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Demopolis’ Christmas tree turns 50

Anyone who has come to Demopolis — either over the Rufus King Bridge from Greene County or up from Linden on U.S. 43 or from Faunsdale and Gallion on U.S. Highway 80 — has seen the giant Christmas tree.

It is the first thing you notice crossing the Rufus King Bridge at night, seen by the thousands of visitors who come to this city for the annual Christmas on the River festivities and by people coming home for the holidays.

It is made by strings totaling more than 250 lights draped along the guy wires anchoring the communications tower at Black Warrior Electric on U.S. 43 South, and this year, it marks its 50th anniversary.

“In 1957, we had a bookkeeper working here named Belle Clem,” said general manager Darrell Jones. “She and her family went on a trip up to Virginia for Christmas, and they ran across something very similar, but not quite as tall. She saw a tower that had lights down the guy wires and thought it was a neat idea.

“She came back, and Bernard Swanson was the general manager here, and she told him how unique it was. So, he sat down and he drew out the plan, the number of bulbs, and how to loop it so it would look like a Christmas tree with the flashing light on top. They got together and got the string of lights and climbed the tower and strung it, and it was first lit 50 years ago this year, in 1958.”

Jones said that the tree didn’t look exactly as it does now.

“Originally, they had three different-colored lights: they had red, green and blue,” Jones said. “Over the years, they became harder to find, as incandescent bulbs became scarce, and our suppliers that we got them from didn’t carry them. So, a while back, we went with all white.”

The tree itself helps mark the beginning of the Christmas season, as it is first lit the day after Thanksgiving Day each year and stays on at night through New Year’s Day.

“Recently, we’ve been taking the lights off after that,” Jones said. “Webb Antenna and Tower Service has been servicing us for the last several years, and because of all the high winds and hurricanes of late, they were just totally destroyed, so it was completely rebuilt. After that, we started taking them down, and then putting them back up. Over the last three years, we’ve put them up and tested them and had a windstorm come through, and we’d have to take them down again.

“We’ve replaced 85 bulbs this year after we turned them on after that windstorm we had right after Thanksgiving. It didn’t look as good with 85 bulbs out, so we replaced them.”

Jones said that people pay attention to the tree, and if there is ever any problems with it, like lights going out, people will call and let them know.

“It’s like if a substation went out,” he laughed. “We get that many calls about our Christmas tree not being on.”

Freddie Webb, the owner of Webb Antenna and Tower Service, said it’s not easy taking care of Christmas lights affixed to wires anchoring a 320-foot tower.

“When the wind blows, you get all kind of friction on the wires,” he said. “When the wires shake in the wind, they rub against things. Two years ago, we re-anchored the tower because they had the old screw anchors that weren’t steady. The tower is galvanized — it’s a good, solid tower, but the anchors were old, so we didn’t want to climb up with the lights until we got new anchors for the tower.

“Another problem we faced over the years was when we tried to find outdoor bulbs, and they didn’t make them any more. That became a nightmare, so we started using more available bulbs.”

It is a 320-foot-tall, 250-light landmark in Demopolis, something that anyone who has lived in or even visited the city knows about and has associated with Demopolis. Like any other Christmas tree, it can be a pain to put the lights on, but once they are in place, it is a beautiful sight to see.