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Community Christmas Tree is one for the squirrels

Julie Pierce, Minnesota Power vice president of strategy and planning, and her daughters, Abby and Emma, and her husband, Pete, throw the switch to light the Community Christmas Tree before the Christmas City of the North Parade on Nov. 18. (Photo submitted)

Last year's Community Christmas Tree was referred to by its owners as the "bird tree." It only makes sense for it to be followed this year by the "squirrel tree."

The 60-foot-tall, 55-year-old white spruce was donated by Susan Dierks. For over 40 years it stood tall beside her deck. She kept a few squirrel and bird feeders in the tree.

But it was starting to lean and the family was concerned it would come down in the next big storm. So they nominated it for consideration as this year's Community Christmas Tree and it won.

When it was chopped down and transported to the Minnesota Power Plaza on the corner of Lake Avenue and Superior Street, Dierks said a few squirrels appeared to to have followed it to its new home.

"There were always a lot of squirrels in that tree. I think a few went with it," Dierks said.

The squirrels made their presence known by chewing through the wires of a few strands of LED lights. When the lights were tested, only about half the tree lit up initially. Eventually the strands were replaced with working lights.

"I think it's hilarious. Apparently they wanted to stay with the tree," said Lori Zoltek, Dierks' daughter.

Minnesota Power heard from about 13 potential tree donors this year. The company sent a representative to check that the tree would meet the requirements: The tree must be shapely and beautiful; it needs to be growing in a place that can be accessed by heavy equipment; and the transportation route to downtown Duluth needs to be reasonable.

"Safety is a key factor," said Amy Rutledge of Minnesota Power.

Normally the tree owner receives the honor of switching on the lights in a ceremony before the Christmas City of the North Parade. But Dierks didn't make it to the lighting due to weather conditions.

"It was too cold for this grandma," Dierks said. "But my oldest daughter and her kids went. It was just too cold for me."

In fact, the tree's journey included members of Dierks' family. Her daughter, Lori Zoltek, submitted the tree for consideration online. Her eldest granddaughter's father-in-law was part of the team — Northern Clearing of Ashland, Wis. — that helped cut and place the tree. Her youngest granddaughter played with the Denfeld High School band before the lighting.

"So it just ended up being an all-around family tree.That was kind of exciting," Zoltek said.

This year the honor of throwing the switch for about 6,000 multicolored LED lights fell to Julie Pierce, Minnesota Power vice president of strategy and planning, and her family. About 75 people gathered in wind and snow to watch the 32nd annual tree lighting.

After the tree was lit, Zoltek continued her annual tradition of gathering her family members in front of it for a photo.

"We've taken a Christmas photo on my mother's deck in front of that tree for the past 16 years. It was just the perfect spot to do it with the decorated tree covered with snow. It just looked like Christmas," Zoltek said.

Zoltek was especially happy to see the tree covered completely in lights, as she said it's been one of her mother's wishes for years.

"My mom did what she could reach, but she always wanted to see the whole thing lit up. It was our big family joke that she couldn't get anybody to climb up there," Zoltek said. "So it's great to see it go out with one final hurrah like this."

At least, as long as they can keep the squirrels away from the wires.

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

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