WHEELING – Asked about the memories of the Talking Tree, once found in the LS Good department store and more recently at the Center Market, many people are nostalgic for spending time with family, the crowded streets, and Christmas shopping.
Others have decidedly different memories.
“It scared me very much,” said Don Feenerty, a resident of Martins Ferry, who had fond memories of Christmas shopping with his family in the crowded streets… the trees apart.
The LS Good building, now home to Good Mansion Wines, was once a department store with the Talking Tree on display, its cryptic gaze monitoring the crowd.
A store worker seated inside the tree was given a microphone and viewing slit, listening to passers-by for children’s names or, better yet, a familiar face.
“I was just a little kid, and the tree was like, ‘Hey little boy with the blue coat, cowboy boots!’ “Said Feenerty. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, the tree is talking to me! I was young enough not to realize that there was someone in the tree, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how the tree could see me. I accepted that the tree could talk, that didn’t bother me.
Feenerty commented that mild dendrophobia was something most stemmed from – her mother couldn’t understand her worry, and her older sisters were both not fazed by the chattering tree. As he grew older, he too grew up because of his irrational fear. Or at least for a while. After a few years of renovation, the Talking Tree suddenly returned when he was a teenager.
“I started working in downtown Wheeling when I was 17, and the tree was back. … I was still a little scared, so I walked across Market Street – it was like the clown, Pennywise. No matter where you went, you couldn’t escape it, ”he said. “I was across the street, and whoever was in the tree knew who I was. They called me by name and my heart started to beat really fast: “Oh my God, he’s still here! He knows who I am! ‘”
To compound the mystery of the tree, Feenerty said, he rarely got what he told the tree he wanted, which led him to a conclusion – whatever it was, the tree. was not Santa Claus.
Nina Sutherland was the voice of the tree during the winter of 1974 and fondly remembers her time. She had been hired as a seasonal aide at LS Good and remembered crouching inside the tree, sitting on a metal chair and watching the crowd through the crack in the tree. With a fan to keep her cool and a microphone to talk to passers-by, Sutherland has kept shoppers on their toes.
“Sure, they had those big eyes and that mouth on the tree, so that’s what people were looking at,” she said. “… What was funny was that everyone had school jackets with their name and what instrument they were playing on. … If you could see what was on the jacket,… they would look around like ‘How do you know that ?!
“… It was the good days. I just remember the streets of Wheeling were packed with people, ”she added with a laugh. “I remember people walking past as if nothing had happened – ‘This tree doesn’t speak to me!’ – you sting the bear when you did this to me!
Sutherland said her seasonal work wasn’t a problem, at the time, she didn’t think about talking about it or discussing it for years. Later in life, she said, she and a friend found a Christmas tree ornament singing and dancing in the store, awakening long-dormant memories… much to the chagrin of her children.
“I said, ‘You won’t believe it! It was me! I was the talking Christmas tree! ‘ It was the first time I had mentioned it, because it was okay. She bought me this, and I drag it out every Christmas and play it. My kids can’t even believe it, ”she said.
In recent years, a talking tree has moved to the Central Market near Coleman Fish Market, where it still attracts a mixed crowd of those who remember the tree from decades past, families happy to see the novelty of the tree, and probably more than a couple of disturbed children.
Although the tree is different from what it was in the ’70s, Sutherland is still happy to see the tree come back.
“He looks different, he doesn’t look like the same tree he used to be. Then I read that things had changed, that over the years it had deteriorated,… but it’s funny. At the time it was not important, but 50 years later, I finally recognized it! People are a little surprised. I’m trying to explain to my kids what Wheeling was like 45 years ago, they just don’t get it.
Despite his tumultuous first impressions, Feenerty is also happy to see the tradition continue.
“I can honestly say that this tree must have positively impacted thousands of people,” he said. “I think these are the kind of traditions that are good to keep alive. When I was the same age, Cooey Bentz had a Santa Claus and a train show, and you won’t meet anyone who grew up in Wheeling in the 60s, 70s, early 80s who didn’t talk about Cooey-Bentz in Christmas time. It is the same as this tree.
“For many, many people, this tree is Christmas. I would like it to continue.