She’s big, beautiful and all dressed for Christmas.
With an assist from a Bozeman sixth-grader, the 79-foot U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree sent from far northwestern Montana to Washington, D.C., was lit up Wednesday in the chilly dusk on the West Front of the Capitol.
“It got here just fine,” said Debby Hassel, public information officer for the Christmas Tree project from the U.S. Forest Service Region 1 offices in Missoula.
Hassel was one of 10 Forest Service employees who accompanied the 79-foot Engelmann spruce on its trip across America. Larry Spiekermeier of Plains, a gregarious two-time Montana Motor Carriers driver of the year, was behind the wheel.
The journey began deep in the Yaak Valley, on the Kootenai National Forest, and formally started on Monday, Nov. 13. It included stops in Eureka, Libby, Whitefish, Troy, Trout Creek, Thompson Falls, Plains and Missoula before it crossed the Continental Divide for a stop at the state Capitol in Helena.
Ridley Brandmayr, 11, of Bozeman had the lighting honors Wednesday.
“See that switch?” U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin asked Brandmayr after inviting him into the spotlight in front of the tree, which was framed by the Capitol dome in the dusky background.
“That one?” Brandmayr asked.
Seconds later, the tree burst into multi-colored lights, as the United States Marine Band struck up “O, Christmas Tree.”
Montana’s congressional delegation of Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte offered greetings in the ceremony. As senior senator from the state of the tree’s origin, Tester was its sponsor. He chose Brandmayr for the honors after the outdoorsy sixth-grader from Sacajawea Middle School in Bozeman lost all the fingers on his right hand in a kitchen accident on June 30.
When Tester was 9, he lost the middle three fingers of his left hand to a meat-grinder.
“This tree is more than a symbol of the natural resources the Treasure State has to offer,” Tester said. “It represents our shared history, intertwined with our outdoor heritage and our Montana values.”
“This is a proud moment for a kid from Montana,” said Daines, who noted that Brandmayr attended the same Bozeman grade school that he had many years before.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of Whitefish was reportedly in attendance, as were Montana Attorney General Tim Fox of Hardin and John Tubbs of Helena, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Montana sent 77 smaller Christmas trees to Washington to decorate the halls of Congress, the U.S. Forest Service, and other federal office buildings across the nation’s capital. Thousands of handmade skirts and more than 3,000 ornaments were sent from Montana with the trees, many from the Billings Head Start, which was represented at the 25-minute affair.
Shawna Crawford of Lewistown quilted the custom tree skirt that flanks the tree, and topping it is the first copper star to adorn a Capitol Christmas Tree. The star, 5 feet high and 4 feet wide, was designed and funded by Dennis Washington’s Missoula-based Washington Companies, fabricated by Split Mountain Metal of Belgrade and lit by Western Montana Lighting of Missoula.
Ron Sarasin, president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, upheld a longstanding tradition by presenting an ornament model of the Capitol made of marble from the east front steps of the building that were replaced in 1995 after 130 years of service.
Rob Malyevac of Libby was on hand to mark the formal end of his own long journey. As “tree lead,” Malyevac has been with the “People’s Tree” from the start. He led the team that identified all candidate trees in the Kootenai and helped find the big one. The process involved a site visit from Washington, D.C., by Stephen Ayers, the architect of the Capitol, and Capitol grounds superintendent Ted Bechtol.
Bechtol, who will retire in January, made the final selection of this and the previous 12 Capitol trees.
“He had a very difficult job picking this one,” Ayers said.
After that it was Malyevac’s baby. A facility engineer on the Kootenai forest, he designed the tree’s transport trailer, including an elaborate cooling and moisturizing system as well as the cradles it rested on.
“I had a climber climb it and measure it, and then I drew it all in CAD, figured out the branch spread,” Malyevac said as he stood next to the trailer in Plains on Nov. 15. “I had to rebuild three of the cradles because they weren’t wide enough. It is literally crammed in there.”
Malyevac, said the chosen tree “was the most full tree by far, and then it just has a nice taper. It’s good all the way around. The one thing they kept commenting on was the color. They just loved the color, like a brighter blue-green.”
It’s hard to see, but the famous tree actually has two tops, Malyevac said.
“It’s almost two trees. I was always calling it a forked top, but the arborist calls them co-dominant leads,” he said. “It made me really nervous picking it up. If one of those comes off ... ”
To handle it with care in the Yaak, straps were placed below the crown and the tops were strapped together.
“Then we grabbed on to each lead at one fixed point so that it would balance itself out,” Malyevac said. “I was a nervous wreck. I didn’t sleep. I’m still struggling to sleep.”
It's the fourth tree Montana has sent to Washington, D.C., and third from the Kootenai National Forest. The first, in 1958, was presented to President Dwight Eisenhower and the White House. The two previous "People's Trees" on the Capitol lawn were in 1989 from the Kootenai forest and in 2008 from the Bitterroot National Forest.