Each year the City of Placerville installs lights on the tall redwood tree that stands on the northeast corner of Bedford Avenue and Main Streets, next to a building that was the post office and then the the District Attorney’s office. Over the years this tree has been damaged by wind and weather several times and even had its top cut off because the fire department’s equipment could not reach above that height to decorate, but it gallantly survives. It has apparently been at this location for 70 or more years, but how it got there is somewhat a mystery.
The story starts just before Christmas in 1918 when the American Forestry Association began to encourage the use of living trees for community Christmas trees, instead of the normal routine of cutting down a large tree each year for that purpose. Over the next few years the campaign began to gain supporters and in December of 1924 the Association donated a 35-foot, nursery grown Norway Spruce to President Calvin Coolidge.
The donated tree was planted in Sherman Plaza, south of the Treasury Building and close to the east entrance of the White House. On December 24, 1924 President Calvin Coolidge, known to be a man of few words, stood before a microphone and said, “I accept this tree and I will now light it.” He then flipped a switch and 1,200 red, amber and green incandescent lights, installed by the Society for Electrical Development and the Electric League of Washington, brightly lit up the tree. This was the first use of a living tree as our “National Community Christmas Tree.”
In 1926 the late Charles E. Lee, then secretary of the Sanger (CA) Chamber of Commerce, wrote President Calvin Coolidge requesting that the General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon National Park be officially designated as the “Nation’s Christmas Tree.” Lee had visited the majestic 267 foot tall sequoia in 1924 and when standing in front of it heard a little girl exclaim, “What a wonderful Christmas Tree it would be.”
Remembering the little girl’s comments, the next year he organized a Christmas program in front of the General Grant Tree at noon on Christmas Day.
Excited by the success of the program, he and the president of the Sanger Chamber, Mr. R. J. Senior, came up with the idea of an annual Christmas ceremony at the tree. To give it more significance is why Lee wrote President Coolidge and on April 28, 1926 the General Grant tree was officially designated the “Nation’s Christmas Tree.”
As time went on, more and more places around the nation, and especially in California, began to plant and use living trees as community Christmas trees and in a December 1, 1928 article in the “Placerville Republican and Nugget,” Placerville Fire Chief O. N. Hirst announced his intention to ask the Placerville City Council for permission to plant a living Christmas tree on the Moyle lot, which is where the present tree stands. In the event this permission was granted, he indicated that the Shakespeare Club, Parent Teachers’ Association, Lions’ Club, 20-30 Club, American Legion and other local organizations would be asked to assist in financing the decorations and lighting of the tree.
According to the same article the idea of a living community Christmas tree in Placerville was not new. A similar idea had been rejected by the Lions’ Club the previous year, and the 20-30 Club earlier in 1928, but it was hoped that with community support a living Christmas tree could be planted at this location. After all, it was pointed out, Grace Moyle had transferred this parcel of land to the city specifically for public use and that was exactly what was being proposed.
The City Council agreed to allow Hirst to plant the tree and on December 7, 1928 he announced in the Republican that the State of California had donated a seven foot “Giant of the Forest” to the City and that he would be going to Sacramento to pick it up. At the same time it was announced that the American Legion had endorsed the idea of the tree being planted at the designated site and strung with lights as the Community Christmas tree.
On the same day a story in the “Mountain Democrat” also indicated that a tree had been approved. It was not a redwood, but a 20 foot high fir tree that the volunteer firemen were going into the forest to get and plant in the Moyle lot. “We’ll have to move approximately a ton of dirt with the tree in the transplanting,” Hirst said. “It will take three or four days to get the tree out and it will be a real job to move it.” Apparently there was some confusion between the newspapers as to what tree the fire chief wanted to be the “Community Christmas tree.”
The December 12, 1928 issue of the Republican stated that the sequoia for the Moyle lot had been picked up in Sacramento and brought to Placerville. The details of the planting had not been worked out and would be announced shortly. The same article indicated that the Placerville Lions had pledged aid to the tree and the upcoming Christmas program at the site.
Everything seemed to be in order at this point and the Republican indicated that the sequoia would probably be planted before or during the Christmas program. When the program was held at the court house on December 20, 1928 the 20 foot fir tree was there and decorated, but there is no mention of the sequoia that the state had donated.
