COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — Atop the hill of a blueberry barren, the beautiful blue fall sky contrasted with the auburn leaves of the low bushes, and a huge American flag hung from a truck-mounted hoist.
Several hundred feet below, in the middle of a forest of balsam fir trees, is an amphitheater carved out of the woods where a few thousand people were expected Sunday afternoon for an event to pay tribute to a particular tree.
The tree was to be adorned with Christmas lights to honor military veterans, particularly those of the World War II era who served in the Battle of the Bulge.
A tree had been similarly decorated and lit at a public park in Bar Harbor for two years, but the resort city council decided in September it no longer wanted the memoriam and gave Wreaths Across America 30 days to remove the lights. Some residents objected to the tree because an accompanying plaque referred to Christmas and they were not Christians, Town Council chair Ruth Eveland later acknowledged.
“This is where it belongs,” said Stanley Wojtusik, in Columbia Falls.
“It’s home,” said Edith Nowels.
Wojtusik, 88, who is from Philadelphia, and Nowels, who is from Brielle, N.J., talked about the significance of the memorial tree at the headquarters of Wreaths Across America in Columbia Falls on Sunday morning. They participated in a ceremony earlier to remove the lights from the tree at the park in Bar Harbor.
Wojtusik, who is on the board of directors of Wreaths Across America, which had the agreement with the Bar Harbor City Council, was serving in the Army as an 18-year-old when he was wounded and captured by the Germans during the Battle of Bulge. He served six months in a POW camp before being liberated by the Russians.
Nowels is the sister of Horace M. Thorne, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military decoration — after being killed while heroically fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
“I was mad as hell when I heard the lights were going to be taken off the tree,” said Nowels. She was equally angered by earlier reports in which Bar Harbor Town Manager Dana Reed described the memorial tree as “tacky.”
“He would have enjoyed even a tacky Christmas tree in the fox hole,” said Nowels, referring to her brother. “But he didn’t have that opportunity.”
At the brief ceremony in Bar Harbor Sunday morning, Nowels, who publishes a newsletter for an organization of veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, read from a tribute she wrote in honor of her brother. He was 26 at the time he was killed in action; Nowels was a teenager.
Nowels read her tribute after welcoming remarks by Wayne Hanson, chairman of the Wreaths Across America board of directors, and Wojtusik. They were followed by Karen Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America, which supplies holiday wreaths for graves at Arlington National Cemetery and other cemeteries at the Christmas season. Ruth Moore of Columbia Falls began singing “Silent Night” impromptu, and a crowd estimated at about 150 people joined in and also sang “God Bless America.”
Afterward, members of the Patriot Guard Riders helped remove the granite marker and plaque and provided a motorcycle escort to carry the marker and lights to Columbia Falls.
“We just lost a freedom,” Worcester said after arriving with the caravan in Columbia Falls. “We just lost a freedom to honor our veterans.”
If the memorial tree offended some, “We’re sorry,” said Worcester.
“You can’t let political correctness become oppression of freedom,” she added.
Wreaths Across America hosted families of fallen veterans at the organization’s headquarters for coffee and helped them to tag balsam fir trees for deceased loved ones. The trees are located on land owned by Worcester Wreath Co., which supplies wreaths for Wreaths Across America; the business is headed by Worcester’s husband, Morrill, whose company constructed the amphitheater on its land along U.S. Route 1.
A concert in the amphitheater got underway in the afternoon. It was scheduled to culminate with a performance by country artist Lee Greenwood, who planned to sing his signature song, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” just prior to the lighting of the new tree about 6 p.m. The concert was to end with a fireworks display.
An earlier version of this story requires correction. Ruth Moore, not Amy Moore, led the gathering in an impromptu singing of "Silent Night."