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This is an expanded version of the review of Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens, by Steve Olson, which first appeared in the April-May 2017 issue of American Scientist. 

When I visit environmental history–related locations, I typically bring back two reminders of the trip: photographs I’ve taken and rocks I’ve collected from the sites. When I returned from a trip to Wallace, Idaho, in 2009—a small, picturesque town located in the state’s panhandle and surrounded by national forests—I came home with rocks and a small vial of volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens.

The vial measures about 1.75″ in length but contains a great deal of information and memory.

The rocks came from outside the abandoned mine where, in 1910, Forest Service ranger Ed Pulaski and his men rode out one of the most famous wildfires in American history. Known as “the Big Burn,” the conflagration consumed 3 million acres in about 36 hours. Burning embers and ash fell upon Wallace, and fire consumed about half the town. The fire transformed the U.S. Forest Service, then only five years old; the lessons agency leadership drew from it—that more men, money, and material could prevent and possibly remove fire from the landscape—eventually became policy. The agency’s decision to fight and extinguish all wildfires, known as the “10 a.m. policy,” is one America is still dealing with because of the ecological impact removing fire from the landscape for half a century has had.

Seventy years later, another famous natural disaster coated the town in ash when Mount St. Helens, which sits in the middle of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southeastern Washington, erupted, sending some of its content miles into the air and drifting east towards Wallace and beyond. The vial I brought back contains some of that ash. The tiny container is a reminder that this disaster, too, transformed the Forest Service. It also transformed the U.S. Geological Survey.

The transformation began on March 20, 1980. After 123 years of dormancy, Mount St. Helens woke up. Seismometers had detected a 4.0 earthquake about a mile below the surface of the volcano, which is located in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwestern Washington. In the days immediately following, more quakes were recorded, as many as 40 an hour. These weren’t aftershocks—it was a volcanic swarm. Business owners, loggers, and the media demanded to know when the volcano was going to blow. As Seattle-based journalist Steve Olson discusses in his book Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens (W.W. Norton, 2016), there was no easy answer: The science wasn’t there yet. But as Olson demonstrates, the lack of clear scientific guidance and an absence of straightforward jurisdictional relationships fostered government inaction at all levels, with disastrous results. Given recent seismic activity around Mount St. Helens (earthquake swarms were recorded in June and November of 2016, although these gave no indication of imminent danger), revisiting the events of 1980 seems especially timely.

Just after the March 20th quake, some immediate protective measures were taken. The Weyerhaeuser Company, which was harvesting some of the last old-growth timber on its land surrounding Mount St. Helens on land it had owned since 1900, evacuated its 300 employees, and the Washington Department of Emergency Services advised everyone within 15 miles of the volcano to leave the area. But within a week, restlessness set in. After all, livelihoods were at stake. Area law enforcement couldn’t keep U.S. Forest Service roads closed to the public indefinitely and, given Weyerhaeuser’s economic and political influence in the region, public safety officials dared not close roads on its land. Beyond that, law enforcement simply didn’t have the resources to staff all the roads that snaked their way through the forest and around the volcano and nearby Spirit Lake.

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Ninety years ago this spring, a major repair project began on the White House in Washington, DC, that ultimately yielded wooden treasures. Work began in March of 1927 to remove large sections of the building’s roof in order to replace wood timbers with steel trusses and undertake a full remodeling of the third floor. This project was necessary due to some structural defects, along with the overloading of the building’s upper-most story. Originally designed as attic space, by 1927 the space had been providing significant storage space as well as servants’ quarters for too long. The roof structure being removed and replaced had been erected between 1815 and 1817 following the burning of the White House by British troops during the War of 1812.

1927 White House roof renovation

White House during roof removal process, March 1927 (click for more info).

Remodeling was completed by August 1927. During the construction, the majority of the wooden roof timbers removed were found to still be in good condition. Due to significant public interest in having souvenirs made from the White House wood, a public auction was held for the roof trusses as well as other miscellaneous pieces of removed lumber. In March 1928 more than 1,500 linear feet of Virginia longleaf pine lumber from the White House was auctioned off. The highest bid (at $500—a relative steal) came from the National Lumber Manufacturers’ Association (NLMA), and they ended up with the largest lot of timber. The NLMA and other organizations that bought the lumber planned to turn it into souvenirs to give away.

