Vermont inaugurated a national tradition
By Julia Purdy
High on Bethel Mountain Road outside Rochester, observant travelers might notice two prominent brown wooden signs flanking the road, with carved letters announcing the Riley Bostwick Wildlife Management Area and the Millionth Acre Tree Farm.
Totaling 350 acres, these parcels represent the life work of Riley Bostwick, a World War I veteran who returned to the family farm and the woodsman’s life he knew.
Bostwick’s deep familiarity with the forests and his talent for silviculture established an enduring legacy in the form of three national Christmas trees, two of them hand-chosen by Bostwick himself.
Born in the logging community of Granville in 1890, Riley Bostwick was as rooted in the White River Valley as the Christmas trees that he sent down-country. Growing up without benefit of today’s forestry technology, he knew the woods from experience — “like the back of his hand,” as the saying goes.
So, when President Calvin Coolidge called for the first-ever national Christmas tree in 1923, Bostwick was ready.
The evergreen tree that was destined to become the first national Christmas tree to grace the Ellipse in front of the White House was growing deep within the future Green Mountain National Forest, on forest land belonging to publisher and philanthropist Col. Joseph Battell of Middlebury.
Working at that time as private forest warden for Col. Battell, Bostwick knew just the tree, an imposing, perfectly formed wild balsam fir growing on Bread Loaf Mountain in Ripton. Vermont-born Coolidge accepted it.
On Christmas Eve, 1923 — when electricity was still a novelty in many regions of the nation — President Coolidge walked out to the tree, pushed a button, and the 48-foot tree blazed with 2,500 lights.
Bostwick also had his eye on another young balsam fir, which had sprouted 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, in his mid-70s, Riley Bostwick approached the U.S. Forest Service, which now owned the old farm property, with the suggestion that the specimen — a 70-foot spire with a trunk diameter of 17 inches at breast-height and a 27-foot maximum spread — was about ready for its national debut in front of the Johnson White House.
So it was that in 1967, under the supervision of Bostwick and Richard Curtis of Rochester, his longtime assistant, the tree was harvested by hand, in the snow, amid a jubilant crowd of onlookers.
The tree was carefully lowered by crane, brought into Rochester village and swathed in burlap, then it left Rochester on a flatbed 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. Reverend 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, 77 at the time, 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.
Fifteen years later in 1982, yet another Bostwick Christmas tree — a 67-footer — was shipped to New York City to adorn Rockefeller Center, harvested this time at Bostwick’s Christmas tree farm. A Bostwick Christmas tree was still cause for celebration, but this time Bostwick himself did not take part. He died in 1971 at age 81, his life’s mission more than fulfilled.
Earlier, Bostwick had established a homestead, “Mountain Meadows,” on old farmlands under Mt. Cushman, 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 Mortimer Proctor and Governor Lee Emerson, respectively, and Perry Merrill, then state forester and creator of Vermont’s forest parks system.
That same year, Bostwick enrolled his woodlands in the American Tree Farm System, capping one million acres of tree farms nationally. On the Bethel Mountain Road out of Rochester, a hewn wooden signboard commemorates the “Millionth-Acre Tree Farm.” The spot is also now a Vermont wildlife management area.
The Oct. 10, 1983, newsletter of the New England Society of American Foresters noted that the American Forest Institute, sponsor of the nationwide tree farm program, honored Riley Bostwick’s memory by giving his tree farm honorary status and calling him “both a diverse and a progressive land manager who produced beef cattle, timber and Christmas trees.”