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A holiday tradition Memories of the KTVE Christmas tree abound

Posted on December 17, 2018

Christmas in Union County. There’s so much to do and see – the lights and carriage rides in downtown El Dorado, the holiday extravaganza at the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in Smackover, the holiday-themed plays and parties, and the list goes on. But one favorite holiday feature isn’t seen anymore. The old Christmas tree made from the former KTVE television tower on West Main made its last appearance in 2015. And though it’s been three years since the 200-foot tower was decked in lights, to many area residents it still shines quite bright in their memories. The “tree” can be traced back to the mid-1960s — according to our archives, it could be either 1965 or 1967 — when Shirley Johnson-McAvoy, then a receptionist for KTVE, asked a simple question of then-engineer John Long: would it be possible to string lights on the tower? It was. That’s how it started. In a January 2017 News-Times article, McAvoy described a particular memory from that first year when they strung the lights on the tower.

“The first year it started, there was a lady who was an invalid that lived in El Dorado who could see the tree out her window. She wrote a letter to us telling how much that tree meant to her and how it filled her with the Christmas spirit. I’ve thought about that lady several times and I hope she enjoyed it for years and years,” McAvoy said.

In 2009, then-Mayor Mike Dumas gave the News-Times some interesting facts about the old tree:

A count taken during a 21-day period in 1989 showed that 6,655 vehicles, with an estimated 25,000 people, drove underneath the tree. The survey was taken between Dec. 4 and Dec. 25, and the tree was lit each day from 5 p.m. until midnight during that time.

The tree typically had 5,000 15-watt bulbs — a total of 75,000 watts — on 40 strands.

The tree was 200 feet tall and had not changed much from when it was originally erected. The colors of the lights used to be blue with a white cap. By 2009, the colors had changed to red and green to fit in with the city’s overall holiday color scheme.

The tree was at one time the tallest manmade Christmas tree in Arkansas and possibly the South. It was known as “The World’s Tallest Man-Made Christmas Tree.”

Then KTVE moved offices to its current location.

But the tree continued.

Property owner Shelli Cross had made a lease agreement with American Tower, which owned the tower, to allow for continued use of the structure for the annual holiday sight.

In 2016, American Tower ordered the removal of the lighting display after an inspection showed that the badly deteriorated lights and supporting equipment posed a safety hazard.

It was supposed to be a small break in the annual tradition, not a complete stop.

City officials set about trying to find the money to replace the lights. A presentation was made to the El Dorado Works Board in September 2016 by Mayor Frank Hash and Public Works Director Robert Edmonds, asking for $56,500 to cover the estimated costs of restoring the structure by implementing a new design and purchasing new LED lights.

But efforts came to a halt as city officials decided to explore other options due to some restrictions that came with the agreement with American Tower. For instance, the tree could not be erected prior to Dec.

1. The tree was customarily lit, along with other Christmas decorations in the city, during the Downtown Lighting Ceremony in mid-November.

So officials opted to try to work with the budding Murphy Arts District to come up with a new plan. Discussions had included an idea to make room for the tree within the district in the spot where a 110-foot replica of oil derrick stands as an homage to the city’s oil boom history. The derrick is next to the Griffin Restaurant and First Financial Bank Music Hall at the intersection of Washington and Locust.

But the derrick was said to not be tall enough for the tree in its traditional size, nor was the space designed to allow vehicles to drive underneath.

And so efforts stalled again.

News-Times staff checked with officials for this story, and there are no new plans to revive the the decadesold tradition that so many fondly remember.

But perhaps that will change someday.