By December 1928 the NLMA had decided on crafting commemorative gavels from the wood. The Southern Lumberman reported: “Six hundred gavels are being made up from the timbers taken out during remodeling of the Executive Mansion last year after 112 years of service. They are being finished with clear varnish to show the natural grain of the wood and each is marked with a plate telling the source of the wood and accompanied by a printed leaflet giving the story of the gavel.” The NLMA planned to give gavels to “men prominent in the lumber industry, to prominent writers and public men, to the Vice-President of the United States and the Speaker of the House of Representatives and to the presiding officers of state legislatures, and to patriotic societies.” How many gavels were produced is not certain, but one of them is housed here in the FHS Archives (see photo below). The plaque on the gavel reads:

“Certified By Centuries”

Longleaf pine after 112 years’ service in the White House roof – 1815 to 1927

National Lumber Manufacturers Association

NLMA gavel from White House wood

NLMA gavel made from White House wood (housed in FHS Archives).

The NLMA also created other items from the wood. Candlesticks were made, including a set presented to President Herbert Hoover in May 1929. Blocks of wood cut from the roof timbers were affixed with plaques and given away. The NLMA also created one-of-a-kind items. One of the most interesting pieces was a humidor stand built as a replica of one originally used by President James Madison. The NLMA presented the piece to the Southern Pine Association at the latter’s June 1929 meeting in New Orleans. The wooden humidor was officially presented by Wilson Compton to H. C. Berckes, following Compton’s keynote address to the meeting. The Southern Lumberman described the moment:

As a climax to his able address, Dr. Compton lifted from the floor and placed it on the speaker’s table a curious little antique settee or as it really was, a humidor of obvious pine manufacture. It proved to be a replica of a bit of furniture that was in the White House at Washington under the Madison administration during the War of 1812, and that may have been burned when that building was destroyed by the British soldiers. The settee was reconstructed by President Madison’s orders from material taken from the roof timbers after the fire, and more recently the present replica was constructed from pine again from the White House roof—lumber that had come through more than a century of service as sound as when it went in.

According to Compton the gift was “an appropriate presentation to the Southern Pine Association, the invincible advocate of longleaf southern pine.”

H.C. Berckes

H. C. Berckes, secretary-manager of the Southern Pine Association, receives the humidor from the NLMA.

The NLMA wasn’t alone in turning White House wood into wares. First Lady Lou Henry Hoover fashioned gifts from wood salvaged from the president’s home, though there is some debate over whether the wood she used came from the 1927 roof reconstruction or following repairs due to a 1929 fire in the Oval Office. Regardless, Mrs. Hoover had Christmas gifts made for family, friends, and White House staff in 1930. The First Lady sent some wood to Biltmore Industries in Asheville, North Carolina, where it was turned into ash trays, stamp boxes, paper knives, book ends, pen holders, and other small items. You can read more about the gifts made by Mrs. Hoover on Hoover Heads, the blog of the Herbert Hoover Library and Museum.

The enduring quality of the original wood, the uniqueness of their source, and their direct connection to American history, make these items increasingly valuable. You’ll see the various pieces pop up at auction periodically—and typically be sold for far more than the $500 the NLMA originally paid for its entire lot of wood.

For more information on the history of the NLMA, see the National Forest Products Association Records in the FHS Archives (in 1965 the NLMA changed its name to the National Forest Products Association).

As the Master’s Tournament gets underway at Augusta National Golf Club this week, one of the icons of the course again will not be there. The famed Eisenhower Tree suffered extensive damage from an ice storm in the winter of 2014 and was removed shortly thereafter. Approximately 65 feet high and 90 years old when cut down, the native loblolly pine tree, named for President Dwight Eisenhower, stood about 210 yards down on the left side of hole no. 17.

Ike was a passionate golfer and became a member of Augusta National in 1948. The tree was named for Eisenhower because of his inability to avoid hitting it when playing the hole. As a result Ike quickly became obsessed with the tree.

The Eisenhower Tree in 2011. (Photo credit: Shannon McGee- http://www.flickr.com/photos/shan213/5601811306/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31205117)

As Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, Ike had led millions of soldiers in what he called “the Great Crusade” to defeat Nazi Germany. In 1956, he waged what might be called his “golf crusade.” He loved everything about Augusta—except that tree. But for the life of him, he couldn’t defeat this lone wooden soldier. At the December 1956 Club meeting, he petitioned to have the tree cut down, something that was never going to happen. Club chairman Cliff Roberts claimed later that he quickly adjourned the meeting to avoid the issue or embarrassing the president of the United States. In 1965, Ike half-jokingly confided to a golfing buddy that he wanted to use “about one half stick of TNT” to “take the damn thing down.” In the end, the tree bested the greatest military commander of the 20th century.

