PERCIVAL, Sask. – This is a Christmas story about a tree and a community.
And because it’s a Christmas story you know this isn’t just an ordinary tree, and that the story has a happy ending.
Millions of people have passed this tree during its nearly 85 years stretching toward the sky.
To some, it’s probably just ‘that big tree on the north side of the Trans- Canada Highway between Broadview and Whitewood.’
To others it’s a landmark that says, ‘I’m home.’
On this December night, people are gathered near the tree. Bonfire flames lick toward the sky. Hot dogs on crooked willow branches roast in the coals.
Hot chocolate steams from a cup held in one hand while the other reaches toward the fire.
About 70 people of all ages come and go during a few hours, all of them there to celebrate the tree now lit by hundreds of Christmas bulbs.
Semi-trailer trucks salute with a blast from their horns as they pass.
“Thank you!” a few wave and yell back, as if the truckers can hear, and everyone smiles.
There isn’t much left of Percival, Sask., but there is the tree.
John Michelson planted the white spruce and another in 1926 at the end of his lane near the community in southeastern Saskatchewan. He had brought the seedlings from the north, near Creighton.
When the highway came through in 1929, he protected the trees from development.
He did so again in 1952 when the Trans-Canada was improved.
“He wouldn’t let them touch that tree,” said Innis Swanson, who lives about five kilometres away.
At some point, one of the trees died. But the one still standing has become beloved by those who grew up in the area.
In 2001 it needed protecting once again. The Trans-Canada was to be twinned and the tree would have to go in order to keep the lanes straight, highways officials said.
The community was having none of that. They sought help to put Christmas lights on the tree and in December 2001, it was lit for the first time.
That was the kickoff to a campaign that drew national media attention.
“When the story got out we had compliments from Vancouver to Prince Edward Island,” said Swanson, one of the driving forces behind saving and celebrating the tree.
The highways department offered to move it, but experts at the federal shelterbelt centre at Indian Head said that would kill the then 20-metre-tall spruce.
The Saskatchewan Forestry Association then recognized it as a “tree of renown” through its special trees program.
In the end, the highways department made a bend in the road. The tree was saved.
And so Percival was saved.
Just one family now lives in the community that once had a church, a school, a grain elevator, a blacksmith and a Co-op.
The community hall, built in the early 1900s, was restored to its tin ceiling and dance hall floor but the power isn’t connected because the building doesn’t get enough use.
For the province’s 90th anniversary, a windmill that once provided water for livestock was restored. A cookbook called Turn at the Windmill celebrates that landmark.
But the spruce keeps Percival on the map and celebrating its Christmas lights gives people a reason to get together. It’s a beacon that calls people home.
“The tree represents growing up here,” said one woman, who lived in Percival in the 1940s and brought her granddaughter from Esterhazy to the winter wiener roast.
“It was a fairly big community. It’s a memorial tribute to our families.”
It’s also a symbol of an enduring community spirit, no matter how far from home you go.