Compiled by Travis Barton, December 2011
The following history of the Downtown Bozeman Holiday decorations was compiled through oral interviews with retired Bozeman Firefighters Geoff Hoell, Buck Hoell, Dave Miller, Dan Figgins, and Bruce Thompson. Day logs from the 1960’s and 1970’s were also consulted. Montana Crane also provided information on their involvement. The Downtown Bozeman Partnership contributed some of the more recent details. This history should be viewed with the Firefighter axiom of, “never let the facts get in the way of a good story!” in mind.
Bozeman Firefighters have been involved with decorating the downtown for the Christmas holiday since the early 1960’s. The earliest involvement was maintaining and installing different holiday decorations which hung from the streetlight poles. They were described as Candy Canes and other holiday symbols.
In approximately 1969 several downtown business people purchased an “Intersection Cascade” from Dijulio Displays in Washington State. The Green decoration was installed at Bozeman and Main Street with Henderson Construction installing the first Support Cables. It is unclear whether the Firefighters assisted with the first installation. Subsequent decorations were phased in, one per year with different fund-raising methods and donations. Red was purchased second, gold third, followed by White with Blue bulbs a few years later. It is unclear if the firefighters installed the subsequent cables.
The decorations consist of a 24-foot-tall center pipe extending from a 6’ circle of steel at the base. There are approximately 12 lengths of chain that extend from the ring to the top of the pole. When set up it forms the familiar cone shape which has been interpreted as a bell, tree, or the body of a spider. This is wrapped with a spiral of garland which consists of a 1/8” steel cable with wires and light sockets (originally the sockets were for a full-size bulb base and in approximately 2004 they were switched to smaller more efficient bulbs). Then the 6” round garland is attached as well. Originally everything was held in place with metal hog rings (used in upholstery work) and metal twist ties. The poles are then topped by a star. Two of the trees had stars that slid into the top of the pipe. These stars were originally fiberglass and were replaced with metal frames covered in plastic in 2011. The remaining two have stars that clamp around the pipe. These are also metal frames wrapped in plastic. All the stars have two 75-Watt light bulbs in them. All stars were replaced in 2014 with steel stars with colored plexi glass windows stars were fabricated locally by Barton Fabrication. Each decoration has twelve cascades which start below the star and go in all directions of the intersection, North East, North Center, North West, etc. Each cascade is a specific length ranging from 43’ to 67’.
The decorations were originally stored in the basement of the Stylon Building which was a former car dealership and had a large ramp entrance off the alley to the South. The firefighters would check and repair bulbs and wiring at Station One and later Station two. In the late 1990’s The Gallatin County fair Grounds began donating a building for the repair. In 2015 The fairgrounds stopped donating the space and repair was moved back to station one. 1000’s of bulbs were replaced each year, either broken, burned out or because the coloring being worn off (darker colors wear faster). Both on and off duty firefighters participated in the maintenance. There are numerous stories of “bulb wars” which involved throwing bad bulbs towards your fellow firefighters for days on end. The carnage would be swept up at the end of the day and could often fill a 55-gallon trash can. The practice of bulb wars is no longer officially condoned due to the obvious safety hazard. The decorations were then stored at Merganthaler Transfer and Storage in Bozeman. They were stored in three large crates (approximately 8’x6’x6’) with the poles being stored in a semi trailer. Decorations are now stored in a regular storage unit. There are plywood boxes with open tops which each hold three garlands (four boxes per decoration) these are loaded on a flatbed trailer provided by a firefighter and hauled to Station One where the decorations are repaired in mid November. The decorations are then returned back to the storage unit the Monday prior to the Christmas Stroll when they are installed.
