Back in the ’70s, this man envisioned a Christmas tree lane along the highway, creating the first of its kind in California and a long-standing tradition for his town

December 1, 2017 3:56 pm Last Updated: December 2, 2017 6:58 pm

Have you ever been driving along the road and noticed some sort of decoration along the sides? Roadside decor like trees, statues, and murals have become pretty commonplace nowadays. Yet, back in the 70s, this was nearly unheard of. Before the idea could catch on with the general public, people who thought outside the box needed to plant the seed: people like Robert Conrad of Placerville, California.

Back in 1971, local businessman Robert Conrad joined the Hangtown Chamber of Commerce and became chairman of the Business Practices Committee.

“I asked them for a job description and they said they didn’t have one,” Conrad told Mountain Democrat. “They told me to ‘just get a team.’”

Unsure what to do, Conrad did his best to find out how he could help create a more prosperous town. He asked local businesses about their problems and how the Chamber could help fix them. One of the most vocal groups was the local Christmas tree growers.

The Christmas tree growers informed him that the tree farms in nearby towns made far more sales than they did, and they needed some method to attract customers to Placerville’s farms.

“I thought to myself, ‘How do you promote a Christmas tree?’ and checked with some other people, including the chamber’s manager Carol Hughes and her husband Norm, who was a professional photographer,” the 82-year-old explained.

“We had started a campaign called ‘Perk Up Placerville’ and Norm had taken photos of the backs of all the buildings along the freeway, showing what a blight they were.”

Everyone agreed that Highway 50 was ugly but weren’t sure how to fix it.

Then Conrad recalled his recent trip to a city in Washington, where holiday lights filled the night.

He thought he could kill two birds with one stone by placing lit Christmas trees along the freeway. Not only would it make the highway look better (at least for the holiday season) but it would also be a great way to promote local tree farms.

In 1971, the beautiful Christmas Tree Lane was established by the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce along Highway 50,…

Posted by City of Placerville on Monday, November 23, 2015

Now that he had a solid idea, Conrad needed to start planning. He turned to city engineer Mick McGuire to begin the project.

McGuire thought it couldn’t be done but he pitched in anyway. His expertise lay the groundwork for Conrad’s project. The tree farmers helped out too, offering to donate over 80 trees to the project.

Still there were several sources he needed permission from before his idea could get off the ground, including The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E).

“Milt Coffey was the district manager of PG&E then and Milt was known as being a blunt speaker — but you always knew where you stood with him,” Conrad said. “I met with him at a local restaurant and when he heard my idea he said, ‘Conrad, you’re crazy as hell.’ I said, ‘I know, but will you back me?’ He said, ‘One hundred percent.’”

From there, Coffey introduced Conrad to electrical experts who walked the railroad tracks with him. They figured out that the power for the trees could come from a tower serving Vesuvio’s Pizza at 251 Main St. The restaurant was then owned by Carl Borelli, who just so happened to be vice president of the chamber.

“Within a week, we had a plan together,” Conrad recalled.

By that point, Conrad had made connections with the state Department of Transportation headquarters in Marysville, working with a man with the last name Warren (he forgot his first name).

“We had been talking regularly; we would have coffee there when I would visit and talk about the project,” Conrad explained. “I went up there with pastries to go with the coffee and he took one look and said they weren’t allowed to take bribes.

“I said, ‘Who said they were for you?’” a joke that makes Conrad laugh to this day.

“He told me what I had planned with the Christmas trees had never been done in the entire state before. I told him that there’s always a first time.”

Warren left for half an hour to speak with some higher-ups. When he came back he only said three words, “It’s a go.”

Still he was having issues with the railroad. He needed their permission to place trees near their tracks but the railroad guy in Sacramento refused.

“I had already talked to Sacramento and they weren’t going for it,” Conrad said. “So I went to Mich-Cal (a former lumber mill in Camino) and asked, ‘Who’s above this guy, I need to talk to his boss.’ I went to his boss and he asked me, ‘How many cars go by on Highway 50 through that stretch you’re talking about?’ We had already done surveys and were able to tell him there were 16,800 vehicles a day.

“He asked me, ‘How many trains go by each day?’ I told him I had never seen one.”

The conference call ended with the boss approving the project and it started in full swing. Conrad and McGuire scoured government auctions, Diamond Lime in Diamonds Springs donated piping, Western Sign Co. pitched in where they could, and even metal shop students at El Dorado High School got involved. Still there was one thing halting their progress: they were about $4,000 short.

“So we had a meeting of the chamber board and I told them that I would pick up the tab myself,” said Conrad. “They had a vote on whether to fund it with chamber money and I was the only ‘no’ vote.”

The head of Mother Lode Bank offered a low-interest loan to pay for the rest of the project. The loan would later be paid off by a fundraising dance in January of the following year.

It took over 6 months but Christmas Tree Lane, as it came to be called, was finally ready and it was a sight for sore eyes.

“The community really got behind it, right from the beginning,” Conrad’s wife, Bobi, recalled. “The night of the first tree lighting the whole parking lot at Round Table Pizza was full of lights and people.”

Excluding a period where extensive roadwork had to be done, Conrad’s Christmas trees have lit up Highway 50 every year since 1971.

So next time you’re driving down a highway around Christmas time, marveling at the beauty of the twinkling trees, you’ll have Robert Conrad to thank for planting the idea.

MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images