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SHOWDOWN ON THE SQUARE Trenton Tree City and the Dade Chamber of Commerce squared off last week when the C of C suggested removing elms Tree City had planted to make room for a live Christmas tree, providing an object lesson in democracy and a reminder that gardeners can go a little ninja when horticulture is threatened. From left are Tree City’s Mary Petruska, Butch Raper of the Chamber, master gardener Mark Hildreth, the Chamber’s Holly Moore, and Tree City President Eloise Gass.

By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter


Dade Countians gathering in Veterans Park on Dec. 14, when the Dade Chamber of Commerce will host this year’s Christmas on the Square and parade, will probably enjoy the new live Christmas tree planted in the park without worrying much how it came to be there. Like children on Christmas morning, they may never know what toils and troubles culminated in the glistening array before them, accepting it as a natural occurrence, or the work of merry little elves.

It was not.

Rather, the tree’s arrival, not unlike like that of the Cratchitt family’s Christmas goose, has a story behind it; and, as in the case of the goose, not all of it is pretty.  

For the local press, the story began on Nov. 20 with a telephoned news tip from Trenton Tree City’s Mary Petruska. “Showdown at 2 o’clock on the square,” she announced. “Can you cover it?”

The local press was in the middle of something messy but Ms. Petruska explained the gravity of the situation: Holly Moore of the Dade Chamber of Commerce had informed Tree City President Eloise Gass that she planned to remove the elms Tree City had planted in the park in 2011 in order to make room for a Christmas tree. Ms. Gass had vowed to defend the elms with her body if necessary. Ms. Gass had called Ms. Petruska for backup and Ms. Petruska was hereby alerting the local press.

The local press hung up and thoughtfully wiped traces of the "something messy" Garnier Nutrisse Nourishing Color Crème (Golden Mahogany Brown) from the telephone receiver. The tree showdown evoked a bitter chapter of an earlier, grimmer phase of Dade history, when beautiful flowering Bradford pears around the old courthouse were massacred over protests from local activists whose pleas fell on deaf governmental ears.

Speaking of which, where was the government in this? The local press called the Dade County Commission, only to learn that Commission Chairman Ted Rumley was out of the office and not expected back until the fast-approaching showdown hour, 2 p.m.

The local press next called Holly Moore, whose number was handy as Ms. Moore had run for city commission in the recent Nov. 5 election. “Is it true?” asked the local press. “Are you really going to cut down Eloise’s treeses?” (The local press was a little excited. Things were moving fast.)

“Geez Louise,” said Ms. Moore (though more properly she might have said “Geez Eloise,” considered the local press). “They shouldn’t have called in the media until we got this sorted out.”

Ms. Moore explained that the Chamber had acquired some Dade Beautiful funds to replace a live Christmas tree at Veterans Park that had been destroyed by the tornados that ripped through Dade in April 2011. In order to make room for the C of C tree, she said, three of Tree City’s had to go. 

She clarified that the Chamber planned to dig up, not cut down, the Tree City trees, so that they could be replanted elsewhere, and that the evergreen the Chamber planted would be decorated as a Christmas tree from year to year for all to enjoy. “The whole point is to make the park more pleasing to the eye,” she said.

The local press intuited that the eye of Eloise Gass would not be pleased; and in any case, if there was going to be a fight among civic organizations on the town square the local press wanted in. Thus the local press dived for the shower, where golden mahogany rinse water swirled down the drain as if in mute metaphor to the need for governmental transparency and the public’s right to know. 

The local press arrived on the Trenton town square at 2:05 p.m. damp but golden mahogany brown, mostly, to find the C of C’s Ms. Moore and Tree City’s Ms. Petruska already in situ, along with past Chamber President Butch Raper and a man named Mark Hildreth who, it emerged, was a master gardener employed by Raper’s company. 

“Leyland cypresses are not ideal Christmas trees,” Hildreth was opining to Ms. Moore.

There was then a storm of opining. Ms. Moore pointed out the elms that she opined must be removed to set off the planned Christmas tree properly. Practically everybody opined the trees had been planted too close together anyway. Daniel Case, hardware store proprietor and president-elect of the Chamber, arrived and opined that it would not hurt the Tree City trees to be moved, and in fact if they were to be dug up and replanted, this was the best time of year to do it. Ms. Petruska opined, “That’s totally insane.”  

Tree City President Eloise Gass arrived and opined similarly. She reminded all that the elm trees Ms. Moore suggested moving had been placed in the park at the suggestion of the Georgia Forestry Commission’s Joe Burgess. The trees had been large ones purchased with a Home Depot grant Tree City and the Commission had obtained to reforest Dade after the tornado devastation, and she and Burgess had cruised the county looking for optimal sites to situate them. Digging them up might be fatal, she said.

“When I get real mad I foam at the mouth,” she admitted later. 

The local press asked Daniel Case for comment on this butting of heads between the Chamber and Tree City. “We didn’t know we were butting heads until just now,” he said.

He teased Ms. Gass that he had brought his chainsaw to cut down her trees.

“I’ll cut your legs off,” she replied grimly.

But violence was averted, however narrowly. Case and Raper seemed inclined to pour oil on troubled waters, and in any case Ms. Gass said she had spoken with Chairman Rumley who had decreed no trees would be moved without Dade County’s consent. In fact, it emerged that it would be county personnel who did any digging, and Dade roads boss Billy Massengale arrived shortly thereafter to pink-tape trees to be removed amid a female chorus of, “No!  Not that one.”

Horticulturalist Hildreth, meanwhile, suggested situating the Christmas tree in a little garden across from the old courthouse currently occupied by a ligustrum – ligustrum could adapt to a new location without breaking a sweat, he assured – and a circle of nandinas. Three crape myrtles and a white pine would also have to be relocated but Ms. Gass and Ms. Petruska said they could live with that as long as the elms remained. 

Democracy worked. Compromise was reached. Peace was restored.

Afterward, the local press popped into the Administrative Building for comment from Chairman Rumley, who seemed inclined to be a little stern about the whole affair. 

“We work with Tree City. We always have and we always will, and we work with the Chamber of Commerce,” he said.

But the two organizations also had to work together so that everybody was happy, said Rumley. “That’s the only way it can be,” he said.

And that, Gentle Reader, is the story of the Dade County Christmas tree, not a whimsical tale of elves and reindeer but an object lesson in democracy, a reminder that in a world where definitions of “the common good” may differ, a little give-and-take is sometimes required of individuals and organizations.

Or, as Chairman Rumley pronounced in conclusion:  

“One monkey don’t run the show.”

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