On December 19, 2018

A tree goes to Washington Vermont inaugurated a national tradition

By Julia Purdy

When President Calvin Coolidge called for the first-ever national Christmas tree in 1923, Riley Bostwick was ready. He knew just the tree, an imposing wild balsam fir growing on Bread Loaf Mountain in Ripton, on forest land belonging to publisher and philanthropist Col. Joseph Battell of Middlebury.

Working at that time as private forest warden for Col. Battell, Granville-born Riley Bostwick was as deep-rooted in the White River Valley as the tree he sent to Washington. Bostwick’s affinity for the woods and his talent for silviculture established an enduring legacy in the form of two national Christmas trees, chosen by Bostwick himself.

A World War I veteran, Bostwick had grown up in the woods without benefit of forestry software and GPS, and he knew the woods inside and out.

On Christmas Eve, 1923, President Coolidge walked out to the tree, pressed a button, and the 48-foot tree blazed with 2,500 lights in red, white and green.

Even then, Bostwick already knew of another young balsam fir, which had sprouted in 1911 in a sheltered spot on his own land in Granville and now showed exceptional promise. For years he nurtured this new tree, giving it plenty of sunlight while encouraging seedlings to sprout around it, thus holding moisture in the soil, and even porcupine-proofing it with a special cuff.

In 1963, at age 74, Riley Bostwick approached the U.S. Forest Service, which now administered the Green Mountain National Forest that included Granville, with the suggestion that the 70-foot spire was about ready for its national debut. So it was that in 1967, Republican Governor Richard Snelling and Richard Curtis, Bostwick’s longtime assistant, harvested yet another national Christmas tree by hand, this time for the Johnson White House.

The tree was swathed in burlap and left Rochester on a flat-bed trailer, escorted by a convoy of automobiles. At the departure ceremony in Rochester’s park on Nov. 27, 1967, Rev. Alan Bond of the Federated Church gave the prayer of invocation. The nation was torn apart by war and dissension. Rev. Bond asked the Almighty to “let this tree stand as a symbol of peace on earth, good will toward men. Let the needles represent the peoples of the earth; may the branches be tribes, races and nations; allow the trunk to be a sign of Thee from whom all things grow.”

Bostwick, now 77, made the trip to Washington, assisted by Helen Pierce, Rochester’s former public health nurse, where he watched his “baby” come to life with 6,000 twinkling lights.

In the meantime, Bostwick established “Mountain Meadows” on old farmlands under Mt. Cushman in Rochester, where he raised Black Angus cattle and Christmas trees. In 1949 and 1954 his “sustained yield” management methods earned him the Certificate of Good Forest Practice, signed by the governor and Perry Merrill, then state forester.

In 1957 he sent a 67-foot tree from Mountain Meadows to adorn Rockefeller Center.

That same year, Bostwick enrolled his woodlands in the American Tree Farm System, topping the millionth-acre mark.

Riley Bostwick died in 1971 at age 81, his life’s mission more than completed. Wooden signs on Bethel Mountain Road announce the state’s Riley Bostwick Wildlife Management Area and the “Millionth Acre Tree Farm,” totaling 350 acres.

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