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Chapter 3 – How Fraser Fir Made It Off the Mountain and into Christmas

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A ‘Learned Flatlander’ once confided to me that the only things one can grow in the North Carolina mountains are kids and rocks.” (Burgin, 1991, p. 26).

The reason why Fraser fir made it off the top of the highest mountains to become a major agricultural commodity in western North Carolina is two-fold. First of all – simply put – it is a superior Christmas tree and no doubt it would have been recognized as such eventually no matter what the circumstances. But the other reason is just as important. Farmers in western North Carolina needed something to grow that they could grow better than anyone else in the country. That was something they had never had before.

Elizabeth Stevens states in her 1987 Master’s Thesis, Economic Development and Cultural Values in Appalachia: The Case of Christmas Tree Growers in Avery County, North Carolina:

For decades, the mountain counties of the thirteen states which comprise the Appalachian Regional Commission’s (ARC) definition of Appalachia have consistently ranked below the national average in per capita income. Out-migration due to unemployment has been the common demographic theme throughout the middle portion of the twentieth century, reversing statistically only recently, with 1970 census data. Volumes of state and federal documents support the existence of regional poverty.

The twentieth century national image of Appalachia emphasizes these regional conditions. Writers, filmmakers and entrepreneurs for years have rehashed the theme of an impoverished subsistence farming population getting by in a beautiful but toll-taking mountain setting (Stevens, 1987, p. 3).

It may be a rehashed theme, but it’s not without some basis. Farming is hard in the mountains. Soils are low in pH, and don’t give up their nutrients readily even when they possess them. Phosphorus and calcium in particular are often lacking. Upland soils are shallow and though bottom land is productive, but there isn’t much of it. Some fields can be so full of rocks as to defy cultivation. Spring takes awhile to make up its mind to stay and somebody somewhere else in the U.S. can always get their crops to market before western North Carolina farmers can. After all, it’s the first fresh tomatoes, the first strawberries, the first green beans, the first blueberries that make the most money. All of these grow well in western North Carolina, but they never come in first in the mountains. And even a cash crop like tobacco did little more than make Christmas money for mountain farmers because of limited acreage. Kentucky could always grow burley tobacco more economically than farmers in western North Carolina and it was the flue-cured tobacco grown in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of the state that was the real cash crop in North Carolina.

During World War II, mountain farmers did pretty well growing crops like beans and cabbage. The country needed food, and even small farms on steep land could make good money. In fact, Avery County at one time had three bean markets where growers could sell their crops. But when the war was over, those same crops were suddenly worth next to nothing. According to Sam Cartner who was the Avery County Extension Agent starting in 1949, farmers would take their beans to market and end up dumping them on the side of the road rather than take the low prices offered to them (Cartner, 2007). I heard this story not just from Cartner, but from most of the older farmers. You couldn’t sell your crops for what it cost to grow it. Herman Dellinger, Vocational Agricultural/FFA teacher at Crossnore High School, remembered one farmer saying, “If I hadn’t counted my fun pretty high, I wouldn’t have come out” (Dellinger, 2007).

I think the best example of what the farm economy was before Christmas trees came into the picture was related to me by Conrad Weatherman, one of the signers of the original articles of incorporation for what would eventually become the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association.

Weatherman grew up on a small farm in the Ingalls area of Avery County near the Toe River where his father raised potatoes, hogs, cattle and had a big garden. Conrad credits Mr. Tom Dellinger, the agriculture teacher in the Crossnore High School and Herman’s father, with helping him learn how to raise beans to “help him buy clothes for school” (Weatherman, 2007).

Weatherman remembered the rapid change in price in beans after the War. He could raise 300 bushels of beans per acre in his bottomland and at one time, he could get $4.50 per hamper for his beans. Then the price came down to $1.75 per hamper. Conrad said that the last beans his father raised would bring just 75¢ per hamper. Rather than selling them for that, his father took them home to feed to the hogs.

In 1948, Weatherman married his high-school sweetheart, Jean Lathrop, and moved to Springfield, Illinois, because he couldn’t make a living in Avery County. There were no jobs and what few there were paid only 40¢ an hour or $16 a week. They would live in Illinois for almost ten years.

He wasn’t the only one who had to leave home to make a living. According to Stevens (1987, p. 38), “One local observer spoke about high school commencement in the late 1950s by saying ‘kids got a bus ticket along with their diploma at graduation. They just had to go somewhere else to find a job.’”

Then one day Weatherman’s wife bought a Christmas tree for $7. He thought it was a lot to pay for a tree, and it got him thinking that if he could sell trees for that price, he might be able to make a living back home. He was reminded of the machine he ran at the mill. “You’re just like a machine running here. When it wears out they’ll get rid of it and they will you too” (Weatherman, 2007). He made the decision to risk everything and start his own business . In 1957, he and his wife and three children moved back to Avery County to his family farm to grow Christmas trees and nursery stock.