The decorations were originally erected using the Bozeman Fire Department’s 1955 Pirsch Ladder Truck. The tree/bell would be lifted by the top and placed over the cable intersection in the approximate center of the intersection. A bucket truck would then clamp the circular base to the cables and then attach the four guy wires from the top of the pole to the intersection cables. A person at the top of the ladder truck would then hoist the garlands up and attach them to the top of the pole and plug each one in. The other end would then be clamped in its appropriate location in the intersection. Various companies and agencies have provided bucket trucks including Kelly Tree Service, Montana Power, Bozeman Arbor Care, and the City of Bozeman Forestry Department. In approximately 1996 it was decided that utilizing an emergency vehicle such as the ladder truck as a crane was not appropriate and Montana Crane was contracted to provide crane service. Greg Poncelet owner of Montana Crane has donated the service ever since. There has been only one break in this service due to scheduling conflicts and “300 rpm Ron” provided a small tracked crane which took too long to move from intersection to intersection. He was only used for one installation in approximately 2003. In 2011 the equipment used was one crane from Montana crane, two bucket trucks from city forestry, and 1 bucket truck from Bozeman Arbor Care. Originally Main Street was not shut down traffic would just drive around the ladder and bucket trucks. Currently all Main Street is closed, and traffic is diverted from Rouse to Grand.
The lights are turned on from the alleys and from the beginning until approximately 2000 the Bozeman Police would turn them on and off manually. As call volume increased it became difficult for them to turn them on and off in a routine manner. Automatic timers were installed in approximately 2001.
In approximately 2002-2004 there was a proposal by the Downtown Bozeman Association to discontinue the decorations and install “twinkle lights” on the buildings and trees downtown. This idea was met with surprisingly strong resistance and led to a complete refurbishment of the decorations. Including all new Garland and lights and guy wires as well as updated electrical on the poles. This was phased in over a few years and was assisted with approximately $10,000 from the City of Bozeman Downtown Business Improvement District. The numerous cable mounts located on the buildings also underwent an engineering study at this time. In October 2011 the Downtown Bozeman Partnership contracted Montana Crane to replace all eight main intersection cables with 3/8” Galvanized cable at a cost of approximately $7,000.00. Kerin & Associates conducted another structural engineering study in 2015, which led to the repair or replacement of all 16 cable building anchors. Between 2015 and 2017, the Downtown Urban Renewal District invested nearly $40,000 on these efforts.
In 2018 the Downtown Business Improvement District replaced all the bulbs with LED versions for energy conservation and longevity.
The lights are lit during the Bozeman Christmas Stroll by Santa Claus who magically lights them with a firework after signing a Christmas song.
There has generally been a firefighter assigned to oversee the decoration process which begins around September and ends in January. Those would include:
Bruce Thompson 1973-1994
Geoff Hoell 1994-2004
Casey Holling 2004-2007
Travis Barton 2007- 2020
Tim O’Tool 2020-Present
Approximately 2002 11:30 pm New Years eve 20 degrees below zero with heavy winds a red decoration garland blew across a guy wire until the insulation wore through and began arcing on the guy wire between the arcing and the wind the guy wire broke and the wind blew the decoration over bending the 2” pipe over approximately 6’ up from the base. Bozeman Fire Engine One responded to find the tree bent over at 90 degrees with garlands dangling into traffic. Bozeman Forestry department responded with one bucket truck disconnected the tree and it rather unceremoniously dropped to the street. It was loaded into a pickup and on top of the engine and hauled back to Station one for the remaining few days of the season. Western plumbing was able to thread the pipe and install a replacement section of pipe which is still in use today.
In December of 2009 we were shut down by the Montana Department of Labor for almost an hour while we waited for a copy of our Crane operator’s license and an appropriate number of hard hats to be on location.
It’s reported that in the early days of the decorations the ladder truck would be brought out to replace ONE burned out bulb.
In approximately 2002 the decorations were featured on an HGTV television program about small town Christmas celebrations.
At the 2021 Christmas Stroll, high winds blew over the green intersection decoration. Several city departments immediately responded to the incident, cleared the area, and began the removal of the damaged spider. The high sustained winds snapped one of the stabilizing cables which lead to the 24 ft metal pipe that supports the tree to snap approximately 3 ft from the base. At the time of the incident, the Annual Christmas Stroll event was just beginning, and crowds were in full-swing. In order to begin the clean-up, the Fire Department had to clear crowds and quarantine the intersection area while thousands of event goers watched in awe. The spider collapse happened just minute prior to the Annual Santa Parade down Main Street that marks the kick-off to the Annual Stroll event. Due to the incident, the Santa parade was rerouted down Black Avenue after lighting the three remaining “Holiday Spiders.”