After the ice storm in 2014, Augusta National determined that the Eisenhower Tree needed to be removed. The man was so closely associated with the tree that the club had a cross-section of it sent to the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, where it is on display just off the lobby.

The display includes a panel telling the story of the tree and a timeline of Ike’s life and of the Master’s tournament. The plastic triangle on the left uses the tree rings as a timeline also. (Photo by the author)

Historian Catherine Lewis, in “Don’t Ask What I Shot”: How Eisenhower’s Love of Golf Helped Shape 1950s America (2007), gives us a cultural history that documents Ike’s love of the game. Eisenhower sought refuge in the sport from the stresses of the presidency, though he never totally left the job behind. How could he? He played more than 800 rounds during his 8 years in office. He tried to practice his short game every day. Since he couldn’t go to a course to do so, the United States Golf Association paid to install a putting green at the White House.

Unlike some occupants of the White House, according to Lewis, Ike never had a problem with being photographed playing the game (though he did with having his scores reported). Those photos were often featured on the front page of newspapers, even if they had nothing to do with the accompanying story. Critics seized on the frequency with which he played as evidence that he cared more about his golf score than he did the job. Political cartoonists frequently portrayed Ike on the golf course as well, which only added to that impression. It was only after historians could access his administration’s records that it was revealed how engaged he was as president; it was not uncommon to have meetings and make major decisions while playing.

This cartoon appeared in the July 1953 issue of American Forests magazine to accompany an article about the annual fire prevention campaign. Published just six months after he took office, it demonstrates how quickly Ike had become associated with golf.

Lewis also examines the issue of Ike playing a sport associated with white elites in the Deep South at a segregated club. This placed him in an odd situation as the civil rights movement became a major issue during his second term. She devotes half a chapter exclusively to Ike and civil rights. His friends and playing partners were no different from him in attitude and beliefs about race. His favorite caddy may have been African American, but “Ike believed that fair access and economic opportunity did not necessarily mean social equality, indicating that his views on race, like the majority of white Americans, were still rooted in the nineteenth century.” Eisenhower reluctantly dealt with civil rights. When the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock came to a head in 1957, “Ike was accused of running the presidency from a golf course,” writes Lewis. “A brief look at his September calendar that year shows that this was in fact the case.” He complained about leaving a golfing vacation to return to the White House to address the nation about the Little Rock crisis. While she notes that in 1953 “Ike began a crusade to break 90 at Augusta National,” I would argue that he was all for leading crusades, even one against a tree, but was unwilling to lead one against desegregation of the South.

The larger purpose of “Don’t Ask What I Shot” is to look at how the golf-obsessed president transformed a sport associated with the wealthy and elite into one for the middle class. Ike came from a hardscrabble background, growing up in Abilene, Kansas, at the dawn of the 20th century. He took up the game while a young officer in the U.S. Army in the 1920s, and during World War II was even photographed in full uniform swinging a club. His election to the White House in 1952 and his membership at Augusta elevated interest in sport. He was an immensely popular president, and that popularity translated into tens of thousands of men and women taking up the game he was so often photographed playing.

His membership at Augusta shown a spotlight on the Masters Tournament, too. In 1953, for the first Masters following Ike’s election, tournament officials braced for “a tremendous crowd, far above the 15,000 that attended” the year before. Ike didn’t want to interfere with the tournament by attending it but instead would visit the week after the tournament ended. The success of a young, charismatic Arnold Palmer at the Masters in 1958 and again in 1960, along with Ike’s association with the club and the attention his vacations there garnered, cemented the tournament’s place as one of the major events in golf after 1960.

Ike and golf have been thoroughly covered by authors. There’s Lewis’s book, which is solid; there’s David Sowell’s Eisenhower and Golf: A President at Play (2007), which has the wrong year for when Ike spoke up at the club meeting; and there’s also The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency (2009), by John Sayle Watterson, which has a chapter on Ike. Virtually every biography of the man touches on the subject, too. And there are any number of books on the history of Augusta National and the Masters Tournament that mention Eisenhower the golfer. But there will always be only one Eisenhower Tree.

As a fan of Ike’s, I was stunned to learn that he wanted to cut down a tree simply because it affected his golf score.

The September 1911 issue of The Bulletin, the old monthly journal of the International Concatenated Order of the Hoo-Hoo, had this to say:

Not a great many of our members realize that the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo has one member who would not take offense if referred to as no gentleman. In the early days of the organization, and before there was incorporated into the constitution the provision that membership be confined strictly to men over twenty-one, there occurred a lumber convention and a concatenation at Memphis, Tennessee, on which occasion, the ceremonies being somewhat modified, a lady was duly initiated.

