Richard Olsen planted five small trees behind his Portland home nearly 40 years ago and dreamed that one would grow up to be the city’s Christmas tree. This year, the “prettiest of the bunch” will be displayed throughout the holiday season in Monument Square.

Olsen, who died last year at 80, will not see his dream realized, but his widow says the tree’s display downtown will honor the memory of a lifelong Portland resident who raised a large and loving blended family in the Riverton neighborhood.

“I think I’m going to feel a little sad to see them cut down the tree because it’s a pretty tree,” said Patricia Olsen, who was married to Richard for 43 years. “But I’ll be very happy to see it in Monument Square because it’s something he always wanted.”

Patricia Olsen of Portland is donating this 40-foot balsam fir in her backyard to be this year’s Monument Square holiday tree. Olsen’s husband, Richard, who died last year, planted the tree in the early 1980s. He had long wanted one of his trees to be chosen by the city. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

City staff noticed the 40-foot balsam fir on Epping Street last summer while doing tree work in the area, city arborist Jeff Tarling said. Patricia Olsen didn’t hesitate when they asked if she would let them bring it to Monument Square.

In the early 1980s, Richard Olsen’s sister, Althaea White, went into the woods behind her home in Pownal to dig up five small trees as a birthday present for her brother. The Olsens had recently purchased a lot behind their house and Richard Olsen set to work planting the trees there. Two didn’t make it, Patricia Olsen said, but the one destined for Monument Square was “the prettiest of the bunch.”

Fifteen years ago, the Olsens offered a smaller blue spruce for Monument Square, but moving that tree was not feasible because it had a double top, Tarling said. Double tops often occur in evergreens when the top of a tree is damaged and the topmost branch takes over as the new treetop.

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Richard Olsen planted this year’s Monument Square holiday tree in his Portland backyard in the early 1980s. Photo courtesy of Patricia Olsen

Richard Olsen, who worked at a Hannaford warehouse for 35 years, died Oct. 6, 2020, after a long illness. He is survived by five children, three stepchildren, 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Last year’s tree also was planted by a longtime Portland resident who hoped that it would one day stand in Monument Square. Edith Aray, who died at 94 several months before the tree was cut down, dug up a tiny sapling on the side of the road in northern Maine and planted in front of her Florida Avenue house. It was 48 feet tall and weighed 3,400 pounds by the time the city of Portland came calling.

Richard Olsen’s tree will be moved beginning around 8 a.m. Thursday. It is expected to leave the yard on Epping Street around 9 a.m. and travel on a flatbed truck down Forest Avenue to State Street, then left onto Congress Street to Monument Square.

When the tree is lit on Nov. 26, Patricia Olsen will be standing in Monument Square with two of her daughters, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She’ll be thinking about her husband and his sister.

“It’s something special for both of them,” she said.

There won’t be a formal countdown to the tree lighting this year, but the lights will go on at dusk (around 4 p.m.) on Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving. Free eggnog from the Hood eggnog truck will be passed out to those who attend in person. City officials ask everyone who plans to come to wear masks and practice social distancing in Monument Square.

For the second year, Portland Downtown will create a virtual window overlooking Monument Square to allow visitors locally and around the globe to enjoy the tree and its surroundings. The “Tree Cam” will be on around the clock at portlandmaine.com/tree.

Portland Downtown will test the camera for a few hours Thursday morning, allowing viewers to see the tree’s installation. The organization will announce the exact times for the preview on its social media channels.


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