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The Million-Dollar Tree

Written by Lori Grossman.

It just isn’t Christmas without observing that time-honored custom—driving around to look at the lights. You say the bigger the display, the better? Well, I have a “must-see” tree for you.

Truly Texas-sized, a majestic pecan tree in Highland Park (near Dallas) stands over 70 feet tall, with a trunk diameter of four feet, seven inches, and a crown spread of around 80 feet. Every Christmas, this historic landmark—it’s more than 140 years old—is decked out in finery that attracts admirers young and old. They gaze in wonder at what has been called “the world’s greatest Christmas tree.”

Our story (or rather, the tree’s story) begins with the arrival, from Virginia, of Dr. John Cole, his wife, Polly, and their nine children in 1843. Dr. Cole had obtained a land grant of 640 acres as a settler in the Peters Colony. An important trail, named Preston Road for William G. Preston (see Speaking of Texas, April 2006), a captain in the Army of the Republic of Texas, cut across the newcomers’ land. This roadway would lead many immigrants south to new homes, as well as herds of Texas Longhorns north to market.

The first physician/pharmacist in the future Dallas County, Dr. Cole built a log house for his large brood, planted an orchard and herbs for making medicines, and farmed the land across Preston Road. This area, which years later would come to be known as Highland Park West, was, back then, an open expanse of treeless prairie.

Joseph Larkin Cole, Dr. Cole’s seventh son, was 18 months old when the family came to Texas. His was a busy boyhood, spent helping his father farm, run stock, and raise Morgan horses. He was only nine when his father died in 1851.

When the Civil War broke out, Joe joined Company C, Sixth Texas Cavalry, mounted one of his family’s fine horses, and rode off to join the fray. He saw action in several battles, had three horses shot out from under him, and sustained a wound. Lucky to have survived, he returned home in the spring of 1865, dressed in a tattered uniform and riding on a mule. When Joe approached the house, Uncle Jim, one of the family’s former slaves, was outside splitting wood. When he looked up and saw Joe, he almost didn’t recognize the scarecrow-like figure.

Joe recovered and soon returned to farming. It was during either plowing or the fall corn harvesting (sources disagree on this) that a wagon wheel accidentally flattened a small pecan sapling. In a 1951 interview with the Park Cities News, Joe’s oldest child, Mary Brower, explained what happened next: “My father saw it, stopped, dug a hole, and put the tree back in the ground. There was a rail fence nearby, and he got a broken rail to stake it with so it wouldn’t get knocked over again.”

From that time on, the small pecan tree received special attention. Joe trimmed and pruned its lower branches so that as it grew, it would provide welcome shade during the hot Texas summers. As the little pecan flourished, so did Joe. He married and, by the time his daughter Mary was a few years old, the tree was big enough to shelter her first playhouse. When Joe sold his land in 1888—for $120 an acre—he requested that future owners allow the tree to grow undisturbed. Contrary to local legend, this wasn’t included in the deed, but his wish has been respected ever since.

The property changed hands several times before major development took place in the area. In 1906, John Armstrong bought a portion of the land that bordered on Turtle Creek. In partnership with Thomas Marsalis, Armstrong was already an experienced city developer. In 1884, the pair had bought 2,000 acres of Dallas County land and sold lots in what became the community of Oak Cliff. Now, Armstrong conceived plans for an upscale neighborhood with exclusive homes and plenty of green space. He named the development Highland Park.

Armstrong and his two sons-in-law, Edgar Flippen and Hugh Prather, got down to work. They hired California landscape architect Wilbur David Cook—who had designed Beverly Hills—to plan the layout. Development began in 1907 east of Preston Road, and was almost complete by the time Highland Park West (west of Preston Road) began development in 1924. Flippen and Prather took charge after John Armstrong’s death in 1908. They chose George Kessler—responsible for the so-called Kessler Plan of 1909, which designed and improved most of downtown Dallas—to plan this last section of Highland Park.

The lot containing the pecan tree was, so to speak, the toughest nut to crack. Flippen and Prather debated over the best way of preserving the tree. The lot attracted many offers, one of which, it was rumored, was a million dollars. Finally, the tree was given its own landscaped thoroughfare, Armstrong Parkway, named in honor of John Armstrong.

With interest in the “Million-Dollar Pecan Tree” steadily increasing, the Prather family began illuminating it for Christmas in 1927. When Highland Park West was incorporated into Highland Park proper in 1928, the town took over the decorating duties. Since then, the tradition has continued every holiday season, except during World War II and the 1973 energy crisis.