The fact that there is a woman member in the great Order of Hoo-Hoo is not so much a matter of wonder and speculation, as was the early life of this woman Hoo-Hoo, entering as she did into the business world at a time when woman and commercialism were but strangers.

The Hoo-Hoo in question was No. 2877, Mary Anne Smith. Mary Anne was born in Somerville, Tennessee, shortly before the Civil War. The Bulletin describes her early life as one of “hardship and suffering” as she grew up during the war and Reconstruction Period. “But,” the article notes, “no period, no matter how rife with struggle, hardship, and suffering, is without its romance, so in time young Mary Norman met and came to marry James Allen Smith—one of the pioneer names in Arkansas” in 1873.

They built a small business empire in Arkansas together, Mary Anne working “hand in hand with her husband” until his death in 1889. Upon his death she became president of the Smithton Lumber Company and vice president of the Southwestern Arkansas and Indian Territory Railroad. Her husband had begun operating this narrow-gauge railroad in 1885 to move lumber to market. She successfully operated it until the Panic of 1893, the worst economic depression in U.S. history until that time. The Bulletin states that “her property passed into the United States courts” and was forced out of her hands. “Mrs. Smith,” it says, stayed “in the business world, for her spirit remains indomitable and unabashed.”

She did stay in the business world. Mary Anne Smith was concatted (meaning initiated) as Number 2877 into Hoo-Hoo on February 20, 1895, in Memphis. Her membership had been sponsored by three members, including one of the founders. In 1905 she moved her family to Searcy, Arkansas, and remained active in Hoo-Hoo the rest of her life, frequently hosting other Hoo-Hoos at her home as they passed through town. At the January 1912 meeting, she was one of 8 people who gave speeches. The Bulletin article recapping the 1911 meeting noted that Mrs. Smith had “the distinction of being the only woman who is now and has ever been a member of Hoo-Hoo.” This refrain typically appeared in articles mentioning she had attended a meeting.

According to the organization’s own history, Mary Ann Smith was the first female Hoo-Hoo. When the 1911 article appeared, the fraternal organization of the lumber industry wasn’t yet formally closed to women members. Legend has it that other women gained membership over the years by using just their initials on the applications, not their first names. But there’s no way to confirm this. Yet some members were progressive enough to support women’s sports teams in the early 20th century.

johnsonshoohoo-womens-bballteam-1904-cropped

Johnston’s Famous Hoo-Hoo Basketball Team, pictured here with sponsor Scott Johnston in 1904, called Rankin, Illinois, home. Johnston praised them as “a fine lot of girls and good players–every one of them.” The players were a mix of students and teachers, and the team dissolved when they returned to school in September of that year.

So, what’s all this hullabaloo about the International Concatenated Order of the Hoo-Hoo about, you may ask. Hoo-Hoo had been established in Gurdon in 1892 to foster better relations among lumbermen and trade associations. The six men—a mix of lumbermen and writers working for trade journals—who would become the founders sat waiting for the next train when discussion turned to the lack of community and communication among the diverse business interests of lumbermen. “It was agreed that only one common interest existed within the complex web of industry concerns, that being goodwill and fellowship upon which lumbermen could come together in single mindedness and unity. The group agreed that lumbermen meeting on the grounds of good fellowship could receive intangible benefits that might eventually trickle down into all aspects of business and social relationships…” There were already plenty of fraternal lodges and formal business groups—in fact, the men were stuck waiting for a train in Gurdon while traveling between association meetings, a circumstance which led to this impromptu meeting.

They quickly agreed that another conventional, stuffy group was not needed. “[It] was to be a war on conventionality,” replete with goofy titles for officers borrowed from a Lewis Carroll story, like calling the president the Grand Snark of the Universe, and parodying and mocking the rituals of Masons and other secret organizations. Underlying the humor, though, was a single, serious aim: “to foster the health, happiness, and long life of its members.” Unconventional it was, and it has remained, as this blog post can attest. (As can this author, who spoke at the 2014 annual convention. The genuine displays of fellowship and fun were impressive.) Many organizations do good deeds in the local community and help others following a disaster, but few have as much fun as the Hoo-Hoos.

Having a female member in the early days of the organization certainly made Hoo-Hoo unconventional in the male-dominated world of lumber. But that soon came to an end. When Mary Ann Smith died on July 25, 1926, at age 68, she was, officially, still the only female member. Not long after her passing, the bylaws were amended to provide only for males over age 21. For the next sixty years, women attended the conventions with their husbands but couldn’t join.

