NOTE: This answer from 2009 was updated in December 2014 to reflect that the tree is no longer decorated.
A. It’s right here in Wilmington — and don’t let any Scrooges or Grinches tell you differently.
To be precise, it’s located at 401 Hilton St., Wilmington [Map this], next to the city’s Sweeney Water Treatment Plant in Hilton Park. (This area used to be part of Hilton, a plantation belonging to Revolutionary War Patriot leader Cornelius Harnett. Harnett’s house stood nearby until it was torn down in the early 1900s.)
OK, it doesn’t look much like a Christmas tree, at least until the city dresses it up. The tree is a live oak that stood more than 70 or 75 feet high (or maybe 95 feet, depending on your source) and more than 110 feet wide when it was first selected. Eighty years of ice storms have taken their toll, though, and its dimensions are now closer to about 50 feet by 110 feet.
The tradition dates back to 1928, the brainchild of Town Commissioner J.E.L. “Hi Buddy” Wade, a future mayor of Wilmington and one of nature’s natural-born boosters. Previously, the city had lit a Christmas tree on the grounds of City Hall (a custom that’s been revived in recent years), but Wade had the big idea of a LIVING tree — and the world’s biggest, too! (Like the existence of Santa, the tree’s No. 1 status is never actually put to the test.)
In the fall of 1928, Wade ran a contest to pick a favorite local tree to be the the world’s biggest. Two local schoolchildren each chose the Hilton Park live oak, and each was rewarded with a $5 gold piece, according to press accounts. That first year — actually AFTER Christmas, according to news clippings — the tree was lit up with some 450 electric lights. Lots of people turned out to oooooh and ahhhhhh.
The municipal tree-lighting continued every year (with a hiatus for World War II blackouts), and at one time, it was a Really Big Deal. People actually printed up color postcards of the WLLCT, glowing in full regalia. (You can buy them now for $5 or so, or maybe more, on eBay.) In one year alone — 1959, to be precise — a reported 150,000 people, in all, turned out, from 42 states and 11 foreign countries, just to see the tree. One year, the mayor ran a contest for whoever drove the farthest to witness the tree lighting. The official winner was somebody from Australia. (How he, or she, got a car across the Pacific Ocean was left unexplained.) Choirs of 400 voices or more were assembled to serenade the visitors. (In the 1950s, sadly, the choir was one of the few city activities that brought black and white Wilmingtonians together.)
Worldwide interest in the WLLCT has waned since then, for some reason, but the tree still has deep roots in the hearts of Wilmington natives. In 1986, when some city official suggested that the tree was so old and frail and creaky, that maybe it was time to be merciful and chop it down, citizens responded with a vigorous petition drive. The tree-lighting went ahead that year, same as ever.
(The tree, however, is showing its age — which horticulturists estimate to be at least 400 years, perhaps even 450 years. City workers have had to erect a pole, discreetly hidden, that actually bears most of the weight of the lighting.) Similarly, when a proposed expansion of the water plant threatened to topple the tree, locals arose, and the plans were readjusted.)
By the early 200s, city , city workers were hanging 4,000 lights or more, using 2 miles of 12-gauge wire. (That number was apparently down from the 7,000 or so lights the city used a decade ago or so.) In later years, Santa and Mrs. Claus would greet children on a number of nights in a little shed beneath the tree.
Update: In 2012, Wilmington’s City Council officially voted to move the city’s annual tree-lighting ceremony to the World’s Largest Rotary Wheel in Greenfield Park, effectively retiring the Christmas tree.
Amy Beatty, superintendent of recreation and downtown services for the city, said several decisions prompted the move. The tree itself was “very compromised,” she said, with a number of branches toppled by storms. Officials decided it could no longer support the light display. Also, the rerouting of Martin Luther King Boulevard to connect with North Third Street and made the water plant difficult to reach. Post 9/11 guidelines from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security outlining greater protection for water-treatment facilities “added to the logistical difficulties,” Beatty said.
As of early December 2014, the tree is still standing near the Sweeney plant, unlit.
Date posted: December 5, 2014
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