Before 1978, the Highland Park Police Department took charge of switching the tree lights on and off. The official lighting ceremony began that year, and it continues today.

On the first Thursday evening in December, Highland Park’s mayor welcomes the crowd, usually 300 to 400 people. Then, the mayor tells the pecan tree’s story and explains how the lighting tradition got started. Next, the Highland Park High School choir (called the “Lads & Lassies”) sings traditional Christmas carols. At that point, a special guest usually joins the festivities.

“In past years, we’ve been very fortunate to have Santa Claus show up riding on a fire truck,” says Ronnie Brown, director of Park’s Parks, Recreation, and Sanitation Department. “It’s exciting every year to see the kids respond to Santa.” Still, the biggest attraction is the tree itself. Ronnie says that drive-by traffic can be almost bumper-to-bumper during the holiday season.

If putting up your own lights stresses you out, be grateful you don’t have to trim the Highland Park pecan tree. Parks foreman Jimmy Contreras supervises this complicated operation, which actually begins in August.

“We start by checking each individual light bulb to make sure it works,” says Jimmy. “That takes two men about two to three days. Then they check each individual strand, plus the electrical wiring and sockets. That takes two men about two weeks.” When all is in working order, the strands are rolled up and stored until the second week of November-tree-trimming time.

“Last year, we used just over 3,000 lights on the tree itself,” says Jimmy. “In addition, we use 2,400 mini-lights wrapped around the trunk of the tree. It takes eight people to hang the lights. We rent a 60-foot aerial bucket truck to trim the taller part of the tree. It all takes about two-and-a-half days.”

Because of its age, the beloved tree receives lots of tender loving care all year long. Ronnie Brown explains that a consulting arborist annually checks for disease, fertilizes the root system, and prunes out any dead wood. The tree was struck by lightning in 1982, but, luckily, the damage was manageable. To minimize the possibility of another strike, a braided copper lightning rod was added.

In 1951, another pecan tree was planted behind the original. Grown from one of its pecans, this tree will eventually replace the big tree, which was honored in 1986 with a bronze plaque designating it a Park Cities Historical Landmark. (Since the average lifespan of pecan trees in an urban setting is about 75 years, this one, at 142 years, is quite old.)

This beautiful Yuletide sight has inspired others to try to re-create some Christmas magic of their own. Usually, they’re advised to contact Ronnie Brown (a.k.a. “the pecan tree expert”). “About 10 years ago, folks at SMU asked about decorating the avenue of live oak trees that leads up to Dallas Hall,” Ronnie recalls. “And a resident of Alamo Heights contacted me last year to find out what goes into lighting our pecan tree. This person wanted to convince Alamo Heights city officials to do the same thing there.”

No one really knows how the pecan tree turned up in Joe Cole’s cornfield. The theory is that a bird picked up a pecan in a grove along Turtle Creek, then dropped it while in flight. The tree has survived being run over by a wagon wheel and being struck by lightning to amaze and delight us for many a Christmas.

In a 1948 Dallas Morning News article, writer Kenneth Foree said the tree “is probably the greatest Christmas tree in the world.” When you see it, I think you’ll agree.

Tree Lighting

The annual tree-lighting ceremony takes place at 7 p.m. the first Thu. in Dec. (Dec. 6, 2007). To reach the historic pecan tree from downtown Dallas, take US 75 (Central Expwy.) North, exit at Mockingbird Lane, and turn left (west) onto Mockingbird Lane. Continue on Mockingbird, and turn left onto Preston Rd. Drive about 1 mile to Armstrong Pkwy. Turn right; the tree is directly ahead in the middle of the parkway. Admission: Free. Activities include a sing-along with High¬land Park High School’s choir (the Lads & Lassies) and the arrival of Santa in a fire truck.

Passersby can see the lighted tree anytime after Dec. 6 through New Year’s Day. The lights are on daily from dusk-1 a.m.

Highland Park Village (designated a Natl. Historic Landmark for its status as the oldest outdoor shopping center in the nation) is 1 mile north of the pecan tree, on Preston Rd. (corner of Preston Rd. and Mockingbird Lane). From Nov. 23 through New Year’s Day, the center features a large lighted tree, lighting throughout, and carriage rides.

Highland Park encompasses 2.26 square miles and lies about 3 miles north of downtown Dallas. The legendary pecan tree is at 4200 Armstrong Pkwy. Call 214/521-4161; www.hptx.org.

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