Little was done about this until the 1986 convention, when delegates first voted to remove the Eligibility clause from the bylaws. A proposal to do so was voted on every year after but failed to pass until 1993. In March of that year, the motion to amend the Hoo-Hoo International Bylaws to strike the word “male” from the Eligibility clause was again put forward. To be eligible you now only had to meet the age requirement and of course to “be of good moral character.” In seconding the motion, Royce Munderloh declared: “Tradition has played a big part in the debate concerning this issue. The world has changed greatly in the last 100 years, and many traditions have changed for the best.” And so the change was made. At the 101st international convention in 1993, with the by-laws revised to open membership to women, Beth Thomas, the executive secretary of Hoo-Hoo and manager of the Hoo-Hoo Museum in Gurdon, was the first woman accepted into the organization in this new era. She was concatted with two other women.

Other women joined the Hoo-Hoo organization through local chapters soon thereafter. In November 1993, another Mary—Mary O’Meara Moynihan—was concatted with the first group of women admitted into the Twin Cities Club. She’d been part of her family’s business for much of her life, so it made business sense for her to join. When asked in late 2011 what her goals in Hoo-Hoo were, she simply declared, “In 2013, I hope to become Snark”—leader of the of the worldwide Hoo-Hoo organization. She was only off by a few months with that prediction. In 2014, Mary became the first female Grand Snark of the Universe. Now in its 125th year, International Concatenated Order of the Hoo-Hoo is led by another woman, Robyn Roose Beckett. The unconventional organization is now conventional.

Grand Snark Robyn Beckett (center) with six new members of Hoo-Hoo, concatted at the 2016 convention.

Grand Snark Robyn Beckett (center) with six new Hoo-Hoo members, who were concatted at the 2016 convention. The diversity of ages and races found in this group is not unusual anymore either.

Known as “America’s Sweetheart” during the silent film era, Mary Pickford became one of the most powerful women in the history of Hollywood. By 1916, she was earning $10,000 a week plus half the profits of every film in which she appeared (and there were a lot!). And she was producing the movies she acted in and got to choose her director and had say over the film’s final cut. Then in 1919 with her soon-to-be husband Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith, she became one of the founders of the film distribution company United Artists. By all accounts, she had the sharpest business mind of the group.

marypickfordxmastreeWith the arrival of talking pictures in 1929, Mary’s acting days were numbered. Born in 1892, by 1932 she could no longer play the young waif or ingenue; besides, fickle audiences had moved on to the “next big thing.” She recognized this change and effectively retired from film work the next year. But her philanthropic work continued unabated. During the first world war, she had barnstormed the country selling war bonds. In 1921, she helped launch the Motion Picture Relief Fund to help actors down on their luck. She was a supporter of the American Reforestation Association in the 1920s, and on numerous occasions was photographed with Fairbanks and others planting trees. You can see some of those images on the Mary Pickford Foundation website.

Mary and Doug were the original “Hollywood royalty.” They hosted benefit parties at their Beverly Hills estate Pickfair, a practice that continued for many years, even after she had divorced Fairbanks and remarried in 1936. But when they moved there in 1920, they were pioneers. No other stars lived in the small city. But as the biggest stars of the day, their unprecedented move to Beverly Hills drew other stars like moths to a flame. Chaplin, who was close friends with Fairbanks, moved in next door and others followed them into what would become one of the poshest zip codes in the country. The happy couple devoted what little free time they had to civic duties around town. In the 1920s, Mary served as honorary chairman of the Christmas Trees Committee of the Chamber. In 1928, she and the city’s chamber of commerce worked together to promote decorating live trees for Christmas. Mary held the honor of turning on the lights of the big Christmas tree each year. She even returned from New York at the behest of former mayor Will Rogers to do so that year. For Christmas 1932, the plan was for everyone across the city who was going to decorate an outdoor tree with lights to turn them on at the same time on December 24. “This will, indeed, present a novel and interesting effect when the myriads of lighted trees make their dramatic appearance against the dark curtain of the night,” predicted Willoughby Welsh in the magazine American Forests. The trees on the hilltop residences such as Pickfair must have made a striking vision. You can read the article here.

beverlyhillsxmastree

(First published in 2008, this blog posted was updated in 2012 and, after finding the letters to his sisters on the Theodore Roosevelt Center’s website, again in 2016.)

