2006-08-09 / Front Page

Mystery solved

Father and daughter reveal the secret of the little pine
By Katherine Peters


For years, Catherine Sansbury and her father Randy decorated a little pine tree along Winterfield Road for each holiday. Passersby often wondered who was responsible for the unusual holiday greetings. As the mystery of the little pine grew in Salisbury, the duo kept their identities secret even from Catherine's mother.
For half a decade, Anne Hill has decorated a scraggly little pine tree on Winterfield Road for the seasons, not knowing whose legacy she was continuing. That is, until the day Catherine Sansbury introduced herself.

A few weeks after an article appeared in the Chesterfield Observer about the tree last April, Hill was again decorating the tree when Catherine stopped her car and got out. "She said, 'You don't know who I am, but my father and I decorated that tree,'" Hill recalls.

For Catherine and her father, Randy Sansbury, decorating the little pine was a special secret that no one else knew - not even their mother and wife, Melinda.

"It started as just giving the kids on the bus something to look forward to, something good and fun to talk about," says Randy.

He admits the tree wasn't an original idea. Randy would often travel to Norfolk for his job, where he would pass a decorated little cedar in a median between busy highways. No one knew who decorated that tree, but the community mourned on local radio shows when it was mysteriously cut down.

Then, Randy's youngest son, Joseph, mentioned seeing some red yarn in the local pine tree.

Randy completed the first solo trip of his secret mission soon afterward, decorating the tree before leaving for Norfolk at 5 a.m. That was about nine years ago.

Catherine always had her suspicions. "We used to talk about the Hampton tree," she says. After a couple years of musing, she finally asked her father if he was responsible for the decorated tree on Winterfield.

"It became like a daddy-daughter thing," Catherine said.

For the next couple of years, Randy would drop Catherine off at the tree late at night and drive up and down Winterfield while she decorated.

"It was so much fun. He'd make me get in dark clothes," Catherine says, remembering how they avoided cars turning the corner. "You'd duck down, praying that no one sees you... it was like stealth-mode."

And so the mystery of the little pine proliferated throughout Salisbury and Midlothian. People left notes at the tree-many of which Catherine still has-and someone once added a garland sporting flags from around the world.

Catherine admits the hardest part of the secret was not smiling when kids on the school bus would be excited to see that the tree's decorations had changed. Conversations

about the tree popped up at the lake in Salisbury, where Randy would pretend to puzzle the identities of the mysterious tree keepers with other residents.

"You'd chuckle underneath your breath, and say 'I know who!'" Randy laughs.

The duo planned to continue the tradition until Catherine graduated from high school. But in a particularly busy season of life about five years ago, Randy lagged a little behind schedule in replacing Christmas decorations with Easter.

Anne Hill beat him to the tree that time. Although Randy doesn't remember any notes or communication on the subject, he was excited to see another person involved. Since that time, Hill has decorated during the day, becoming a visible keeper of the tree.

Hill laughs at the years she and other residents spent guessing the identity of the previous mystery decorator. "Every surmise we had was incorrect," she says.

Now, after a hot summer and a precarious location, the little pine tree has died, still decorated. At this point, Hill is reluctant to let the tradition end. Randy has his own ideas about keeping the local legend alive.

"I might sneak back out there and plant a cedar tree, if I can figure out how to water it," he says. But that's only a possibility - after all, the little tree still holds its own secrets.

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