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Crowds turn out for DC-bound Capitol Christmas tree
Giant spruce is being driven by Dahlonega's own Jeff Underwood
Jeff Underwood of Dahlonega speaks to the crowd in his hometown Wednesday evening after arriving with the Capitol Christmas tree. Underwood’s trucking company won the contract to haul the large tree from Wyoming to Washington, D.C., with a scheduled stop in Dahlonega.

Dahlonega man moves famed Christmas tree: Read more about the tree's journey.

Hundreds of cheers and hands went into the air when Jeff Underwood drove the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree into the downtown Dahlonega square Wednesday night.

“This is an exciting day for Dahlonega,” said Frank Calladay, a Dahlonega resident of 26 years who painted a Santa hat on the front of his head and a gift on the back of his head for the festive evening. Calladay brought a chair with him and staked out a spot behind one of the street barricades.

“My sister told us this is the place to be for the holiday,” said Chris Colvin, a Montgomery, Ala., resident who traveled with his wife and three kids to Dahlonega for Thanksgiving.

The Colvins were just one of many families dancing to the music or lining up for balloon animals, face painting and pictures with Santa. It was like the countdown to the New Year, with officials updating the crowd about when the 67-foot Englemann spruce would arrive.

Finally, sirens from the police escort pierced the air about 6 p.m. The crowd parted as Underwood slowly pulled onto East Main Street.

“First of all, I want to thank everyone for coming out. I didn’t expect all this,” Underwood said once he made his way through the crowd to the stage with his daughter Mary Ann, 8, and son Samuel, 10.

Underwood, owner of Dahlonega-based Jeff Underwood Trucking, toted the 9,000-pound tree on a 105-foot-long trailer from Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest. Some parts of the trip were treacherous, including 8-degree days in the snow.

“We ran through a blizzard, which was a little scary at times there. We lost sight of the escort vehicle and kept plugging on for about 30 to 40 miles,” he said. “It was also windy in Cheyenne, (Wyo.), up to 55 miles, which like to turn us over a time or two.”

The tree’s travels included a 10-state, 32-city tour. This is the first time Georgia residents have been able to see the nation’s Christmas tree since the 40-year tradition began.

“Obviously this is a very historic moment not only for Dahlonega but for the state,” said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who was accompanied on stage by Sen. Johnny Isakson and U.S. Rep. Tom Graves of Ranger. “It’s symbolic in terms of unity and what Christmas really means. I challenge everyone to think about service and sacrifice and truly make this the best holiday season.”

Underwood came up with the idea to transport the Christmas tree last October, when he called Mary Cernicek, who is the Capitol Christmas tree coordinator for 2010. He was chosen to drive the tree after “making the right phone calls,” Underwood said with a laugh.

Underwood visited Cernicek in Wyoming to iron out the transportation details and flew out again recently for the cutting of the tree.

Business partner Mark Fortner drove a second truck with 75 smaller trees that will decorate Capitol Hill offices and more than 6,000 Western-themed ornaments created by Wyoming residents. Mayor Gary McCullough and the Lumpkin County Chamber of Commerce presented a proclamation that names Nov. 24 as Jeff Underwood Day.

The tree is leaving early Friday morning to make its way to Hershey, Pa., before reaching the Capitol on Monday, where a crane will lift it into a 5-foot hole. Officials will take a week to decorate the tree and will light it on Dec. 7.

The tree celebrates Thanksgiving in Dahlonega before Underwood and his family take the last leg of the trip.

“I guess I’ll be the one out watering it on Thanksgiving,” Underwood said as his son added that he would help. “This is a great thing for my children to remember. Not many children could ever say they got to ride with their dad.”