There’s a good deal of misinformation about how Theodore Roosevelt refused to allow a Christmas tree in the White House because of “environmental concerns.” A bit of research kept turning up variations on the story about the ban and how his son Archie smuggled one in against his father’s wishes, which provoked an angry reaction. Some versions of the story include dialogue between father and son, and some have the children involving Gifford Pinchot, the federal chief of forestry, to defend their actions. The incident is even the subject of a children’s book by Gary Hines which, though historical fiction, is no farther from (or closer to) the truth than the historical record as it now exists.

While the Roosevelts’ lack of a tree was not a complete break in tradition—a holiday tree in the White House did not become established annual practice until the 1920s—it was still a notable exclusion. Prior to Roosevelt, Christmas trees were a fairly rare occurrence in the White House. Legend has it that the fifteenth president, James Buchanan, had the first tree, but even that is disputed, with some sources saying Franklin Pierce had the first one in 1853. (Keep in mind that as late as the 1840s, most Americans viewed Christmas trees as pagan symbols; the day itself was treated with great solemnity.)

Nevertheless, nineteenth-century American households typically didn’t put one up unless there were young children in the house; they placed the presents under or even on the tree for the tykes. Presidents Grant and Cleveland both had Christmas trees in the White House only because they had young children, while presidents without young children had no tree. Interestingly, on their website, the White House Historical Association claims Benjamin Harrison had the first recorded Christmas tree in 1889 but makes no mention of any before then, and that electric lights were first used on a Christmas tree in 1894.

Regardless of its origins, by Roosevelt’s presidency, a growing opposition to Christmas trees was reaching its peak. Many among the general public opposed cutting trees for the holiday because of the injurious impact on forests, the destructive methods used to harvest them, or the overall perceived wastefulness of the practice. The U.S. Forest Service Newsclipping Files in the FHS Archives contain numerous newspaper editorials from around the turn of the century strongly challenging the practice. The Hartford Courant in 1902 commented that “the green has become a nuisance, there is so much of it.  Everything from a church to a saloon has to be decorated. The result is that the woods are being stripped and an altogether endless sacrifice is going on, not in obedience to any real need but just to meet the calls of an absurd fad.” In what sounds like the debates over natural vs. artificial trees today, others called for artificial substitutes such as wire Christmas trees:

1899 newspaper editorial

(from Minneapolis Times, January 6, 1899)

President Roosevelt himself was on record as opposing destructive lumbering practices, though he doesn’t appear to have singled out the practice of harvesting Christmas trees. (It is worth noting that Chief Forester Pinchot actually saw nothing wrong with the practice, and by 1907 was even urging the creation of businesses specifically for growing them.) A few contemporary newspaper articles note how family tradition held that the Roosevelts never had one. Unphased, each year the press enjoyed speculating about whether the family would have a tree. It was expected that Roosevelt—the father of six children—would have a tree in the White House despite this. What happened in 1902 made the news, however, and soon passed into legend.

Archie Roosevelt -- The Child, The Myth, The Legend!

Archie Roosevelt – The Child, The Myth, The Legend!

This much we know for certain: in 1901, having moved into the White House only a few months before, the Roosevelt children enjoyed a tree at their cousin’s house but not in their own home. In 1902, Roosevelt’s eight-year-old son Archie “had a little birthday tree of his own which he had rigged up” in a big closet with help from “one of the carpenters.” There’s no mention of lights—that’s only implied when saying the tree was “rigged up.” Archie decorated it with gifts for each family member and even the family pets. Afterward, they adjourned to another room where everyone opened their presents. Roosevelt, in a letter written the next day to a friend of the children’s, discussed the tree but did not offer a reaction to it.

Yet, with that tree, it seems that Archie may have begun a family tradition. In a letter to his sister Corrine Robinson penned on December 26, 1906, the president writes:

Archie and Quentin have gradually worked up a variant on what is otherwise a strictly inherited form of our celebration, for they fix up (or at least Archie fixes up) a special Christmas tree in Archie’s room, which is the play-room; and the first thing we had to do was to go in and to admire that. Meanwhile, two of the children had slipt [sic] out, and when we got back to our room there was a small lighted Christmas tree with two huge stockings for Edith and myself, the children’s stockings (which included one for [son-in-law] Nick) reposing, swollen and bulging, on the sofa.

On page two of a letter written to his sister Anna Cowles, whom he called “Bye,” on Christmas Day 1907, he mentions in passing that on that afternoon, following a full day of horseback riding and visiting friends, “there was a Christmas tree of Archie’s.” The comment was offered so casually that it appears that Archie having a tree was not only not a surprise, but that it was expected. This might explain why the children had provided a tree especially for their parents the year before—to surprise them once again as they had in 1902.

