US Capitol Christmas Tree News

Made in Montana: It takes a state to build a star

Sunday, November 19, 2017

From Montana Standard, November 18, 2017

Butte will get a nod all the way from the nation's capital in December when a copper star shines from the top of the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree — a 15,000-pound, 30-inch-diameter, Montana-grown Engelmann spruce.

Called the "People's Tree," the 79-foot conifer from Kootenai National Forest will be adorned with the 4-foot-wide-by-5-foot-tall copper star. Missoula-based Washington Companies designed, planned, and funded the star to celebrate Butte's rich mining history. Butte copper mine operator Montana Resources is part of Washington Companies.

The star has a steel frame wrapped in copper. Frosted Plexiglas allows internal lighting to glow through, like a lantern.

Fabricator Split Mountain Metals, a Belgrade-based business, constructed the star. Owner Brad Brenteson said he got the copper from his supplier. MR vice president of human resources Mike McGivern said MR's copper has been shipped to Utah and Asia for smelting this past year.

So it's impossible to know the origin point for the metal itself, but multiple Montana entities came together to create a star and electrify a Montana tree — Montana's gift to the nation to celebrate Christmas.

"It's a beautiful thing," McGivern said.

Brenteson's staff of five was "all hands on deck for two weeks" in Belgrade, near Bozeman, putting in 1,000 hours altogether to "get 'er done."

"It was pretty crazy on my end," Brenteson said. "We'd never done a project to that scale before."

Washington Companies' graphic designer Ashley Steeves normally designs printed materials for the Dennis Washington-owned business. She never thought she'd be designing a star for the Capitol's Christmas tree.

"It was amazing. I was definitely not expecting to design a star to go to the Capitol," Steeves said. "It's different than anything I do here."

The star has eight points and features Montana's state flower, the bitterroot, on the front and back — a three-dimensional copper piece attached at the center.

Steeves said she and the four-person design team at Washington Companies came up with the bitterroot because they were looking for something "festive" that would represent Montana. It took about two and a half weeks to design it.

The tree was cut by fourth-generation Montanan Pete Tallmadge near Yaak in the northwestern corner of the state. U.S. Forest Service program manager Sandi Mason said the tree is 76 years old.

Around 70 companion trees, ranging anywhere from 6 to 20 feet tall — and all from Montana — will go to Senate and congressional offices. The more than 12,500 ornaments that will hang from the trees are all Montana-made. Even the skirts that will go under all of the companion trees were hand-crafted in Montana.

While Montana has provided Christmas trees to the U.S. Capitol building in the past, the "People's Tree" has never before been adorned by a copper star. It's the 53rd Capitol Christmas Tree and the third from Montana. The Kootenai National Forest supplied a taller Engelmann spruce in 1989. The Bitterroot Forest gave a 70-foot subalpine fir in 2008.

The trucking company, Billings-based Whitewood Transport, is already en route with the tree on its 3,000-mile journey. The trip began in Eureka in northwest Montana Monday. You can follow its route online by going to

The lights within the star were created by Missoula-based Western Montana Lighting. Owner Drew Mihelish said she and her warehouse manager designed the internal lighting and built the boxes inside the star that "make it work."

The star is sitting in storage in Missoula, but it will be trucked to Butte Monday by Whitewood Transport. The star will be on view at Montana Resources' parking lot, 600 Shields Ave., from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday. The public is welcome to stop by to see the nation's Christmas tree star.

From Butte, the star will begin its own 3,000-mile journey, making additional stops in Livingston and Billings before heading onward to Washington, D.C. The star and the tree will rendezvous at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland before arriving on the West Front Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The lighting ceremony is set for 3 p.m. Montana time on Dec. 6.

An 11-year-old Bozeman sixth-grader, Ridley Brandmayr, who lost the fingers on his right hand in an accident earlier this year, will help Republican U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan flip the switch during the official lighting of the tree.

As Montana's senior senator, Democrat Sen. Jon Tester was able to choose which Montanan would help Ryan turn on the lights. Tester picked Brandmayr for showing "incredible strength, determination, perseverance and passion."

Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, along with his wife Cindy, will also attend the ceremony. Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte will give a brief speech.

"It's a really neat project," Brenteson said. "It's a big honor to be involved with the People's Christmas Tree. I'm looking forward to seeing the star on the tree. Hopefully everyone will enjoy it as much as we do."

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