LEHIGHTON, Pa. - White House chief usher Gary J. Walters walked up a hillside at the Crystal Spring Tree Farm outside of Lehighton, Pa., and gazed over a rolling hill filled with towering Christmas trees, most of them more than 20 feet tall.
One of the trees would go to the Blue Room and serve as the official White House Christmas Tree. But it needed to be just right - at least 18 1/2 feet tall, yet able to fit through the White House's doors. It couldn't be too wide; White House visitors have to be able to walk around it and enjoy the decorations.
"Do you have one picked?" asked Walters as he bounded through the field on an October afternoon. "Do you have a favorite?"
The Botek family, which owns the farm and got the honor of donating the tree by winning this year's National Christmas Tree Association contest, had three Douglas firs selected.
Walters admired the trees, which have survived blizzards, ice storms and droughts.
The first was more than 20 feet tall and had a girth of 14 feet. That was just a bit too wide. The next one had a comparable height and slightly smaller girth. Walters passed on that one. The third tree - about 22 feet high with a girth of 10 feet and a nearly perfect triangular taper - was the winner.
Walters and the Botek family placed a red, white and blue ribbon on it and gushed over its beauty.
"This is the one I would have picked," said Margaret Botek, who has owned the farm with her husband, Francis, since 1964. "I fell in love with the taper."
The tree, which has grown in the field that overlooks the Mahoning Valley for more than 20 years, certainly found a good home.
"Where it is going, I'm glad," Francis Botek said.
Walters, who has traveled across the country selecting White House trees for the past 21 years, said plenty of people will admire it.
"Most people see it as the president's Christmas tree and it gets the most notice," he said.
To earn the honor, the Boteks, who farm about 200 acres, traveled thousands of miles. In 2005, they won Best Tree in a contest run by the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association. That enabled them to enter this year's contest run by the National Christmas Tree Association during its annual convention in August in Oregon.
The Boteks scoured their fields and chose two finalists. The family then decided on the one: a Douglas fir, which is indigenous to the Pacific Northwest.
"For the first time ever, we all agreed," said Chris Botek, a son who helps run the farm.
Chris Botek and his parents baled the tree and carefully placed it in a motor home. Just one broken branch would mean certain defeat. They drove across the country in 3 1/2 days. For the entire trip, the air conditioner was set at 68 degrees to preserve the tree.
"We were popsicles by the time we got there," Margaret Botek said.
The Boteks won the Douglas fir competition, then their tree was chosen from among the five finalists.
"We were like the Cinderella team," Margaret Botek said. "We were the underdogs."
Francis Botek was scheduled to put the new White House Christmas tree on a 20-foot trailer and haul it to Washington, D.C., the day after Thanksgiving. The tree is expected to be presented to first lady Laura Bush during a ceremony at the White House on Monday.
Belgian draft horses will haul a wagon holding the tree to the north gate of the White House, where the first lady will accept it on behalf of the people of the United States. The Boteks plan to have a contingent of family members at the ceremony.
"The presentation has to be the ultimate," Margaret Botek said.
Two other Douglas firs from the farm will decorate other parts of the White House. Walters selected a 12-foot tree for the first family's private residence and a 7-footer for the Oval Office.