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The Origin Story of Flagstaff’s Great Pinecone Drop

A Celebrated Pinecone

By Scott Craven

People usher in the new year with horns, champagne and noisemakers. All well and good, but if you really want to do it right, there’s nothing like lowering a 70-pound, 6-foot-tall, well-lit metallic pinecone. 

You might think such a New Year’s Eve breakthrough is recent, given advances in festive technology. But Flagstaff’s annual Pinecone Drop goes back to 1999, a sand-weighted plastic trash can and lots of hot glue. 

The huge pinecone that draws thousands to downtown Flagstaff each New Year’s Eve was merely a random thought launched at a meeting of Weatherford Hotel management seven years ago.

2000 was just six weeks away, and hotel owners (as well as husband and wife) Henry Taylor and Sam Green wondered aloud how to mark such a momentous occasion. 

They considered Times Square in New York, the center of the New Year’s Eve universe, where the Big Apple drops a giant lighted apple. 

And it just so happens that Flagstaff sits amid the largest stand of ponderosa pine trees in the world. 

Hmm… large… pine… 

It was obvious, Green said. As 2000 dawned, a giant pinecone would be lowered from the top of the Weatherford Hotel. Take that, Times Square.

“We wanted to do something fun, a little out there,” she said. “Something people would remember.” 

There were two problems. First, Weatherford managers had to convince city officials that lowering a giant pinecone from a three-story hotel would be safe for spectators and droppers alike. 

Second, just how does one build a giant pinecone? 

She envisioned some paint, a few lights and pinecones. Lots of pinecones.

Plans were submitted to Flagstaff (which would approve them just two weeks before the drop), and Green went to work on the pinecone. 

She descended into Weatherford’s basement hoping to find inspiration. She had no idea there would be trash in it. In the corner, Green saw a garbage can. She envisioned some paint, a few lights and pinecones. Lots of pinecones. 

First, she shaped a layered wedding cake shape from plastic foam, which she turned upside down and attached to the bottom of the garbage can, giving the pinecone-to-be its tapered bottom. Green then traipsed into the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pines and gathered pinecones, which she hot-glued all over the trash can and upside-down foam wedding cake.

Her masterpiece was finished. Well, except for some paint and “just a ton” of lights wrapped around it. A heavy duty wire was strung across the top, providing the perfect mechanism to hang and lower the object.

Perfect, Green thought, until engineers wise in the ways of giant-pinecone physics butted in and decreed that any gigantic, free-swinging seed pod must weigh at least 70 pounds so that it would remain still should it dangle in a moderate breeze.

Soon the giant well-lighted sand-weighted pinecone was ready to party like it was 1999 for 10 seconds, the time it took the men on the roof of the Weatherford to lower it to the ground and mark the start of 2000. 

Revelers at Flagstaff’s annual New Year’s Eve party in Heritage Square loved the addition. The next year, families arrived early and set up lawn chairs next to the dropping point. The giant pinecone even earned a spot in the city’s annual light parade, standing proudly on the back of a flatbed.

“We actually paid each year for our entry, and people liked the pinecone so much we decided to put it on our truck,” Green said.

Bonnie Stevens, a publicist for the Weatherford, said everyone involved in the pinecone project was shocked about how popular the drop became.

“It’s a garbage can!”

“This has been incredibly embraced, not just by locals, but by visitors as well,” Stevens said. “It was thrown together as a symbol of this mountain town, but now it’s quite an attraction. People love it.”

The pinecone performed admirably. All was well until three years ago when a Phoenix TV report asked her what the New Year’s Eve symbol was made of. 

It’s a garbage can,” Green blurted, revealing the (until then) guarded secret. 

“It sounded awful,” Green said. “A garbage can? Even though you couldn’t tell it was a garbage can, it couldn’t stay that way.”

It was time to upgrade. Green took the project to Mayorga Welding in Flagstaff and asked owner Frank Mayorga if he could design and build a 6-foot-tall, 70 pound pinecone. 

Mayorga didn’t hesitate. “We build all sorts of unusual stuff,” Mayorga said. “A pinecone wasn’t a big deal.”

Armed with a sketch of the proposed pinecone, welder Josh Martinez spent about three days creating a wire frame to which he attached dozens of aluminum petals. He made sure there was enough room inside for lights, allowing the cone to glow. 

The pinecone drop remains the highlight of Flagstaff’s New Year celebration. It is first dropped at 10 p.m. to accommodate families, then lowered again at midnight. 

On New Year’s Day, the pinecone will be loaded into a truck and taken to Green’s home and placed back on its stand in the front yard. Because for 51 weeks a year, the giant pinecone is a lawn ornament. 

“It looks great out there,” Green said. “During the holidays we plug it in. It’s pretty popular with the neighbors.”

© The Arizona Republic – USA TODAY NETWORK