A stone monument in the park behind the Noden-Reed Museum in Windsor Locks reads: “Site of the first decorated Christmas tree in New England.” Local tradition holds that the original tree this marker commemorates was not only the first Christmas tree in New England, but the first to be raised for the holiday in the New World.
You can find the marker after parking in the museum lot at 58 West St. and walking a gravel path until you see an evergreen in the field on your left. The stone marker is under the evergreen. Tracing the history and confirming the truth behind the claim, however, is a much harder task.
The tale begins with the Battle of Bennington on Aug. 16, 1777, during the Revolutionary War. The battle was a major victory for the rebel forces, and about 700 enemy troops were captured including a Hessian soldier named Hendrick Roddemore. The prisoners were dispersed throughout New England. By that winter, somehow, Roddemore ended up in Pine Meadow, today part of Windsor Locks but then a part of Windsor, working for a farmer named Samuel Denslow.
In some accounts, Roddemore was hired to work for Denslow after being freed or put on some type of parole; in other versions he was placed in Denslow’s custody.
Regardless of whether he ended up there as a free man or prisoner of war, there is no debate that Roddemore was in Windsor Locks by Christmas 1777, and by that time enjoyed a good deal of autonomy while working on Denslow’s farm. He lived in his own cabin, which is today the site of the Christmas tree monument. In this cabin Roddemore is said to have raised the first New World Christmas tree.
Mickey Danyluk, municipal historian for the town of Windsor Locks, says there “are no primary sources” for the story of Roddemore raising a Christmas tree. Instead, the earliest reference to the tale he and other local historians are aware of comes courtesy of a Hartford Courant article by Herbert J. Stoeckel, published on Christmas Day 1955. The source for Stoeckel’s article is an unnamed “Oldtimer.” In the article the old-timer speculates that Roddemore erected the first Christmas tree in Connecticut, not New England or the Americas, as later accounts would claim. After Stoeckel asks, “Who was the state’s first Christmas tree impresario,” the old-timer responds, “We’ll never know definitely. However, employing deduction, I think we can award the palm — or shall we say the balsam — to Hendrick Roddemore of Pine Meadow.”
The old-timer adds, “It’s known that the Hessians serving with the British during the Revolution would cut down and decorate Christmas trees to celebrate the holiday like in the old country. … So using our imagination a bit, we can surmise — and logic is on our side — that Hendrick did the same in Pine Meadow.”
Danyluk says Gladys Reed worked in the business office at the Hartford Courant during the time the story was published. Since her family owned the farm where Roddemore had worked in the late 1700s, he speculates it’s possible she told Stoeckel the story or put him in touch with the old-timer.
Believers of the story say it is likely Roddemore raised a tree because the tradition was common among Hessian soldiers. Critics say there is no primary-source evidence that he did, and even if true, since there were Hessian soldiers throughout the colonies at this time, someone else would have likely raised a tree earlier, and there are even some reports of earlier trees.
Philip Devlin, a local historian who has written about the possible Windsor Locks Christmas tree connection says, “My belief is there is no way to state with certainty it was the first [Christmas tree], but it certainly could have been.”
Devlin adds that the background to the story makes sense, as Americans learned the tradition of raising Christmas trees from German immigrants in the 1800s.
James Roche Jr., president of the Windsor Locks Historical Society, believes the story because “based on the size of our town [very small geographically], the oral histories, which still go on today, are rooted in fact.”
The local community has embraced the story, as well, with the monument in Noden-Reed Park. Each year, during the holiday season, the historical society decorates the tree above the stone monument marking Roddemore’s cabin, and the Noden-Reed Museum hosts an event during the town’s Torchlight Parade. It sounds like a beautiful community tradition, regardless of what you think about the story that inspired it.