OWOSSO — There’s sad news about the famous Owosso Christmas tree in front of the house at 1527 M-52: It has developed a fungus, making it probable that this will be the last holiday season for delighting passers-by with its 53,000 lights.
Owners Roneil and Jorja Ackels, informed by a Consumers Energy representative about the fungus last spring, have been working with an arborist to treat the 45-foot-tall evergreen with fungicide. But the prospects for saving the tree — which is already losing needles — is dim, the married couple said.
During Monday’s Owosso City Council meeting, Owosso Mayor Chris Eveleth informed the community of the landmark tree’s fate.
On Friday, Eveleth said: “It’s very sad that this will be the last year for the tree on 52. However, I’m very grateful to have had my daily commute to and from Lansing brightened for a couple of months each year. For several winters, the tree has stood as a landmark, almost as though it were standing with us in solidarity, protesting the short days of winter.
“Thank you to Mr. and Mrs. Ackels for the hard work and dedication they have put into making it happen,” the mayor continued. “They may never know the true impact this local icon has had over the years, but I know for a fact it’s brought holiday joy to so many passers-by (including those who make a special trip just to see it).
“Thank you for so many wonderful memories of joy and light, and for sharing the magic of Christmas with our community.”
This year’s official lighting will take place at 7 p.m. Nov. 30, and the multi-colored lights will shine until the evening of Jan. 1, 2020.
“It’s likely going to be the last year, and it’s going to be tough,” Jorja Ackels said. “Our son will have to come home for Sarasota for this. After all, he’s the one who started everything.”
When their son David was in fourth grade, he brought home a tiny pine sapling on Earth Day. The year was 1985. Excited, the boy insisted on planting the tree right away, just outside the house.
But the hardy tree soon outgrew its spot, and Roneil Ackels moved it next to the driveway, lining the hole with aspirin and making sure the plant got plenty of water. In about five years later, it had grown large enough for Jorja Ackels to decorate with about 500 lights.
As the evergreen grew, the Ackels needed a stepladder to string the lights, wrapping them around individual limbs. In time, the ladder became useless and Roneil Ackels started using scaffolding.
In recent years, he’s used a cherry picker on loan from a generous friend to put on the lights. He begins the labor-intensive task in September or October.
The result is dazzling. The Ackels’ tree boasts almost double the 30,000 LED lights draped on the Christmas tree in New York’s Rockefeller Center. Four wrapped balls of light on the ground represent “teardrops” honoring children known to the family who have passed away.
To keep the multitude of lights lit, the Ackels have had to amp up the electrical power flowing to the front yard.
“There’s more power out there than the rental house I’m working on right now,” Roneil Ackels said with a chuckle.
The couple said they kept lighting up the evergreen for 34 years because the tree was special to their son and because they have discovered it is also special to many area residents and out-of-town visitors.
People have placed notes of thanks on their door, they said. One woman’s love for the tree prompted her to bring cookies to the house. Someone once left bread for the family.
When Consumers posted a notice saying the top of the tree had to come off, the reaction on Facebook was explosive. Several people called the power company to complain. One man threatened to chain himself to the tree.
In the end, Consumers backed down, taking off only a couple of branches. That same day, one of company’s workers informed the Ackels about the fungus.
The tree has become so well known it has its own Facebook page, Owosso Christmas Tree. The Ackels’ daughter, Amanda Conger-Ackels Aspenson, has posted a history of the tree on the page.
As important as the tree has become to the Ackels family, Jorja Ackels said it’s also true that they have invested a lot of time and money in it over the decades, and Roneil Ackels — who turned 77 Friday — isn’t getting any younger.
“We’re just going to enjoy the tree this year and hope others in the community will enjoy it, too,” Jorja Ackels said. “I’m going to pretend it’s not the last year.”