At Christmas Tree corner
By KAREN SCHWALLER
SPENCER – When Alan and Cherie Banks look out their kitchen window, the view they enjoy the most is a tree that stands at the corner half a mile south of their home.
It’s a Colorado spruce that was planted in memory of her father, James “Dale” Jones, of the Milford area, following his death in 1996.
The tree was purchased from memorial funds after his death.
But the tree is so much more than that to them – and to motorists on the Langdon blacktop who know it as “Christmas Tree Corner.”
Located at the corner of U.S. 71 and Clay County Road B17, the couple decorates the tree for various holidays and community events throughout the year. Those holidays include Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Clay County Fair, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“It’s kind of a headache sometimes,” Alan Banks said, “but we’ve started it now and we’re going to keep going.
“We get quite a few comments on it from people who appreciate it. It keeps us going.”
Cherie Banks said she and Alan grew up in the Milford and Spencer areas, seeing a 40-foot-tall red cedar tree at that same location lit up at Christmas time. The tree, planted May 14, 1864, by Gideon S. Holcomb and Asa Seely, was decorated years later with lights at Christmas time by the Jacob Milleman family, who lived just south of that corner.
“When Millemans did the tree, they would get up at midnight and walk half a mile in the snow to go out to the tree and turn the lights off,” Alan Banks said, adding that it involved numerous electrical cords to get the job done.
After Jacob Milleman died in 1963, the tree remained dark for more than 30 years. Finally, when the four-lane highway was planned to be constructed between Spencer and the Lakes area during the 1990s, it meant that the tree would be taken out in order that the highway could later be constructed. It made many locals sad to think the tree would not be there any longer.
Cherie Banks produced a copy of a letter to the editor from a woman who was saddened by the news of the tree being removed in the name of progress, saying that she felt ” dismay, akin to the dismay felt when one hears that the life of a dear friend is terminal.”
Today the corner and the tree that Alan and Cherie planted continue to be decorated for all holidays. The Christmas lights are on 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the holiday season. And if the couple wanted to shut them off at night, they said they could hook them up to a timer on the nearby electrical outlet.
Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative supplied the time and crew to run a power line from the tree to an existing nearby power pole, and Shoppers Supply of Spencer provided the materials used to get that line in place. The Clay County Snow Broncs paid to install an electrical outlet next to the tree, eliminating the need for multiple extension cords to hook up Christmas lights.
“We’re grateful that they did that because now we don’t have to worry about the outdoor elements as much, and we don’t have to mess with all those electrical cords,” said Cherie Banks, adding that they’re also glad they don’t have to get up at midnight and drive down to the corner if the lights had to be switched off.
The couple decorates not only the tree, but the corner during holidays. Some of their ideas have included a flag and mini replica of Arlington National Cemetery display for Memorial Day, Uncle Sam and more flags for the Fourth of July, an Easter bunny and large eggs for Easter – and another more popular creation for Easter is a cross with a crown of thorns and white cloth hanging from it.
Halloween has seen makeshift witches, ghosts and goblins there, and Thanksgiving has seen a group of pilgrims and Native Americans gathering around a table of fall bounty.
And during the Clay County Fair, one will see a sign pointing the way to the fairgrounds, along with a family of fairgoer standing nearby.
Banks said she thinks hard to get ideas for her creations.
“I’m kind of demented,” she said with a laugh. “I like to have different ideas for the holidays, and I can do anything with steel posts and bailing wire. But I couldn’t do any of it without Alan’s help.”
The “people of their displays are made at the home, then set up at the corner. Preparations might take a couple of days before the Bankses pack and haul everything to the corner. She said she tries to re-use as many of the “people” as she can, using mannequins sometimes.
“I can’t locate many mannequins, but I would like to find some,” Banks said, adding that it would make the preparation process much easier.
Alan and Cherie Banks work in all kinds of weather. She said Easter is the most unpredictable, sometimes working in snow.
“Sometimes the ground is still frozen then-we pound the posts in manually, so it makes it challenging,” she said.
Their current challenge is trying to figure out what they want to do to place a star atop the tree, since it has grown so much, even since last Christmas. It was three to four feet tall when planted it in 1996.
“We used a tractor and loader to put a star on top of the tree last year,” said Banks. “Now we’re trying to decide how to do that without destroying the tree.”
She said they used to put ornaments on the tree, but said they often blew off in the wind, and they spent considerable time picking them up. This year they decided to go with lights only.
“We lit the tree on Sept. 11, 2001,” Cherie Banks said, “but now we only light it at Christmas time.”
Corner decorations are often lit with a flood light so motorists can see the display at night.
But as with everything else, nothing comes for free. The Banks’ foot the bill for the materials used for their year-long labor of love, year after year. The tree has grown enough since 1996 that it now sports 300 large bulb lights, the most ever. And the tree is still growing. There are also costs for fabric, wood and other materials used to make items to decorate the corner.
“Once in awhile someone will give us a donation,” said Alan Banks, adding that, while they would never ask for that, it does help out on material costs and electricity to light the tree over the holidays.
They have received notes of thanks from as far away as Bemidji, Minn., and from many of the “locals.” They have thanked the Banks’ for “lighting up a little corner of their world” and calling the tree “a joy to behold.” Those notes mean a lot to the couple, who spend considerable time to give people something to enjoy.
“It’s really nice to receive those notes,” said Cherie Banks. “A hand-written thank-you note is so special.”
The couple agreed that it’s something that has “grown” on them.
“We thoroughly enjoy it,” said Banks. “Our intention is to give people and kids something to remember.
“Right now our kids and grandkids are enjoying it, and they help decorate when they can. We’re both tickled that the tree has grown, and that Grace (Milleman) lived long enough to see the tree replaced and growing. When we did that she was elderly, but she saw and appreciated it.”
“It’s something we started and never thought about doing two years in a row,” said Alan Banks.
“It’s a corner that people recognize because of the tree,” Cherie Banks said. “When you see the lights on the tree when it’s cloudy or foggy, you know where you are.”
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