Christmas Tree Lane shines on
By MELODY KARPINSKI / Santa Rosa Correspondent
One small act of kindness.
It’s a bumper sticker phrase that gets tossed around a lot, but the ripple effect of one small act got Santa Rosa’s Christmas Tree Lane started 50 years ago. The annual light display has covered several blocks of one Montgomery-area neighborhood each year since.
During the late 1950s, resident Cal Chamberlain bought Christmas trees for his neighbors’ front yards. Going door to door along the conjoining streets of Hartley Drive, Hermit Way and Webb Drive, he gave out the trees and asked residents to decorate them.
Those trees earned the neighborhood a nickname, and soon they were joined by light displays, nativity scenes, Santas, larger-than-life plywood figures and even a faithful boxer dog wearing reindeer horns that calmly sat on one neighbor’s porch for years.
“My dad would start cutting plywood in the shop in the garage as early as October or November,” said Chamberlain’s son, also named Cal. “He would never put up the same thing twice.”
Chamberlain still owns some of his father’s displays and puts some of them up at his own home in another part of town. “During the space race, he made a Santa on a rocket ship heading towards the moon. It went up on the roof that year,” he said.
Soon, a man named Carl Bell dressed up as Santa Claus, the first in a long line of neighborhood residents who stepped up to fill the bright red suit. In the display’s heyday during the 1960s, it attracted a line of cars so long that policemen had to be dispatched to direct traffic.
In 1962, police were sent to the neighborhood for a different reason. Partying teenagers on the block pulled a Christmas prank, dragging a Santa Claus off the front porch and hanging him from the porch rafters. Children were frightened by the display, causing parents to call authorities and have the deflated figure removed.
The early 1970s brought an energy crisis, and in 1973 Chamberlain led a neighborhood coalition to encourage ending the seasonal event in response.
“(Some residents) feel that it might be best to discontinue promoting the event until such a time as the shortage is over,” Chamberlain wrote in a November 1973 Press Democrat letter to the editor. “(While) the decision is up to individual homeowners, there will be no concerted effort to encourage the lighting project this year.”
The city of Santa Rosa also worked to conserve energy that year, including turning off city baseball field lights and reducing the use of city fountains like the one in Old Courthouse Square.
In 1976, the lights gradually began to return, and the following year a flyer circulated through the neighborhood encouraging a fresh start to the project. John McDonald, who has lived on Hermit Way for more than 20 years, remembers the marked change that occurred after the energy crisis.
“The effect we felt here really changed things,” said McDonald. “I don’t think it will ever be as spectacular as it once was.”
Despite changes over the years, the neighborhood remained resilient. New generations of tree trimmers and lighting experts moved in, often with fond memories of visiting the street as children. In 1995, two former neighborhood kids named Lori Darling and Brett Podstata began a new neighborhood campaign to ramp up the Lane.
Along with their spouses, they wrote a neighborhood-wide letter offering to help decorate for those who couldn’t do it themselves. Within days they had 10 calls, including a 94-year-old woman who was thrilled to have her house lit up again.
For some new residents, decorations came along with the house and the character of the area. Phil Anderson, who has lived there for nearly 40 years, says his three magi display came with the house when he and wife Jeannie moved in around 1973.
The hand painted wise men sit on camels and face a star hanging from one of the lower branches of a tree in the Anderson’s front yard.
“I’ve had to repaint them along the way,” said Anderson, “and one year one of my kings was stolen. I had to remake it myself.”
It has been more than 50 years since the neighborhood first glowed, and the spirit lives on. Chamberlain remembers birch trees that were planted in neighbors’ lawns when he was a boy. They were short enough to jump over. He now drives his grandkids past the same trees, which stand more than 20 feet tall.
“You really got into the Christmas spirit,” said Chamberlain about living on Christmas Tree Lane. “It was an awesome experience, and I’m glad to see it’s still going.”
Seen any great holiday lights? Send the address to firstname.lastname@example.org.