There can be no better name for a sawyer than Red Stout.
And there’s no higher honor than the one Stout received in 1958, when the J. Neils Lumber Co. of Libby selected him to cut down a Christmas tree high up Pipe Creek for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It was the first of four towering Christmas trees Montana sent to Washington, D.C., and the only one to grace the White House lawn.
The fourth is on its way through Montana behind a Kenworth T680 truck, winding through the western woods for the first three days and scheduled to stop in Harlem and Glasgow on Friday. The 79-foot-tall Engelmann spruce from the Yaak and the Kootenai National Forest will be lit Dec. 5 on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
The Kootenai also provided the Capitol Christmas tree in 1989, in the centennial year of Montana’s statehood. Tree No. 3 from Montana was in 2008, from Rye Creek in the Sapphire Mountains of the Bitterroot National Forest.
The annual tradition of sending a Christmas tree culled from a national forest to the Capitol lawn began in 1968, years after President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree outside the White House in 1923.
To complicate matters, the White House tree — the one the president lights — has been a decorated living tree on the Ellipse, just south of the White House fence, since 1973. And there’s a tree for the Blue Room inside the White House, which Melania Trump will receive Monday from the owners of a Wisconsin tree farm. That’s earlier than the usual day-after-Thanksgiving ritual, as the Trumps are expected to spend the holiday at their home in Palm Beach, Florida.
Word came to Libby in November 1958 that the national tree would be taken from the Kootenai. Five rangers searched for weeks before they found the right tree north of town.
Stout was proactive about being the man to cut the historic Christmas tree. He sent a short note to Mark Schoknecht, a vice president at J. Neils, saying the honor of cutting down the nation’s Christmas tree “would be the greatest ... for Ike is the greatest president we have ever had, I think.”
The congregation that made its way up to the tree that Dec. 1 included a newspaperman from Minnesota. Gary Hiebert wrote the popular “Oliver Towne” column for the St. Paul Dispatch, and was no doubt there by invitation, and perhaps on the dime of, the Great Northern Railway that would haul the tree on two railroad flatcars from Libby to D.C.
His column, as reprinted in the Hungry Horse News of Columbia Falls and other western Montana papers, was in the form of a letter to the president.
“Dear Ike: I hope you enjoy your Christmas tree,” Hiebert began. “I saw it cut down here in a raging blizzard Monday. As a military man you will appreciate that it was a mighty problem in logistics to bring that 93-foot Engelman (sic) Spruce down the snaking, snow-packed road from its birthplace far up Pipe Creek Valley, in the Rockies.”
As president, Hiebert continued, Eisenhower would appreciate the patriotism and love of country “held by those men who labored through one whole day, in the bite of a gale, and the fog of blowing snow, to make certain that for you and yours the 1958 Christmas tree would be the best.
“And as a man, you will know the pride, after heartbreak and chilling cold, when, at last, as daylight faded from that mountain road, we stood and watched the logging truck start the tree on the first leg of its 2,490-mile trip to the White House lawn.”
The tree that had stood on the edge of tumbling Pipe Creek since 1879 wore “a mantle of fresh-fallen snow,” Hiebert noted to Eisenhower. It was a seedling when Rutherford Hayes was president.
“It took 79 years to grow and two minutes to cut,” he said.
“As you stand at dusk on this Dec. 23 and flick the switch that lights the tree for all the nation and world to see ... perhaps you’d like to know a little about that day and the men who were there,” Hiebert said.
Stout, who was in his late 30s, was “about as much an American as any of us. He was born in Hawesville, Kentucky, and came to Libby more than 20 years ago as a member of the CCC. You were his ‘boss’ for four years in World War II, and after that Red came back to Libby as a sawyer for the J. Neils Lumber Co., a division of St. Regis Paper Co.”
Hiebert said Stout stood out in his memory wearing a red plaid lumberjack shirt and “shocking red hard hat.”
The St. Paul man praised the media members who turned out, “the photographers, whose fingers and camera shutters froze; who slid and wallowed up and down drifted hillsides looking for the best pictures ... and fighting snow that clogged their lenses and dripped over view finders.
“They never gave up, even when wind blew snow squalls across their shivering figures. They lined the roadside to catch the minute when Red Stout severed the tree from its Montana mountain roots. And, with a crack heard across the valley, it began to fall, shaking snow off its branches like a wooly dog shedding water.”
Lines from a crane kept the tree from crashing to the ground, as its branches bridged the road.
“A cheer went up then. The tension of three hours snapped like the tree from its base. It was applause for the painstaking care and skill of the men who rigged the lines so the tree could be gently lowered to its cradle,” Hiebert wrote. “You would have been touched, I believe, to see what followed — the men rushing below to ask Red if he would cut slices off the base.”
It’s conceivable that to this day those “cookies” survive as the wall pieces and table tops that Hiebert imagined they’d become.
“And that, Ike, is the story of your Christmas tree. Best holiday Wishes from — Oliver Towne.
“P.S. The Townes will get their tree, as always, from the same YMCA lot around the corner.”