MONMOUTH — When Western Oregon University’s giant sequoia is decorated and lit every winter for the holidays, the advertising surrounding the event often includes a boast of the 123-foot specimen.
It’s “the tallest living Christmas tree in the nation,” or it’s “the second tallest lighted tree on a university campus” — something along those lines.
“As far as diameter, it’s a massive tree,” said Terry Lamers, a forester from the Dallas area. “Historically, it’s got something to it.”
But the tallest Christmas tree in the United States? Or Oregon? Or even at a college?
Lamers measured the tree in Monmouth on behalf of Willamette University about a decade ago; officials insisted that the five sequoias decorated and lit at the Salem campus were all taller than WOU’s.
Willamette states the height of each of the trees is about 140 feet. Lamers said he believes one of those is taller than the others.
And there’s at least two trees in the state decorated for Christmas that have at least 30 feet on WOU’s.
There’s no government agency or organization that tracks a giant Christmas tree statistic, including Guinness World Records.
Wholesale and harvest statistics are what the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association typically monitors, said Bryan Ostlund, president of the organization.
But what about whose tree is the largest?
“That’s not really on our radar,” Ostlund said. “Cities will tout themselves as the capital of something or having the biggest this or that.
“I haven’t heard anybody making claim to the tallest Christmas tree,” he added. “It’s an interesting discussion point, though.”
About the only way to discern whose tree is championt is by waiting for a television station or newspaper to report about somebody boasting as much.
By that very unscientific rationale, it appears Western’s tree ranks no better than eighth in Oregon.
There’s Willamette’s “star trees” in Salem. And the Washington Post published a story in 2003 about Glen Althauser, a logger who decorates a 160-foot tall Douglas fir in Boring.
Another Douglas fir, this one growing next to a Christmas gift shop in Blue River east of Eugene, measures 150 feet tall.
Western’s claim to having the tallest Christmas tree started not long after the lighting tradition began in 1967, though it’s uncertain with whom, said Tom Neal, WOU physical plant director.
The sequoia lost several feet in 1975 during a lightening storm, according to Bruce Tuma, a longtime WOU maintenance worker.
The boast appeared in Western press material through the mid-1990s and has been tempered and inconsistent over time.
In documents for WOU’s sesquicentennial celebration in 2005, for example, it was mentioned as the third tallest Christmas tree in the United States.
The information has gone unchallenged, more or less, but is still diseminated. Among the guilty culprits is the Itemizer-Observer, which has included the statistic in several articles, including a Dec. 1 story on how the tree is decorated.
Lisa Catto, WOU public relations specialist, said the school hasn’t made any “tallest” claims in recent years because it’s nearly impossible to verify.
Jerrie Lee Parpart, exhibits and archives coordinator for Hamersly Library, has been around WOU’s campus for nearly 30 years, including as a student.
“I think most people accept the story because they want to,” Parpart said.
“It doesn’t diminish its importance,” she continued. “No matter if it’s the first, the only or the tallest, it still has a lot of value.”