by CHRIS ROGERS
Santa’s elves aren’t the only ones busy in the workshop this fall. Minnesota State College Southeast (MSC Southeast) students are helping light up downtown Winona this winter by fabricating a huge, artificial Christmas tree that will be displayed on Third Street.
The tree consists of a large metal frame that will be festooned with garlands and lights. The Winona Main Street Program commissioned the tree for its Light Up Downtown program, and in a big team effort CNC machining students made parts for the tree, welding students put in 40-50 hours of work constructing it, auto body students will spruce it up with an evergreen paint job, and pupils in MSC Southeast’s truck driving program will deliver it to downtown in time for a November 18 lighting ceremony.
Main Street’s Downtown Beautification Committee has been talking for years about trying to get a holiday tree, Winona Main Street Program Coordinator Ben Strand explained. “The Main Street program puts up lights and decorations in Levee Park every year, and we wanted to get some sort of statement piece to add to our collection,” he said. “Everyone wanted to get a holiday tree; it was just a question of how to go about doing it.”
To purchase one outright and have it delivered would have been very expensive, Strand continued, “So then the idea came up to connect with the tech school welding program.”
MSC Southeast’s director of trade and technology programs approached instructor Casey Mann with the concept. “I said, ‘Anything for the community. We’ll do her,’” Mann recalled.
For welding students just a couple months into their program, this was a big task. Normally this time of year, they are just learning to weld and working on small, practice pieces — what Mann calls coupon pieces — that they can hold in one hand and weld while standing at a booth. Whether they make a mistake or do a stellar job, few other people will see it.
Welding demands precise movements, and creating a 16-foot-tall tree out of steel tubing and flat bar required the students to weld in unusual positions — standing on a ladder, bending over the floor, and reaching around crossbars — to create a grand project for the whole town to appreciate.
“My first thought was, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to fit this inside the shop,’” MSC Southeast student Hailey Alfson said. “It was challenging because there was a lot of welding from different positions: laying down or overhead,” she added.
Just to underscore how challenging the positioning can be, at one point, Alfson almost had a Santa-stuck-in-the-chimney moment. She put her head through one part of the frame to get a better angle while tacking on another piece of metal tubing. Then, once the weld was finished, she couldn’t get her head out at first. Thankfully, there was no need to fire up the grinder to get her loose. “I just took my helmet off and slipped through,” she explained.
“It’s difficult,” Mann agreed. “You’ve got to get in the right position and make sure the gun is in the right position to get the bead right, rather than just standing in the booth.” It was a good experience to learn how to work on real-world projects with big pieces, he added.
“It was kind of overwhelming but exciting at the same time,” welding student Tanner Mote said.
While it might have been intimidating for the beginning welders, it turned out well. Over a few weeks, they assembled three separate sections of the conical metal frame and even crafted a many-pointed star or snowflake to crown the tree.
“It exceeded my expectations, to be honest,” Mote said. “It’s going to look really nice when it’s put up down there.” He said having a daunting project turn out well was a confidence boost.
“They thought that was pretty awesome, because you know basically in the first semester, we’re doing just coupon work,” Mann said of his students’ reactions. “So it was kind of nice to take something like this and build it, and it’s something they can see years down the road and take relatives and stuff and show them, ‘Hey, this is what we built.’”
“It’s been awesome,” Strand said of having the students’ help. “One thing I’ve been talking about … is just being able to keep this more of a community collaboration, as opposed to just buying a big tree from a distribution company that’s not even in the state, let alone the city.” He continued, “It is giving students some real-world experience in a trade they are looking to go into in the future, and they’ll be able to see their creation up for the duration of the holiday season. It’s just really fun to see something like this come together.”
There are some more finishing touches left to go. The frame is about to get its paint job, and decking out such a large tree takes a lot of greenery. “I have technically 80 boxes [of garland] sitting in my office right now,” Strand said. Once trucking students deliver the tree downtown, the Winona Fire Department will set the star/snowflake atop the tree at the November 18 lighting ceremony. Keep reading the Winona Post more event details.
The tree will be located at Peter’s Biergarten, at 54 East Third Street. The biergarten’s taps will be closed for the season by then, but its grounds will be open. “We were initially thinking Levee Park,” Strand explained, “but a tree like that has be staked into the ground, and you can’t stake anything in Levee Park, so we thought the biergarten would be a good location because it’ll be bringing people downtown to an area where there are a lot of businesses.”
A Light Up Downtown holiday fundraiser for the tree and decorations is still going on through the Main Street Program. For more information visit www.winonamainstreet.com.