By Brian Cain
Choosing the right tree is an important part of the Christmas tradition. It can’t be too tall or too short, too thin or too wide. It has to be just right.
And in the early 1940s, Girl Scout Troop #113 of Louisa found that perfect tree on Dell Perkins’s farm along the South Anna River.
The tiny Hemlock made the journey from its home on the river to its new abode on the Louisa County Courthouse lawn. And the planting of that little tree started a big tradition in Louisa.
“When we planted it, the tree was only about four-foot tall,” said Frances Henson Atkins, one of the original members of the troop. “And we would decorate it every Christmas. It was a big deal.”
Each year, the scouts would decorate and light the tree. And every year on December 23, the scouts would sing Christmas songs around the tree, before they went caroling throughout the community, always making sure to stop by the old Louisa Hospital before heading back to their troop hall on West Street for hot chocolate and cookies.
The scouts’ home away from home was built by the troop with money they raised through special events such as serving dinners at the firehouse and hosting horse shows.
“It was a very nice house,” Atkins said. “And it was practically the only place in town that people could rent to have a big event.”
And one year, the scouts decided to host a big event of their own. One like Louisa had never seen before.
Atkins said it was one of her most memorable moments of the troop’s involvement with the Christmas celebration.
“This is a funny one,” she said. “We planned a big Christmas pageant on the 23rd. That was always the night we did the Christmas things.”
Atkins said the troop had recorded Christmas music from every church choir, built a barn in front of the troop hall—where a cow would stick its head through a window and munch on hay while baby Jesus was in the manger—and had three wise men prepared to visit on horseback.
They even had a volunteer angel who was going be on the roof while immersed in a flood of focused spotlights to provide a simulated glory of the Lord shone round about them, while hoping that none of the pageant attendees would be sore afraid.
“But it snowed and it sleeted and we had to call the whole thing off,” Atkins said. “But it was going to be quite a performance.”
She said the troop never attempted the upscale production again. “We just did the Christmas caroling around town.”
Atkins said she got involved in the Girl Scouts because of her mother, Elsie Henson.
“She wanted me to be one and there wasn’t a Girl Scout troop in Louisa,” Atkins said. “So, she started one.”
Atkins took over as the troop leader after her mother passed away, and continued to serve as the group’s leader for 35 years.
Nancy Pleasants was one of Atkins’s scouts during the mid-1960s who helped carry on the annual Christmas tradition.
She said that the scouts enjoyed the decorating, caroling and the finale—an invitation-only Holly Ball dance party at the troop house.
“It was always a fun thing,” Pleasants said. “But we also knew as Girl Scouts what was expected of us, and this was an event for the community.”
Attendance at the tree lighting grew each year—and so did that little four-foot-tall Hemlock.
Atkins and Pleasants said they enjoyed decorating the tree, even when it required them to use a ladder.
To read the entire story, see this week’s The Central Virginian now available on newsstands.