30 years ago, when Tooele residents Maxine Grimm and Paul Bevan teamed up to spread a little Christmas cheer, they never imagined that their homemade light display would become the valley’s most recognizable—and beloved—holiday symbol.
The 30 foot tall display known simply as “the Christmas Tree” became a wintertime staple. Thanks to volunteer efforts and generous donations from private companies, it has returned to its perch atop Little Mountain every year since. The tree’s current incarnation features 400 60 watt light bulbs strung taught from a cell tower. On clear nights, it can be seen as far north as I-80.
“There’s a story in everything,” said Grimm, 96, as she fondly recalled the project from her Tooele home. “I never dreamed I’d be a part of something that would be so inspirational.”
The Christmas Tree’s story began in 1979 when Grimm and Bevan set their sights on a flagpole on property owned by neighbor Doug Gordon. Positioned prominently atop the 5,515 foot Little Mountain,
the pole was visible from virtually anywhere in the valley. The friends had had flown Bevan’s 25 foot American flag from it on patriotic holidays. With a little work and some help from friends, they could transform the flagpole into a giant Christmas tree.
Bevan would take care of the technical legwork while Grimm, a longtime community service leader, would fund the project and handle public relations. Dugway Proving Grounds donated two large spools of electrical cable and Grimm talked her sister and several other friends into helping them wire the lights.
The work was done at night in the basement of Bevan’s father’s hardware store on Main Street, which is now occupied by the Sostanza restaurant. The friends laid strands of copper wire on long tables and spent long hours soldering patch cables every two feet.
“I think I was better at stripping the skin off my fingers than I was at stripping those copper wires,” Grimm laughed.
With the donated cable, the total cost for hardware—including Band-Aids—was about $500. They attached standard yellow bulbs and hauled their masterpiece to the top of Little Mountain, where they used the flagpole’s rope to raise the strands to the top. With the lights in place, it was time to breathe life into their giant Yuletide creation.
“When I finally threw switch, the lights came on like you couldn’t believe,” Bevan said. “It was brilliant.”
The brilliance lasted about a minute before things went horribly wrong.
“It was just like day, it was so bright,” Bevan said. “I was almost getting sunburned—and I was at the bottom of the hill! Then all the sudden the bulbs started popping.”
Bevan quickly cut the power, but only after losing a third of the bulbs. He later realized he had plugged the 110 volt cable into a 220 volt source. Though she laughs about it now, Grimm says there was no smile on her face that night.
“It was horrible. We were so exhausted and we thought all that work was gone,” she said.
But Grimm and crew persevered. A local electrician re-wired the timer box, pro bono, and Grimm bought new bulbs. The newly repaired tree was re-lit to the delight of the valley’s communities, and the new tradition was born. Grimm said many Tooele residents used the tree as a beacon—a sort of landlocked lighthouse—to find their way on stormy nights.
Bevan originally kept the light strands hanging loose so they swayed in the wind like a ball gown. He said the tree had a distinct golden glow that that inspired awe and regularly attracted curious visitors.
Once he was visited by a traveler from I-80 who was en route to Salt Lake City when the tree caught his eye.
“There were no other lights around it,” Bevan said. “It just hung up there, suspended in the blackness. The guy drove 15 miles from the freeway just to ask about it.”
The Christmas Tree was a hit, but Grimm and Bevan realized more manpower would be needed to keep the tradition alive. In 1981, Grimm successfully petitioned the Tooele County Search and Rescue team, and they have maintained the tree since.
“She could talk the socks off of anybody,” chuckled Bevan.
The process of setting up the tree has changed somewhat over the years for reasons of practicality. The flagpole was replaced by a Beehive Broadband cell tower in the same location, circa 2006. The Search and Rescue team tethered the light strands to steel cables and devised a pulley system that lifts them to the top. The strands are secured to the ground with chains, creating a taught cone shape with a 30 foot radius.
The volunteer organization meets every year before Thanksgiving to choreograph the maneuver and make any needed wiring repairs. They set up the tree on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and take it down again on the Saturday after New Year’s Day. The tree is lit every day at dusk and remains lit until 1:00 am. Tooele County foots the maintenance bill, while Beehive Broadband donates the power.
Maxine Grimm expressed a deep appreciation for the Search and Rescue team and all that have donated to the cause. Bevan, who has since relocated to Washington County, says the Christmas Tree was probably the most rewarding thing he’s ever been involved in. He plans to create a similar display with a mountainside flagpole he owns in St. George.
Grimm wants to someday place a star at the top of the tree, but hasn’t yet come up with a feasible idea.
“It would have to be mechanically right or the first wind will take it off!” she said.
Tooele County Search and Rescue Commander Fred Denison says he enjoys role in the tradition and hopes the team will maintain the display indefinitely.
“We do this for the whole county, not just Tooele City,” stipulated Denison, echoing Grimm’s notion of a guiding light. “We do it mostly in hopes that everyone finds their way home safe on the holiday.”
Grimm sees the tree as a spiritual beacon, too:
“It lifts your thinking and stirs up the spiritual in you,” she said. “So many things are changing and there are so many events that aren’t good, so you need something to hang on to. I see that beautiful light every night from my house and I get a warm feeling because it reminds me of the birth of Jesus Christ—the real meaning of Christmas.”
Jolly Rotor, a local aerial production company, filmed this year’s tree setup. Great video.