Hans Christian Andersen never penned a fairy tale about an ugly sapling, but this one will do.
In 1948, Kenneth Herndon planted a puny cedar tree in his parents' front yard. It had two limbs and a slight curve to its trunk. “Plain ugly” is how he remembers it.
But on Wednesday it took five men, three utility trucks and four hours to cut down and transport Herndon's cedar to the center of town, where it will serve this year as the star of Lincolnton's annual Christmas celebration.
On Nov. 30, thousands will gather to light the tree and celebrate the holidays. There will be a parade, horse-drawn carriage rides and performances by local choirs.
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And at the center of it all will be Herndon's tree, now more than 60 feet high and weighing about 9,000 pounds. It is one of the biggest ever used by the city.
Rob Buff, Lincolnton's Public Works assistant director, said the city at one time kept a list of possible Christmas tree candidates. A 2002 ice storm, though, swept through the area and damaged most of the eligible trees.
“Now we start looking in the summer,” he said. “Finding one big enough, and pretty enough, is not easy.”
Officials happened by Herndon's place on Georgetown Road earlier this year and were amazed at the size and fullness of the tree.
The cedar stood by the side of the road, next to a naked dogwood and wedged between low-hanging power lines. It looked massive there among the pine trees and small homes that dot the country road, located just off U.S. 321 Business.
The city covered the costs of cutting down the tree and transporting it into town.
Herndon, 67, still lives on the property. His parents' small, green house now sits empty. He lives in a brown mobile home next door, just a few dozen yards from where he planted the tree 60 years ago.
He said he decided to donate the tree because it was an honor to play a part in the town's long-standing tradition.
As part of that tradition, Herndon, a retired printing press operator, will be allowed to dedicate the tree to someone. It will be read aloud at the lighting ceremony. He has chosen President-elect Obama.
“It seemed like a good thing to do,” Herndon said. “I never thought I'd see a black man become president in my lifetime.”
When the city is finished with the tree, Herndon will sell it for lumber and use the money to repair a church founded by his grandfather.
Herndon AME Zion Church sits about 100 feet off the road, directly across the street from the tree. The single-story, cinder-block building has a leaky roof.
“I figured we could do some good with the money,” he said. “And it will be nice for everybody to get the chance to see the tree.”
On Wednesday, a small crowd gathered at the city square to watch as workers placed the tree in front of the Lincoln County Courthouse. Some admired its size and fullness. Others couldn't wait until it was covered in lights.
“At night, you will be able to see it all the way down Main Street,” said Candace Helms, 22. “That really puts you in the Christmas spirit.”
Lincolnton, a town of about 10,000 is 36 miles northwest of Charlotte. Its downtown has undergone something of a rebirth. It's the kind of place where you can get a gourmet muffin at the 36th Street Bakery, Cafe & Catering or two eggs and your choice of meat at the City Lunch.
You can spend hours leafing through old paperbacks at North State Books or buy cutting-edge cycling equipment at Ride-A-Bike Bicycle.
But while change is coming to the community, tradition still matters.
“We are a close community, like a family,” said Lynette Greer, 60, who owns and operates City Lunch, a Lincolnton landmark since 1957. “And Christmas is a time for family to come together.”