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Durham tree a tall order for decorators

Durham tree a tall order for decorators

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When you pull out your ornaments to decorate your Christmas tree, imagine if it were 40 feet tall.

That's the job facing crews who each year tackle decorating the tree at Omaha's Durham Museum.

Think ornaments the size of basketballs. Like a lot of lights on a tree? The Durham's has 1,200, plus more than 700 ornaments.

Crews finished the job last week in advance of the annual lighting of the Durham tree scheduled for about 7 p.m. Friday. Each year the museum puts up a real tree donated by local people, and this season's is a 40-foot Colorado blue spruce.

Even though the scale of the job is much bigger, the museum's annual tree-decorating effort mirrors how families do it at home — except there are no grumpy teens refusing to join the fun.

It starts with pulling the decorations from a garage-size storage space called the "Christmas room" in the Durham's basement. The decorations are kept in bags made of heavy-duty plastic big enough to hold five dozen soccer balls.

For years Mangelsen's, a locally owned craft store, has donated employees' time to decorate the tree. Union Pacific does the same, providing a crew that cuts down the tree, transports it, sets it up at the museum, hangs the lights and runs the power lifts used to put workers in position.

Five Mangelsen's employees worked for more than three days to decorate the tree. Union Pacific's crew, which numbered as many as seven, spent three days on its end of the job.

Heidi Pospisil, a member of the Mangelsen's crew, said that each year the store orders about 50 new ornaments, not only to replace broken ones but also to give the tree a fresh look. Mangelsen's pays for the ornaments and orders them from one of its suppliers, with some costing as much as $50 each.

Sometimes new ornaments are picked that give fresh colors to the tree, like the metallic red ones added last year. Sometimes the goal is new shapes, such as icicle-style ornaments.

Pospisil said the goal each year is to give the tree a classic look. That's why there are lots of shiny ball-shaped ornaments — not ones of Mickey Mouse or Elvis.

All the ornaments are super-sized. Icicle ornaments are more than 3 feet long. Candy canes are as tall as a toddler. Snowflake ornaments are bigger than a dinner plate.

You need thick wire to hang big ornaments. Pospisil and her crew use wire so thick you could make a clothing hanger from it.

The tree is hung from two steel cables attached to a metal beam in the ceiling of the Durham's towering Great Hall, a space where travelers once waited for trains bound for California and other destinations.

You think your fresh-cut tree drinks up lots of water? The bottom trunk of the Durham's spruce is suspended in a round horse trough, and the monster tree soaked up more than 50 gallons the first day.

Everything about the tree and its decorations is big. Not only are there lots of lights, but they're beefier than those dainty white ones some folks use at home. The Durham's are 2 inches long, sturdy looking and splash the tree with white, orange, blue and red.

You know how bulbs go out on your string of lights at home? Same with the Durham lights, said Pete Gantnier, a member of the Union Pacific crew. There are always boxes of replacements handy.

The tradition of a tree in the Durham goes back to the 1930s and the museum's days as a train station. Union Pacific employees would cut down large evergreens in the Pacific Northwest and send them to Omaha's Union Station where they would be decorated and displayed for travelers.

That tradition returned in 1975, when the museum took over the building. This year's tree was donated by Rita Guenette of Ralston.

Pospisil has helped decorate the Durham tree for more than a dozen years and said her favorite part isn't when her crew hangs the last ornament. The best time is when all the bulbs turn bright during the lighting ceremony, an annual tradition for her family.

"That's when you get in the spirit,'' she said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1122, michael.oconnor@owh.com

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