Nova Scotia

North Sydney tree sparks tears and joy for 3 decades

A tree trimmed with baubles and garland has caught the attention of motorists passing through North Sydney for three decades. But just who decorates the evergreen along Highway 125, and why they do it, is a mystery to many.

'People going by love it so much. They're tooting their horn and giving us inspiration'

A fir tree found along the Trans-Canada highway in North Sydney has been decorated each year for the last three decades. But for many people living in Cape Breton the meaning and origins of the gesture has been a mystery. (Erin Pottie)

A tree trimmed with baubles and garland has caught the attention of motorists passing through North Sydney for three decades. 

But just who decorates the evergreen along Highway 125 is a puzzle to many.

"People actually watch out for us, so they can find out who's doing it," said Elizabeth Capstick, who began the tradition in 1990.

"They said that we must be 'mystery people' because they come in and they go out and we don't see them."

The tree located near the Pottle Lake watershed is adorned with ornaments every November. The tradition honours Capstick's brother-in-law and his family. 

Capstick said people who spot the bedazzled tree are quick to show their appreciation. 

"People going by love it so much. They're tooting their horn and giving us inspiration. And bringing us Tim Hortons tea."

Plastic ornaments, including one made to look like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, hang from a fir tree found along Highway 125 in North Sydney. (Erin Pottie)

A family gone too soon

Blair and Patsy Capstick were killed on July 12, 1982, after their car was struck by a tractor-trailer.

Capstick describes her in-laws as quiet and loving people. 

The accident happened on Highway 105, beneath the overpass to Sydney Mines. 

The couple's three-year-old daughter, Lisa, also died.

Blair and Patsy Capstick and their children, Blair and Lisa, are shown in this family photo from either the late '70s of the early '80s. (Submitted by Marjorie Capstick)

Their son, Blair Jr., aged five, was the only survivor. He was hospitalized with broken bones. 

Family members said the Capsticks were dedicated parents who considered their children to be their world.

'They're at the foot of my bed'

After the accident, Capstick said young Blair struggled to accept his loss. 

"He was wanting to go home and get the chickens in the barn, and take the clothes off the line for his mother," said the North Sydney woman.

"He said his mother and father didn't die because he said, 'I'm talking to them, they're at the foot of my bed.'" 

Blair Capstick Jr. died of heart failure in 2014. He was 38. 

Family members say the decorated tree became a source of comfort on drives through the North Sydney community. The fixture is located close to a property where Capsticks once lived.

"It just meant so much to us to do this, you know, to give us a little peace of mind." 

Blair Capstick Jr. is shown as a toddler with his parents prior to their death in an accident in 1982. (Submitted by the Capstick family)

Changing trees 

Many trees were decorated over the years. In fact, one tree was lost to a construction project that widened the highway.

Another time, branches helped dress up a slender tree. Eventually, a new tree was planted, but it later died.
 
"Some of the trees were terrible, and some of the trees were nice," Capstick said with a laugh. 

A photograph of every tree is contained in a scrapbook, including details about the year Capstick thought an RCMP officer was coming to arrest her.

"The Mounties stopped in the cop car ... and I said, 'Oh my God we're in trouble for decorating a tree.' They probably don't want it. 

"But he said 'No, I brought you coffee and doughnuts.' He said it was so nice."

A Christmas tradition 

Capstick's memorial has never been a one-person project.  

She said numerous friends and family members lent a hand over the years. 

Capstick's sister, Holly Williams, says they come from a large family — their mother had 23 children.

For the family, Christmas brought a time of joy.

"That's the only time we got presents and they came from the Salvation Army, although we didn't know that," Williams said. 

"At Christmastime we were just like everybody else … because we had a Christmas tree like everybody else, we had a present like everybody else, so we really celebrated it big, big time. And it's stayed that way for every one of us."

Elizabeth Capstick holds a scrapbook containing photographs and notes. Each entry details a year spent decorating a memorial tree with family and friends along the North Sydney highway. (Erin Pottie)

Williams said that made the tree tradition extra special for both the Young and Capstick families.

"When the bunch of us would go together and do it, it was so much fun. We had just a blast."

Capstick is giving up the tree decorating after this year. She will be 72 in January.

Her husband died in July, and she's been having a hard time coping with the loss.

She said her sister-in-law, Mary Cameron, along with her partner, will be taking over the reins.

But Capstick does plan to at least attend tree decorating events in the future.
  
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erin Pottie

Reporter

Erin Pottie is a CBC reporter based in Sydney. She has been covering local news in Cape Breton for 15 years. Story ideas welcome at erin.pottie@cbc.ca.

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