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December 11, 2017

A Tale of Two (Christmas) Trees


Downey Trees has forged some interesting partnerships over the years as well as some most unusual applications of arboriculture. One of these partnerships is with the Georgia Building Authority (GBA). No matter where they go, the staff of the Georgia Building Authority is always on a quest. Curiosity might motivate one to ask, “What are they looking for?” A significant annual challenge faced by this company, whose personnel manage the State Capitol facilities in downtown Atlanta, as well as the Governor’s Mansion in Buckhead, is to find and procure Christmas Trees – specifically Eastern Redcedar trees (Juniperus virginiana). These trees adorn the Capitol Rotunda and front lawn of the Governor’s home each Christmas season. At first thought, this may not seem like such a daunting task. However, when you consider that there is a fairly strict size requirement (especially for the Capitol tree) and that this is something that occurs year after year, and that most of the time the trees are found on private property and can only be removed with the permission of the owner, things aren’t as easy as they might seem. With each passing year, the mere process of finding the trees becomes more and more challenging.

Another interesting question swirling around this annual process: Why would anyone want a perfectly good 30-foot Eastern Redcedar Tree removed from their property? Posing this question to the owner of the Governor’s Mansion tree this year, he was thrilled at the prospect of bringing his children to the ceremonial lighting of the tree, broadening their horizons with a holiday visit to the Governor’s home, meeting Governor and Mrs. Deal in person, seeing our state government in a more festive light, and personally experiencing the excitement of Christmas in Georgia. Other tree donors have confessed to the notoriety associated with donating a tree to the state as their “15 minutes of fame.”

Collecting, transporting, and installing these trees requires a great deal of specialized equipment and teamwork. For the past six years, Downey Trees has become an integral part of the process. Each tree is designated a date in late November for removal, handling, and installation on its respective property. When the day arrives, an impressive array of machinery and personnel arrives at an otherwise quiet spot, somewhere in the state of Georgia where the ideal tree was found. Crane, climbers, assistants, a flatbed truck, and escort vehicles from both the Georgia Building Authority and Downey Trees swarm the site. Georgia State Patrol vehicles arrive as the tree is loaded to provide a police escort for the tree from its old home to the new one. The Capitol tree has the added requirement of a Tree Spade, since Capitol fire regulations have mandated a “live” tree inside the building. A chokers, or tension strap that allows the tree to be lifted and moved by the crane, is attached near the top of the tree after it is cut or dug, preventing damage to the limbs and allowing for efficient lowering onto the flatbed truck. With the experience of year’s past, new techniques and slight modifications in the equipment make the process go a little more smoothly. The excessive width and density of branches of this year’s tree eclipsed any potential improvements in efficiency, especially with regard to the Capitol tree. This would prove troublesome later as well, in attempting to get the tree into the building.

The real show begins once the tree is loaded onto the Downey Tree’s flatbed truck. A caravan of flashing state patrol cars, attending trucks with lights flashing, and the 25-foot tree began their trip from the metro-Atlanta suburbs to the Governor’s Mansion (November 21st) and the State Capitol (November 27th). If the motorists in the path of the Christmas tree caravan were not alerted to the arrival of the Holiday Season by Black Friday or Cyber Monday, surely the sight of two massive trees rushing by in a state patrol caravan would do the job! The tree for the front of Governor’s mansion is somewhat easier to install since the grounds are more spacious and the 40-foot tree is set up outside. The tree trunk is lowered into a barrel that has been set in the ground. The tree is then meticulously straightened and cabled in place by GBA staff and other workers.

The installation of the State Capitol Christmas melds images of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with “National Lampoons’ Christmas Vacation”! Though brought into the Capitol building trunk first, one can’t help but see the Grinch “stuffing the tree up!” Watching a 25-foot wide tree squeeze through an 8-foot wide door and hallway that is not much wider is a site to behold. The operation of the crane requires the skills of a surgeon. Specialized equipment designed to winch the tree into the Rotunda, set it upright, and maintain moisture in the root area represents a great deal of thoughtful engineering. When the ropes securing the tied branches are cut, the tree fills the rotunda just like the tree in Clark Griswolds’s den. The oversized dimensions of this year’s Capitol tree motivate Capitol staffers to come up with “Plan B”: a 30-foot artificial tree that can be used if the natural one breaks while being brought into the building, or some other disaster occurs. This year, Downey Trees came up with its own alternative – a bonafide Charlie Brown Tree which was proudly displayed by our own Dennis Ramey!

Once the Governor’s Mansion tree has been cabled in place and the Capitol Tree has been lifted off the flatbed truck, Downey’s job is done. The final magic touches are provided by the Georgia Building Authority, and the trees that were a part of the north Georgia landscape just a few days earlier are then transformed into the warm and glowing symbols that we associate with the Christmas season. While the tree lighting ceremonies are by invitation only, the enjoyment of both trees is available to all of the citizens and visitors of Georgia. The tree in front of the Governor’s Mansion can be seen day and night from its location on the corner of West Paces Ferry Road and Woodhaven Road. The beautiful tree adoring the Capitol Rotunda is on display right up until Christmas. If you are unable to see the trees in person, we hope you enjoy the accompanying photos. To read a slightly different account of this “Tale of Two Trees”, read the blog from last Christmas: “Over the River and Through the Woods.”

For another year, the partnership of Downey Trees and the Georgia Building Authority has resulted in the successful delivery of Christmas to the houses of government. Downey Trees will hopefully receive the call next November to resume this partnership. For the GBA, however, the Tale of Two Trees begins again on December 26th, as they start the quest for the Redcedar trees of 2018.