Incidentally, newspaper articles from 1903 to 1908 mention that there will be no tree that year but speculate about what will happen and if Archie will pull a fast one. Some articles from 1903, 1904, and 1905 claim Archie had a secret tree each of those years, with the writers essentially repeating the events of 1902 as if it just happened for the first time. Oddly, the articles are dated December 24th or even the 25th. But, as previously stated, we know for certain that Archie did have a tree in 1906 and 1907, and that from President Roosevelt’s letter in 1906 we can infer that Archie had one in the years between 1903 and 1905.

The first lengthy account of Archie’s first tree may have been in a Ladies Home Journal article from December 1903 written by Robert Lincoln O’Brien, former executive clerk at the White House. In his account of the events of Christmas 1902, O’Brien claims that Quentin’s nurse suggested enlisting the household electrician to rig up lights. He also recounts the unveiling of the tree, which was the top of an evergreen no more than two feet high and purchased for twenty cents. He quotes Archie as saying at the time of the unveiling, “Just look here for a minute. I want you to glance into this old closet,” before pressing a button to turn on the lights and opening the closet door. O’Brien wrote, “All the family were there, as was Quentin’s nurse, but none appeared more astonished than Mr. Roosevelt himself at the sight of this diminutive Christmas tree.”

Illustration from the 1903 article in Ladies Home Journal.

From Robert Lincoln O’Brien’s article in Ladies Home Journal.

O’Brien also addresses the rumors as to why the Roosevelt family didn’t have a tree in previous years. He says some speculated that “the President’s love for the living things of the forest in their own natural setting” was so great “that he prefers not to encourage the wanton slaughter of small trees.” O’Brien summarizes the debate over “the Christmas-tree practice” as being between those who believe “that trees are made for the use and enjoyment of man” and “man might as well pick out what he wants,” versus those who believe that “best-shaped trees” are the ones selected for holiday harvest and “are the very ones that the world can least afford to lose.” Instead, he writes, it’s a matter of personal preference. The family was so large, and with nearly every room in the White House “overloaded with things” during the holiday season, displaying trees “would only add so much more.” Rather, Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt desired to enjoy Christmas as simply as possible.

The environmental arguments circulating in 1902 soon became the reason for the ban, despite such explanations to the contrary. In a December 1909 article in the Oregonian about the history of Christmas in the White House, the motive for banning the Christmas tree, in language that closely echoes O’Brien, is linked to “the wanton destruction of small evergreen trees at Christmas time.” But then, the reader is told, “Mr. [Gifford] Pinchot, the Government’s chief forester, sided with Santa Claus and showed how Christmas tree cutting did the forests good in many places. So the second [w]inter the Roosevelts spent in the White House Old Kris conspired with roguish Archie to give the family a real Christmas tree, whether the nature-loving President liked it or not.” Here, for the first time, Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot is drawn into the drama—and sides with the children by discussing the benefits of selection cutting. This author is vague about who Pinchot lectures on the topic, but the message gets through to the President and he relents in the face of science.

Fast-forward 80 years, and the story is twisted even further and becomes almost fantasy. In a December 1988 article in The Northern Logger and Timber Processor, Dick O’Donnell introduces several errors (for starters, the story occurs in 1905, and he claims that this incident started the White House Christmas tree tradition) and veers so close to historical fiction that I won’t even bother further deconstructing and critiquing his account. But O’Donnell does spin a great yarn. He tells us with a straight face that, in 1905, Archie has the idea for the tree but Quentin is worried by their father’s ban. Archie’s solution is to pay Forester Pinchot a visit and enlist their father’s friend and adviser for help. He not only sides with them, but then Pinchot proceeds to teach President Roosevelt about selection cutting. The president then calls a press conference to announce a change in forest management policy on federal lands. But perhaps the conversations O’Donnell conjures up between Archie and Quentin, and between Roosevelt and Pinchot, gave Gary Hines the basis for his wonderful children’s book. So it can’t be all bad.

We are trying to answer the following questions: What were the real reasons behind why Roosevelt did not allow a tree in the White House?  And how and when did the crux of the current legend—that Roosevelt banned trees from the White house due to environmental concerns—come about? Did Roosevelt ever oppose the Christmas tree due to concern for America’s forests, or is this all just a case of when the legend becomes fact, print the legend?

On October 17, 1916, the Pisgah National Forest was the first national forest established under the Weeks Act of 1911. Written by FHS historian Jamie Lewis, this post was originally published in the online version of the Asheville Citizen-Times on October 14, 2016, and in print on October 16 to mark the centennial.

