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The Great Christmas Tree Theft of 1931

Cranberry Hill.jpg
Wisconsin Historical Society

State funded reforestation of the cutover regions of the Northwoods began in earnest in 1911 at the Trout Lake Tree Nursery near Star Lake. Seedlings of native tree species were planted across the Northwoods, and the forests we enjoy today are a result of those early restoration efforts.

By the late 1920s a new problem arose related to reforestation. Many early plantings of balsam, fir, and pine trees had reached the height where they made perfect Christmas Trees. A few local people going out and taking a tree for Christmas was not the issue, however. The problem came from large-scale Christmas Tree dealers coming out of Chicago and other areas. These dealers went on to public lands, sometimes encroaching on private land, and hauled off trees by the truckload. The state had invested thousands of dollars and countless manhours in reforestation. It had to step in to regulate this unethical business practice. By 1932, the legislature passed a law requiring Christmas Tree dealers to obtain and pay for a permit before harvesting any trees.

In 1931, the year before the holiday theft of trees from public lands was curtailed, it seemed for a time as if one of the dealers had been brazen enough to come into the city of Rhinelander and cut down a prize tree from someone’s yard. In the week before Christmas 1931, Edward Brown left his home on 209 Frederick Street and went to his banking job. When he returned in the evening, he noticed a spruce tree that formerly had adorned his front yard was now reduced to a mere stump. Someone had cut down his tree in broad daylight and simply walked off with it.

Brown was outraged at the audacity of the thief. He notified the police that he wanted the perpetrators caught and let the public know that he was offering a $10 reward for information leading to an arrest.

When news of the missing tree was made public, some schoolteachers in Rhinelander’s Curran School realized what must have happened. The year 1931 was the height of the Great Depression, and even two dollars for a Christmas Tree was a lot of money for someone on a low income. As the fall term was ending, one of the teachers asked the students if one or more of their families could help her get a tree to celebrate the holiday season. The expectation was, of course, that one of them would go out to the woods and find a nice tree for her.

Young George Caldwell, son of Alderman Robert Caldwell, knew exactly where to find the perfect tree. Taking a handsaw that he got as a Christmas present the previous year, George went to the Brown yard, cut down the tree, and proudly presented it to his teacher.

When word of who cut the tree and why he took it got out, an embarrassed Alderman Caldwell sheepishly went to the Brown residence to apologize for his son. Fortunately, Brown understood what had happened and in the spirit of Christmas forgave the young boy.

It was an unforgettable Christmas for everyone involved.

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In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.