Christmas is a crazy time for Stephen Jackson. Literally.
Each year before Thanksgiving, the fun-loving home designer readies his quirky museum–the Aluminum Tree and Aesthetically Challenged Seasonal Ornament Museum (ATOM)–in the mountain town of Brevard, N.C. With the help of about 50 volunteer elves, he assembles a silvery, indoor forest and stocks up on packets of aluminum "seeds" for the gift shop. Despite the museum's strange theme, no one has called Jackson nuts, at least, he says with a grin, "Not to my face."
Inside ATOM, revolving color wheels spotlight the tacky and tinseled. An Elvis tree sports cutouts of the rock 'n' roll icon, 45-rpm records and a Burger "King" crown. The towering Toile-Tree is adorned with copper tank valves, a toilet-brush topper and a garland of shower curtain rings.
A lanky fellow with a zany sense of humor, Jackson, 48, was living in Charlotte, N.C., in 1991 when a friend jokingly gave him a tattered aluminum Christmas tree pilfered from a garbage heap. Remembering the silver tree in his childhood home, Jackson threw a party and invited guests to bring the "most aesthetically challenged" ornaments they could find. The gathering was a big hit.
Just before Christmas of 1993, Jackson, an avid mountain biker with a thirst for outdoor adventure, moved to Brevard (pop. 6,789) and held another tree-trimming party to help make new friends. It worked. The next year, someone gave him a second tree unearthed at a yard sale and by 1998, Jackson owned seven. "It was just too many trees to fit in my house," he recalls, so he hosted a one-day exhibit at the local American Legion hall. About 150 curiosity-seekers showed up.
Over the years, the Stephen Paul Jackson Aluminum Tree & Aesthetically Challenged Seasonal Ornament Museum and Research Center snowballed as friends nabbed more trees from flea markets and dusty attics. Today, the museum opens (in a different location each year) from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve and features nearly 60 trees, including one from Australia adorned with kangaroos, koala bears and a Tasmanian devil. The name of the place has been simplified; even the acronym, SPJATACSOMRC, was a bit much, Jackson admits.
Museum visitors are also apt to glean a few science lessons from the display. One exhibit shows an aluminum tree's evolution from silver seed to spiraling sprout to 6-inch-tall sapling. "These saplings are 10 years old, so you can see it's a very slow-growing tree," Jackson says, straight-faced. "If you plant the seeds, you're probably not going to get any results for a while." Most of his adult specimens, of course, came from old-growth aluminum "forests."
The founder of ATOM has, understandably, become quite an expert on the history of aluminum trees. The first Japanese-manufactured tabletop models emerged after World War II and were introduced in the United States in the late 1950s. The trees grew in size; so did the number of makers offering selections such as "Silver Glow," "The Sparkler" and "Holi-Gay." By the early 1970s, however, the aluminum craze came to an end.
Still, each year ATOM draws about 4,000 visitors and dozens of volunteer elves who set up and man the museum. Some simply want a good laugh, while others wax nostalgic recalling the aluminum trees of their youth.
"We have two kinds of visitors," says Zoe Reidinger, 18, the museum's head docent. "One group, when I take them through and tell them about harvesting aluminum trees, they're like, 'OK, this museum is crazy.' Other people come back year after year and they love it; they may have had aluminum trees, and they take it more seriously. We kind of have a following."
Asheville, N.C., residents Malcolm McDonald and his wife, Connie, have displayed the same 4-foot silver aluminum tree for the past 45 years, ever since they were newlyweds. It's no wonder, then, that they fell in love with Jackson's museum.
"It's a celebration of American tacky," McDonald says. "He (Jackson) knows it, and everybody who walks in there knows it. It's just fun, and that's all there is to it. There's no profound meaning at all."
For more information, call Jackson at (828) 884-5304.