In 1967, when the Zilker Holiday Tree — promoted as the “Tallest Man-Made Tree” — first lit up the Austin sky, longtime City Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem Emma Long pushed the start button.
The next year, sporting a red-and-white Santa costume, Cathy Wettig, 8, pressed the button to light the 165-foot, 82,500-watt tree, built around a moonlight tower. The student at Lucy Read Elementary School had won the honor by acing an Austin school district art contest, a tradition that continues.
Well, one year it didn’t work out.
During the energy crisis of 1973, when the contest was won by young Jon Madani, a third-grader at Barrington Elementary School, the city’s electric department skipped the lighting ceremony. Forty years later, in 2013, Mayor Lee Leffingwell made things right by asking Madani to do the honors.
“He invited that little boy — now a middle-aged adult — who won the art contest during the ’70s and who was deprived of the right his artistic talent had won him to finally throw the switch,” says James Russell, director of the Trail of Lights Foundation. “That’s my favorite fun story about the tree.”
On Nov. 27, Austin Energy will once again set the skies softly ablaze after a 50th lighting. Russell will be there.
“I don’t have children, but I have dogs, and they love the tree,” he says. “Granted, it’s not the tree so much as it is the little bits of food truck gold that get dropped each night.”
A tale of three tall towers
Before we go any deeper into the story of the tree, we must update the history of this particular moonlight tower. Or rather, moonlight towers.
Last week, we reported the account of restoration architect and moontower expert David Hoffman, who had traced its origin to a 1967 replica tower that was then replaced in the 1990s with parts integrated from an original 1890s version. As we went to press, Hoffman checked his records again.
“It now looks to me like the first tower in Zilker Park was placed there in 1950 from the components of a tower being removed from West 29th Street and North Lamar Boulevard,” he writes us. “They were first planning on erecting a tower in Zilker that was being removed from East Austin earlier in the same year, but the neighborhood objected to its removal.”
Decades later, the rusting authentic tower, first decorated in 1967, was supplanted in 1972 by a facsimile, according to a Sept. 14, 1972, article published in the Austin American. A third tower followed two decades later.
“The 1972 replica was replaced with an authentic tower during the 1993-1995 restoration of the whole group of towers,” Hoffman says. “So three towers in Zilker: No. 1, relocated original tower in 1950; No. 2, replica tower in 1972; and No. 3, relocated original tower in 1993-95.”
Got all that?
The making of a tradition
Newspaper records of the tree and its traditions give a sense of its meaning through the past 49 years.
A Dec. 10, 1967, article, for instance, racked up raw numbers to boost the claim that it was the “Tallest Man-Made ‘Tree.’” At 165 feet, it was 100 feet taller than the National Christmas Tree in Washington D.C. Its 10-foot-tall glowing white star was made of “unistrut aluminum metal” and was designed to “draw 2,000 watts.” Built under Dexter Kenney, director of the Austin Electrical Department, it could be seen from “all parts of the city.”
Comparisons were made to another bright city spot, the baseball stadium on Auditorium Shores, then called Disch Field. The tree was calculated to draw as much as “58 Disch units of light.” That year, the crew hung 3,000 blue, green and yellow lights on it.
According to the 1967 article, it was conceived by Mrs. Alden Davis, special chairwoman of Yule Fest, which, as the Trail of Lights, celebrated its 50th in 2014.
Through the years, media reports on the age and height of the tree, the number of streamers and lights and other data varied widely. And each year, different community musical groups led the gathered adults and children in holiday song.
Among the most amusing — and, in a sense, predictable — stories was published on Dec. 15, 1976, under the headline: “Zilker ‘tree’ tallest in U.S. or tall tale?”
A visitor to our city, Mrs. Catherine Duke of Shelby, Ind., objected to Austin’s claim to a superlative height. Turns out a similar type of holiday tree, streamed around the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Indianapolis, was 120 feet higher and strung with 15,000 lights on 52 steel strands. Assembling it required 300 workers and 4,000 volunteers, according to the head of that city’s electric company.
“We are not in any contest,” Zilker Park manager Jack Robinson responded in defense of the Zilker Tree. “But we think it is the most unique and beautiful replica, whether it’s the tallest or not.”
Another article reminded readers that the tradition of holiday lights on Congress Avenue went back at least to 1927 and that they were also strung along Sixth Street and atop the downtown bridges over the lake. Before 1973, they were lit from dusk to dawn, but the energy crisis demanded variable hours instead.
Public sensitivity over possibly wasted electricity lasted at least until 1980, when, back over in Zilker Park, the lights were restricted to six hours a night — and none of the 25-watt bulbs were replaced during that holiday season.
“I remember when you could drive through the Trail of Lights,” says Mark Strama, head of Google Fiber operations in Austin. His company is a major funder of the Trail Foundation. “What I remember about the Zilker Tree back then was laying down under the tree and wishing I had a camera in my mobile phone so I could take a picture. Just kidding. No one had mobile phones back then.”
Trail Foundation leader Russell’s memories go back to childhood.
“I can vaguely recall visiting the tree as a 6-, 7- or 8-year-old with my parents,” he says. “The first full experience, though, was 2013 during the tree lighting ceremony and getting to see all the 6-, 7- or 8-year-olds with their parents getting all of the excitement that they could handle.”
Russell hits on one reason the tree claims a special place in the lives of Austinites.
“It’s something that can be shared between generations, as it can be relied on to be just as it was ‘way back when,’” he says. Speaking of which, longtime Austinites were disturbed when a Ferris wheel was placed near the tree, altering its special position on the skyline.
Russell says the foundation always wanted the wheel placed inside the Trail of Lights, not so close to the tree.
“The original placement was due to access — or lack thereof,” he says. “We didn’t want to attempt to set it up on the grass on the Great Lawn for fear of turf damage. Plus, each area of pavement also had tree canopy that we certainly did not want to impact. The following spring, a real tree actually fell on the Great Lawn side of the park during a storm. This allowed us the access to place the Ferris wheel on an existing crushed granite area near where the tree had fallen.”
The Zilker Tree stays lighted for more than a month, longer than the Trail of Lights. Santa’s Village, formerly near the tree, is now located at the “North Pole” in the Trail. Thanks in part to Google Fiber’s donations, the foundation covers all the management costs around the activities at the tree, and Austin Energy foots the bill for wattage, setup and takedown.
“Every year when I visit the tree, I see people lying on their backs — sometimes in the freezing mud — aiming a camera upward as their family huddles over them, trying to capture that iconic image of the tree viewed from underneath,” Strama says. “We’re going to provide professional photographers using high-quality cameras to capture that image for them, so everyone can be in the picture, and no one has to roll in the mud. When you get home, all clean and dry, you can download your photo, and share it on social media.”
Of course, kids come away with their own impressions.
Strama: “I asked my 9-year-old what she thinks of when she thinks about the tree, and she said: ‘Hot chocolate, and lots and lots and lots of lights!’ Probably not in that order.”
UPDATE: The location of Disch Field was corrected.
The Zilker Holiday Tree
Tree lighting: 6 p.m. Nov. 27.
Visit: 6 p.m. to midnight Nov. 28-Dec. 31.
Note: Crowds will be larger during the Trail of Lights, which is Dec. 10-23 (after a fun run on Dec. 3). Trail of Lights information at austintrailoflights.org.