The holiday season kicks off in Wrangell with the Christmas tree lighting.
People in Wrangell can’t remember a time before the Christmas tree lighting. Even the folks that were around in the 70’s and 80’s, that’s just a distant memory to them.
But Bill Privett says it started in 1980, with him standing in front of the whole town with the tree by his side.
Privett says the Wrangell Chamber of Commerce was involved since the beginning. That’s evident from the poem he wrote in 1980. It was based off the Night Before Christmas.
“When all through the town, not a creature was stirring, not even a hound. Shops were filled with Christmas toys galore, and ‘Shop Local’ was the cry,” recited Privett. “I can’t remember it all, but it went something like that.”
The Chamber and the mayor started the pageantry of the event.
But the 40-foot tree on Front Street has a longer history. The city’s line and power crew have found and put up the tree since the 70’s, perhaps before then.
The oldest record we could find is from 1974. A photo in the Sentinel shows then superintendent Steve Beers in the tree. Guys like Robin Larsson and Jim Nelson were there to help in the beginning.
And in 1998, the city got a lineman that would totally reimagine the tree lighting: Clay Hammer.
This guy just loves Christmas. Like I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that his wife’s name is holly.
Once he joined the line crew, he started lighting the tree, picking it out, falling it. He added to the festivities by putting out burn barrels so folks would stay out longer despite the cold.
Hammer was willing to try anything to kick it up a notch, and he definitely made that happen in 2012 when he set off a firework from the top of the tree.
“I’ve seen a shooting star a couple of times, but I don’t know anything about fireworks,” Hammer said. “I’m going to have to plead the fifth on that one.”
Don McConachie remembers when he first saw that firework. I asked him if he was a little nervous.
“I was amazed, no concerns at all. Why would you be concerned with a firework going off the top of a tree beside a gas station,” he said.
This year marks the first time that Hammer didn’t help out. He’s not with the line crew anymore. He’s got a new job. And when I called him, he was in Ketchikan, and said he wouldn’t even be in town for the tree lighting.
And so the tradition goes on. With a new director at the chamber, a new mayor reading his poem and a lineman passing on not a torch but a left over firework.