“When people walk around this forest … at every step of the way, they’re encountering nature, some of which has been regenerated by the initiatives of those generations they know not—they know nothing about. And I think that that’s ultimately the greatest gift: that you’ve given to them beautiful, working landscapes and you don’t know where they came from.”

Historian Char Miller closes our new documentary film, America’s First Forest, by acknowledging those who labored to create the Pisgah National Forest, which celebrates its centennial on October 17. We chose that quote because it simultaneously summed up the Pisgah’s history and looked to its future by implicitly asking who would carry on the work of the early generations in managing this national forest.

Miller is right. The Pisgah is a gift from many people—some whose names are familiar but many whose names are not. Most have heard of George Vanderbilt, or his Biltmore Estate. His greatest gift, however, was not to himself but to the nation. He hired renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design Biltmore’s grounds. Creator of New York’s Central Park and other urban green spaces, Olmsted saw in this project opportunity to give back to the nation, and through Vanderbilt a way to do so. In 1890, Vanderbilt needed a forester. America needed forestry. Olmsted advised hiring a professional forester who would demonstrate to America that one could cut trees and preserve the forest at the same time.

Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot, who then crafted the first-ever sustainable forest management plan in the United States. Pinchot later gave back to the country in his own way: in 1905, he established the U.S. Forest Service, providing the nation with an institution to manage its national forests and grasslands. But before leaving Vanderbilt’s employ in 1895, Pinchot did two things: he facilitated Vanderbilt’s purchase of an additional 100,000 acres, which Vanderbilt named Pisgah Forest, and he recommended hiring German forester Carl Schenck to implement his management plan.

Schenck’s “experimental” practices not only restored the forest but also improved its wildlife and fish habitat. This turned Pisgah Forest into a revenue source as well as a playground for its owner: a sustainably managed forest can provide all those things and more.

In 1898 Schenck established the Biltmore Forest School—the country’s first forestry school—to educate men wanting to become forest managers or owners. Many of the nearly 400 graduates also served in the Forest Service. The impact of Schenck’s gift is still seen on public and private forests today. Thankfully Congress preserved the school grounds as the Cradle of Forestry in America historic site.

On top, George W. Vanderbilt; next to him, his friend and physician, Dr. S. W. Battle; next, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt in her riding suit; lowest, Miss Marion Olmsted, daughter of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (FHS356)

On top, George W. Vanderbilt; next to him, his friend and physician, Dr. S. W. Battle; next, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt in her riding suit; lowest, Miss Marion Olmsted, daughter of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. Photo taken in 1901 at Lookingglass Rock. (FHS356)

These men are not the only ones to thank for the Pisgah National Forest. In 1899 Asheville physician Chase Ambler mobilized citizens to protect the region’s scenery and climate. Pressured by conservation groups from the South and New England, Congress passed the Weeks Act of 1911, which empowered the federal government to purchase private land for the Forest Service to manage. This legislative gift pleased not only preservationists like Ambler by protecting scenery and recreation areas, but also conservationists because the land remained available for logging and other extractive activities.

In 1914 George Vanderbilt’s widow, Edith, sold Pisgah Forest for a fraction of its value in part to “perpetuate” the conservation legacy of her husband, and as a “contribution” to the American people. Pisgah Forest became the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest, the first established under the Weeks Act, and Biltmore Forest School graduate Verne Rhoades became its first supervisor, in 1916.

But that is the past. The future of the Pisgah National Forest (and its neighbor the Nantahala) is being written now. The U.S. Forest Service is drafting a forest management plan to guide how it manages the forests for the next dozen or so years. At public meetings, the Forest Service has been hearing from citizens and groups like the Pisgah Conservancy to help it craft the forest’s future. Like Carl Schenck and Vern Rhoades before them, Pisgah’s current managers face great uncertainties, only now in the form of forest pests and disease, climate change, and a place so attractive that its visitors are “loving it to death.” Those who cherish the Pisgah for its “beautiful, working landscapes” can honor those who gave us that gift by continuing to sustainably manage it. That can ultimately be our greatest gift to future generations.

Normally the entrance to a national forest has a small sign with the Forest Service shield on it. This entrance to the Pisgah National Forest was a memorial arch constructed to honor the memory of the men of Transylvania County, North Carolina, killed in World War I. (U.S. Forest Service photo -- negative number 185843)

Normally the entrance to a national forest has a small sign with the Forest Service shield on it. This entrance to the Pisgah National Forest was a memorial arch constructed to honor the memory of the men of Transylvania County, North Carolina, killed in World War I. (U.S. Forest Service photo — negative number 185843)