An Important Note on the Christmas Time History of Oak Ridge, Tennessee

by Tracy C. Brown

Christmas at Oak Ridge Post Office in 1944

Christmas Mailing at the Oak Ridge Post Office in 1944

It is Christmas season in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and I have been cleaning up my office at the Oak Ridge Archaeological Research Institute (ORARI).  A couple of months ago, I ate lunch at the historic Jefferson Fountain, which is located on Jefferson Circle. As I was getting into the ORARI archaeology van to leave, a nice man by the name of Lloyd E. Stokes stepped up to the van and introduced himself. Lloyd is affiliated with the Oak Ridge Heritage & Preservation Association. He had not yet heard about ORARI, and was surprised and very happy to find an archaeologist living and actively doing research in the Oak Ridge-Anderson County area. He gave me his business card and a copy of a nice new publication entitled the Manhattan Project Secret City Pocket Guide, which is a synoptic guide to the history of Oak Ridge during World War II.  As I was finishing up my cleaning job this evening, I ran into this publication once again, thumbed through it, and saw an interesting human behavioral item relevant to one of the earliest Christmas times in Oak Ridge. Before presenting this item, a little background information is necessary for you to understand it.

I grew up in the Central Basin Physiographic Province of Middle Tennessee. This province consists of the Inner Basin and the Outer Basin. The Inner Basin is well known for isolated ecosystems that are referred to as cedar glades. Cedar glades are both small and large areas of land where eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) grow in large numbers (Figure 1). The soil in these areas has a high calcium content, and Ordovician limestone bedrock is usually exposed on the ground surface or located under the ground surface at shallow depths.  In the botanical realm, red cedar trees are often referred to as calcifers because they require a lot of calcium from the soil to thrive.


Figure 1.  Eastern Red Cedar Christmas Trees

Red cedar trees are also very common along rural fence rows in the Central Basin and in the adjacent Highland Rim Physiographic Province, which is underlain by geologically later limestone formations.  Song birds eat the seeds on the red cedar trees, fly off to perch on local barbed wire fences, and sometimes defecate whole seeds that are still viable along the fence rows.  These seeds sprout and populate the fence rows with long lines of red cedar trees.  Red cedar trees also grow individually and in small groups in open land that has sufficient calcium and other nutrients for their growth.

The City of Oak Ridge is located in the Ridge and Valley Physiographic Province of East Tennessee. Many Tennessee citizens are not aware of this fact, but Oak Ridge has protected cedar glade areas within its geographic limits. In addition, red cedar trees in this area grow along rural fence lines and in many open areas where the underlying bedrock is either limestone or dolomite. The young red cedar trees in the Central Basin and Highland Rim Physiographic Provinces have a deep, rich, heavy evergreen aroma that diffuses throughout the air inside a warm home, and this aroma is the very essence of Christmas. Unfortunately, and I know this from personal experience, the red cedar trees that grow in the Ridge and Valley Physiographic Province are far less aromatic than those in the Central Basin and Highland Rim. Just speculating, this may be a result of some subtle ecological difference between these two physiographic provinces.

In the 19th century, the red cedar became the traditional pioneer Christmas tree in Middle Tennessee and here in East Tennessee. This is not at all surprising because of their natural abundance.  The young red cedar trees were often just the right size and shape for a wonderful household Christmas tree. They were easy to cut, easy to transport by hand—and that evergreen aroma—oh my goodness!!!  Even well into the 20th century, they were the Christmas tree of choice at my home in Gallatin, Tennessee, and at my grandmother’s house on top of the Highland Rim near Bethpage, Tennessee.  I dare say that they had been the continuous historical Christmas tree of choice ever since the Brown and Durham families first arrived in that area of Tennessee in the early 19th century.

Oak Ridge and its massive government facilities under the Manhattan Project were built—more or less—all at one time between 1943 and 1945. They were constructed on a combination of government-confiscated farmlands and associated woodland areas. The “streets” and other areas of early Oak Ridge were often referred to as seas of mud because so many areas were stripped of vegetation and subject to massive earthmoving as part of the local construction efforts. National security concerns were paramount and constant because of the war effort, and the government security apparatus was clamped down tightly on the local residents to prevent the release of Top Secret information and to maintain a rigid sense of social order within the new community.  It was quite literally a Secret City surrounded by a security fence. The 81,000 residents were people who had emigrated in from all parts of the United States, including many parts of Tennessee.

With all of the foregoing as background information for you, here is the small Christmas item, left over from the World War II era, that was reprinted in the recent Manhattan Project Secret City Pocket Guide. Notice the stern tone of the U.S. Army intelligence officer who wrote this item to the citizens of Oak Ridge.  I feel certain that Ebenezer Scrooge could not have done it better—and yes—he is talking about naturally growing red cedar trees of a certain small size and shape that were still alive and located within the Oak Ridge security fence.  Get a load of this:


Cutting of Christmas trees within the limits of the reservation is strictly prohibited.  Methods and means are in effect to apprehend offenders and severe reprimand may result.

Efforts are being made to have a supply of trees for sale in the near future at a nominal price and full cooperation is expected.

That is truly dismal wording for Christmas time, when lightheartedness and joy were the normal civilian fare outside of the security fence in Knoxville and the other surrounding towns.  I still wonder how many small spruces, pines, and firs the U.S. Army was able to bring in and sell to the early residents of Oak Ridge.  If you consider one Christmas tree for each family of four, it would have required 20,250 Christmas trees—but actually—far fewer may have been needed. A great many of the first civilian residents of the Secret City were young, single people just out of high school or college. Many others were single officers and enlisted personnel in the U.S. Army. These folks lived in small or large groups in dormitories, barracks, and other group-living environments that would have required only one shared Christmas tree.

One thing seems certain though. If the cutting of free-growing red cedar trees had not been curtailed by this general order at Christmas time, the protected cedar glades in Oak Ridge might not exist today. Currently, one of the best local cedar glades is located between Fairbanks Road and Laboratory Road in downtown Oak Ridge. It is signed and posted as a protected area, and it has a nice walking trail within it. In the World War II era, this cedar glade was located right behind the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters, which was referred to by local residents as “The Castle.” It was the central administrative headquarters for the entire nationwide Manhattan Project.

Photograph Credits: James E. Westcott and North Carolina State Extension

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