmas we could have a living tree instead." Associate editor of American Forests, Lilian Cromelin, "remembered that American Forests had as an advertiser a nursery owner in New York – Evelyn Smith, President of Amawalk Nurseries. Miss Smith was very easily persuaded that it would be an honor and a privilege to supply a living Christmas tree for the nation..."

Amawalk Nurseries, located primarily in the Town of Yorktown, was established by Major Orlando Jay Smith on 249 acres in 1904 and soon after his death in 1908 was managed by his daughters, Evelyn W. Smith and M. F. Smith. Evelyn became president of the company in 1919 when she purchased her sister's half of their father's estate. Major Smith was a Civil War veteran, founder of the Associated Press, friend to Ralph Waldo Emerson, author of two books and a tree hobbyist. He spent years cultivating his big tree nursery without ever selling a single tree, importing many rare specimens from England, Holland and France.

Motoring on Saw Mill River Road circa 1914It was his daughter, Evelyn Smith, who put Amawalk Nurseries on the map. Unfortunately, while most of the million plus "big" trees were grown in Yorktown, Amawalk (a hamlet in western Somers) received the notoriety. The nursery grew to over 1,000 acres as Miss Smith (Mrs. Eric L. Hodge) purchased neighboring farms, including the old Post /Ferris farm (later the Henrietta Strong house) on Saw Mill River Road, which traditionally was said to be the headquarters of General Rochambeau. This property once served as barracks for 100 Italian laborers who worked at the nursery (Peekskill Evening Star, August 4, 1961).

Beech Trees on Broadway circa 1914Other historic properties she purchased were the Hallocks Mill pond, dam and property (on the comer of Hallock's Mill Road, Ridge Street, and Route 35/202), the David Irish property (house on the comer of Broad Street and Route 35/202 next to the school, including the school property), and the Flewellen property, across the brook from the Irish farm. Miss Smith converted an old barn on the Irish property into a tavern and antiques gallery which she operated for many years, and part of the Irish and Flewellen farms into a public golf course, which included a special test plot for comparing different kinds of grass seed for golf greens (Peekskill Evening Star, August 4, 1961 and Helen A. Murphy, 1940). There were other farms, such as the Seth Whitney farm (later Dr. Scholderfer's home and office on Route 202), but the most significant were the two Lee farms, totaling 330 acres: the home of Elijah Lee on Granite Springs Road (Guiding Eyes) and the Anson Lee farm on Route 202 and Granite Springs Road (Elizabeth Macaulay, NCN December 21, 1983).

Click for broad area viewAmawalk Nursery and its many beautiful trees surrounded the Quaker meeting house and Amawalk Cemetery on Quaker Church Road. The Amawalk railroad station (which is now the lot used for bikeway trail parking on Quaker Church Road and Route 35/202) was the embarkation point of most of the trees destined to the far reaches of the country and the world. The trees were carried to the station, first by horse and mule teams and later by truck. Big trees from Amawalk were sent as gifts by Evelyn Smith to various dignitaries and heads of state, such as NYC mayor Jimmy Walker, President Herbert Hoover and of course President Coolidge. They were purchased by people such as the Queen of Belgium who planted one in Brussels and in New York's Central Park, the Prince of Wales, General Pershing, Thomas A. Edison, and Captain Rene Fonck, the French Ace during WW 1, who had it planted in memory of Frederick Brady, first American soldier to climb San Juan Hill with Roosevelt's Rough Riders. The latter was the first to be shipped by airplane and the first (though not the last) to be carried to its future home by an elephant from the Barnum & Bailey-Ringling Bros. (as it was called) circus. Trees went to the 1939 World's Fair, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and to many large estates. (Click here to view a portfolio of pictures from Amawalk Nursery.)

In 1932, the nursery came to an end following two tragic fires, too rapid expansion and the devastating effects of the Depression. It went into bankruptcy and in 1943 was purchased by a syndicate of NYC businessmen called the Amawalk Holding Corporation. The general manager, Clarence Murphy continued the nursery operation until the property was sold outright. Four hundred of the acres were sold as two-acre building lots, called Amawalk Nursery Estates. Brookside School on Broad Street was built on this property and many of the streets in the area reflect the nursery's impact, such as Willoway, Evergreen, Blue Spruce, and Whippoorwill.

Now back to the White House ... the first national living Christmas tree was a big deal and many preparations were made, including: children carolers supplied by the Department of Education; bulbs for the tree donated by the Electric Institute, the hole for the tree dug by the Parks Department (however, it was too small and they hauled the dirt away ... oops!); and national hook-up over radio networks (remember this is 1924).

Mr. Ovid Butler, Executive Secretary of the American Forests Association gave the greeting to President Coolidge: "Mr. President, we extend to you our Christmas greetings, and with them this Christmas tree... It is a living, growing tree, symbolic of the spirit of Him whose birth we celebrate tonight... Mr. President, by your gracious presence here tonight, this tree becomes in fact the nation's living Christmas tree, typifying that spirit of kindness and all-embracing love which makes for peace on Earth, Good Will to Men." Approximately 1,000 people were in the audience and millions listened to the radio as the president responded, "I accept the tree, how do you turn on the lights?" As the network filled in the time gap with music, the tree was lighted. Moments later, as the President and Mrs. Coolidge were leaving the grandstand, the cold air caused the tree's bulbs to explode, sounding like firecrackers on the fourth of July!!

Written by Linda L. Kiederer
Photos courtesy of the Town Clerk's Office

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