Where did Chandler get its Tumbleweed Tree?
Post written by Jody Crago and Nate Meyers, Chandler Museum
Here’s the myth: A fire in late 1956 or early 1957 destroyed all of Chandler’s Christmas decorations. Earle Barnum came up with the idea for the tumbleweed tree after seeing a tree built with local pine boughs in his hometown in Indiana.
Here’s the skinny according to news articles: In 1957, Arizona Public Service replaced all the light poles in Downtown. The new poles were too flimsy to support the massive strings of colored lights that the town used for decoration. A committee, headed by Bill Wilson, manager of the JC Penney store in Chandler, was tasked with developing new Christmas decorations.
Wilson and his committee presented their plan to the Chandler Community Coordinating Council in September. The plan called for improvements to the displays in the Downtown park and along Arizona Avenue. Several main decorations were suggested: banners placed over the roads entering the city, decorations mounted on light poles, a “modern tumbleweed Christmas tree,” an animated Santa with his reindeer, a nativity that would fill most of the west half of the park, and a western themed Christmas display. The Wilson Report, as the plan was called, was eagerly accepted by the Coordinating Council. The Business and Professional Women’s Club of Chandler was tasked with raising the necessary funds.
The greatest excitement for the new displays centered around the light pole decorations. The committee’s plan was to make 80 cotton boll wreaths and mount them on every light pole in Downtown and along Arizona Avenue. The previous year, Barnum had designed several four-foot-wide wreaths made from cotton bolls and painted silver, which he had used to decorate his home and the Nazarene Church. The wreaths were the talk of the town. The Chandler Arizonan newspaper printed weekly updates on the construction progress of the wreaths until they were put on display on December 2. From that point, the newspaper accounts gushed over the uniqueness and beauty that the wreaths brought to Downtown.
The Tumbleweed Tree, the focus of our celebrations today, seemed like an afterthought and gained little attention in the newspaper. It was not until the Christmas edition of the paper was printed that a photo of the tree finally appeared. A community sing was held surrounding the tree, but the advertisement for the event failed to mention the unique aspect that the tree was not pine, but rather tumbleweed. The only mention of Barnum and the first Tumbleweed Tree together appears in the Phoenix Gazette, which listed him as Chandler’s “decoration designer.”
It seems it took three years for the community to think of the Tumbleweed Tree as the central aspect of Chandler’s holiday decorations. By 1959, the Arizonan newspaper was boasting about the “great Tumbleweed Tree,” and the excitement over the cotton boll wreaths had disappeared as the decorating committee returned to traditional green wreaths. The Arizonan even suggested that readers send photos and postcards of the tree to friends and relatives around the country in order to spread its renown.
Check out the video history of the Tumbleweed Tree, posted at the City of Chandler’s Facebook page. To see pictures of the Tumbleweed Tree through the years, visit www.chandlerpedia.org, or visit the Chandler Museum at 300 S. Chandler Village Drive, Chandler, AZ 85226. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm. For more information call 480.782.2877.