The most famous Christmas tree in N.H.
December 22, 2010
DALTON — The message, like the story, is simple: give and you shall receive. It starts with one of the world's richest men and a simple dairy farmer from Dalton that are brought together by a Christmas tree. It ends at New York City's Rockefeller Center just before Christmas in 1956.
Earlier in the year, New Hampshire was looking for publicity, so Governor Lane Dwinell put state officials on the lookout for a tree that could be a good candidate for "the world's most famous Christmas tree."
The state's men by happenstance fell upon a dairy farm, which during the fall sold a few hundred Christmas trees to the Boston market. The farm was on Route 142 near the Whitefield-Dalton line and owned by Charles Elliott. Mr. Elliot served in World War II as a welder and returned home to operate a service station in Whitefield with his brother. At the time he had been dairy farming for about six years; his operation was small consisting of 18 milking cows. His wife, Arleta, taught first grade at the Whitefield School. They had two children, John, who in 1956 was 16, and Ruth, who was 10, and foster son, Kenneth Westover, who was also 10.
The government officials explained what they were looking for and Mr. Elliott took them behind his house to what he called "the back acres" and there stood a 64-foot white spruce alone in a field. The men liked what they saw and a complicated process begun.
Each year since 1931, the prestigious Rockefeller Center, built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. during the height of the Great Depression, scans North America looking for the perfect Christmas tree. The tree is lit amidst television cameras and a large crowd of on-lookers.
There was a tree in Vermont, remembers John Elliott, that possibly was the Rockefeller Center's first choice, but they couldn't agree on a price. With this in mind, the state officials took the initiative and offered to buy the tree from Mr. Elliott and make the arrangements to haul it the 335 miles to Manhattan. But Mr. Elliott refused. He wouldn't take any money. Instead, he wanted to donate the tree. "He didn't want anything for it," said John Elliott.
"If it brought joy to anyone that was enough for him," Kenneth Westover said of his foster father, "That was part of his nature. He had a strong belief that [you should] not be out for personal gain."
Possibly the state officials and later the Rockefeller Center staff just couldn't understand the Dalton dairy farmer's position, after all by 1956 most people were getting out of dairy-farming. The feeling may very well have been mutual as the officials began to describe their extravagant plans. What followed was the most elaborate Christmas tree operation the state had ever seen. It began on November 13 at 10 a.m. and lasted for several days, wrote the Coos County Democrat at the time, "three men ascended to within ten feet of the top" (54 feet off the ground) and "began tying the branches close to the trunk." This repeated itself for each limb and "about every two days the ropes" were tightened to "bring the boughs closer to the trunk." This "squeezing operation" was required to meet the road clearance. When this was completed, a 20-ton, 60-foot crane was brought in to guide the tree down to a special trailer. The two men with portable chain saws wrote the Democrat, had the "easiest job of all – the actual cutting of the 28-inch trunk." Then the tree was sprayed with a substance that promised to "keep the tree fresh and green." The tree was also inspected by an entomologist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure that it was free from any insect pests. "It was quite a job," remembers Mr. Elliott's son, John Elliott.
With the tree secured Governor Dwinell's publicity machine was spreading the news of the state's Christmas tree coup; never before had the Granite state produced a holiday tree of such importance. But the news of the stoic New Hampshire farmer who refused to take money from the deep-pocketed Rockefellers began to overshadow the local story. Time Magazine referred to Mr. Elliott as "polite." As a show of appreciation or to keep the story going, the Rockefeller Center invited the "New Hampshire farm family" to visit the Big Apple as their guests. Later, the state reported that the publicity that followed the story was second only to President Eisenhower's visit to the state the previous year.
But, they still needed to get to the tree to Manhattan. The towering tree was placed on a tractor-trailer and hauled further than any other Rockefeller tree up to that time.
It caught eyes and turned heads as it traveled south on Route 3 and eventually to Route 3A in Nashua and on to New York. Along the way, the tree received a police escort. At that time, the trip was the longest distance that any of the previous Rockefeller Center's Christmas trees had come.
In early December, the Elliott family, who had never before been to New York City, arrived at Rockefeller Center and were treated like stars — they even appeared twice on Dave Garroway's "Today" TV show on NBC and topnotch radio show the "Pulse," according to an account in the Littleton Courier. They stayed in the lap of luxury and were treated to tours of all the major sites. Mr. Westover remembers the shock and delight of visiting the Empire State Building – prior to that the tallest building he had ever seen was the Whitefield High School or the local hospital in Lancaster. They joined Governor Dwinell as he officiated at the formal lighting ceremony.
John Elliott and Kenneth Westover still vividly recall the details of the trip. Mrs. Elliott was impressed too. She was quoted in the local paper as saying "this was the most exciting thing that ever happened to them." And today, some 56 years later Mr. Elliott and Mr. Westover agree.