The January 9, 1929 edition of the Mountain Democrat adds a bit of clarity to this confusing issue with a story titled, “Sequoia Washingtoniana ‘Resident’ of Placerville.” It then goes on to say, “Miss Sequoia Washingtoniana has been a Placerville resident since Christmas Day. Her presence has been noted but it seemed that other matters assumed greater importance in our memory and Miss Sequoia Washingtoniana arrived unheralded. The redwood, gift of the state, was planted on the Moyle lot by Fire Chief O. N. Hirst.”
Now the story could stop there, but “Sequoia washingtoniana” is an old name for a Giant sequoia and, according to people who should know, the present tree is not a Giant sequoia, but a Coast Redwood “Sequoia sempervirens.”
Adding new light to the mystery, in 1953 an article appeared in a still unidentified local newspaper. Authored by a Gene Macel, and titled “City Landmark Glows Again with Yule Spirit,” it placed the year of planting as 1926 and said that “the tiny redwood was planted by Mrs. Lena Rantz in memory of her husband, Dr. Stephen H. Rantz, a beloved country doctor…” The story then traces much of the history of the property from its original mining claim up through its purchase by Thomas Moyle.
Moyle owned a saloon on the property for many years and, according to the story, “There was an old wine cellar below where beer was stored and served ice-cold to customers.” The saloon was torn down after a group of citizens raised the money to buy the property with the intention of widening Bedford Avenue. The story then adds, “[Mayor] Albert Simons acquired title to the property for the City of Placerville on April 9, 1926 and the redwood tree was planted in the same year.”
The story then points out that in 1937 one Ernie Oppenheimer decided that the tree had acquired enough stature and beauty to deserve Christmas decorations. “Oppenheimer bought a good supply of lights and Andy Anderson and his helpers from the city hall, strung them that year and every year since.”
This 1953 story seems quite reasonable and confirms another story that appeared in the September 9, 1940 issue of the Mountain Democrat. It states, “[The City] Council voted $50 to be donated to the businessmen for Xmas decorations and voted to place an appropriate marker by the Dr. S. H. Ranzt memorial tree, planted a dozen years ago in the city park at the junction of Main and Bedford.”
As to the “appropriate marker,” there is neither a marker nor any indication there was ever a marker on or near the tree regarding Dr. Ranzt. There are other markers nearby, but nothing makes reference to the tree or Dr. Ranzt.
A few years ago the Placerville Department of Recreation was cleaning up around the tree and uncovered a loose plaque that stated, “Presented by the American Legion Auxiliary, 1934.” There seems to be no connection between this plaque and the tree and nothing in the park seems to be missing a plaque. However, there is the remains of a base of an old flagpole a dozen feet to the east of the tree where the plaque may have been placed.
If all this isn’t confusing enough, there are other stories around Placerville regarding the tree. One story is that the tree was planted by hotel owner Lloyd Raffetto and local government official John Winkleman in honor of the former Moyle’s saloon. Former El Dorado County Supervisor and county native, Joe Flynn, said that his mother, Alice Flynn, owned the Hangtown Café, near the hotel, and was involved with the planting, but often remarked that she thought it was planted too close to the building.
A second story is that the tree may be one of the small redwood trees that a member of the Blair family brought back from Santa Cruz where he and his new bride had spent their honeymoon. Apparently they were planted not only on the Blair property, but other places around Placerville.
There are no exact dates for the above stories, but they were in the correct era and could both be referring to the “Ranzt” tree, supposedly planted in 1926.
If today’s tree is the 1926 Ranzt Memorial Tree, the tree obtained by Fire Chief Hirst or another tree, nobody seems to know. But, as interesting as it is, it probably doesn’t matter. It is a magnificent tree and when lit each Christmas season, adds even more beauty to the city.
As a final note, if you are wondering what happened to the 20 foot fir tree planted for the 1928 Christmas ceremony and supposedly intended to be the “Community Christmas tree,” the May 21, 1929 issue of the Mountain Democrat clears that up. “Lost! One fir tree, which last Christmas served as a community Christmas tree, has disappeared from the Moyle lot. Who removed it? Nobody knows. However, the tree had died and ceased to be the beautiful city ornament it was intended to be, so that its removal constitutes somewhat the same improvement on the corner that was made when the tree was planted.”