According to Herman Dellinger, T. P. Dellinger had started talking about growing Fraser fir for Christmas trees in the mid 1940s. As the Agriculture teacher at the Crossnore High School, Mr. Dellinger had a lot of influence over the young men growing up in the community. In all the interviews I conducted, I never heard anything but an almost reverential respect for Mr. Tom Dellinger from the men that knew him.

Conrad Weatherman had this to say about the Dellinger family in an interview for the 40th anniversary of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association.

At the recent Christmas Tree Meeting (February 27, 1998) I was approached by a few people who asked me who really were the ones who formed the North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers Cooperative, Inc., now the NCCTA.

Bill Aldridge was the first president elected, and Herman Dellinger the Secretary-Treasurer.

I feel that the Dellinger family is mostly responsible for the phenomenal success of the Christmas tree industry in western North Carolina. Not only Herman, but his father, T.P. Dellinger, had probably the most influence in all of western North Carolina – certainly Avery County.

In as much as I took Agriculture under this wise man, and know first hand of his insight into the future of crops which would enhance the lives of western North Carolina…(Through the fields… Industry memories and accolades, 1999, p. 7)

Today, many high schools are reducing their funding of agricultural programs. After all, when Herman Dellinger started teaching in 1955, 80-90% of the parents were farmers. When he retired in 1986, only about 3% were (Dellinger, 2007). But during the 1950s, high school agriculture programs were very important as students learned how to take the farming that their parents knew – which might only consist of raising a few hogs, a milk cow and a garden to feed the family – to commercial farming. An Ag teacher was often more than just a teacher. For instance, Dellinger related that there weren’t veterinarians in those days and the Ag teacher might end up treating their student’s cows – something that certainly wasn’t in the job description. Today it would even be viewed as overstepping their bounds, but according to Dellinger, he would do it because if the parents lost a cow, the children would suffer (Dellinger, 2007).

Other Ag teachers were also involved in the starting of the Christmas tree industry. For instance, George Nesbitt at the Cranberry High School was one of the initial members of the fledgling Christmas tree association. In an April 20, 1960, letter, H. T. Gryder, Assistant State Supervisor Vocational Agriculture, thanked the agriculture teachers in Ashe county for providing a county truck to drive to the State Nursery in Morganton to transport 70,000 seedlings.

Fraser Fir Grown for Shrubbery and Greenery

Fraser firs were already being grown commercially during this time – just not for Christmas trees. According to Dellinger, Edward C. Robbins was growing Frasers in the 1920s, selling them balled and burlapped as plants for the landscape. Mr. Robbins’ nursery was described in Shepherd M. Dugger’s book, The Balsam Groves of the Grandfather Mountain as follows:

An object of attraction two miles from Linville is the gardens of the Blue Ridge, or Mr. E. C. Robbins’ expansive nursery of native ornamental shrubs, plants and trees which not only furnishes a large percentage of the shrubbery set in America, but gardens and boulevards in England, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Belgium and other foreign counties are now variegated with flora from this new and highly commendable enterprise on the banks of the jubilant Linville (Dugger, 1934, p. 228).

Robbins, who was born in 1878 at Patterson, NC, started working for Harlan P. Kelsey’s “Highlands Gardens” located in Pineola and Linville at the age of 14 in 1892. “This establishment, long since discontinued, was probably the first nursery to deal exclusively with the native flora of the North Carolina Mountains. Kelsey was responsible for introducing the cultivation of many of the rare and unusual mountainside plants of this area.” (Haga, 1960).

Shrubbery was already an important part of the agriculture of counties like Avery. According to Stevens (1987, p. 36), “60% of the agricultural income for 1960 came from the sale of native shrubbery, greenhouse flowers and galax.” A 1963 letter to the Avery County bank written by Raymond Farthering, long-time Christmas tree grower in Watauga County, included the following: “ I understand that schruby (shrubbery) is one of the main items of income in Avery County.” The nursery business was well established by the 1950s though perhaps not well organized. According to Walt Keller (2007) former Head of the Extension Forestry Department at North Carolina State College, his father, John W. Keller, who was the State Forester in Pennsylvania, was asked by the Governor to help with a beautification project in that state. It was the late 1920s and he advertised nationally for mountain laurel and rhododendron in car load lots. The only bid was sent in from Ashe County, North Carolina.

Anthony Lake Nursery, which was started by automotive pioneer Howard C. Marmon in Pineola (Hardy, 2007), specialized in native shrubbery and was also producing Frasers by the 1950s (Cartner, 2007). Marmon had Sam Mortimor take over the nursery in the 1920s, but during the Depression, Mortimor had to have his help again financially to keep going. Afterwards, the nursery was run by Mortimor’s son, Sammy Mortimer, Jr. as well as Frank Payne, father of current Watauga Christmas tree grower, Frank Payne Jr. According to Payne, they would only ship trees in the fall. Trees would be dug in the spring to trim the roots, so that in the fall they would transplant easier (Frank Payne, Jr., personal communication, July 30, 2009).

Others were growing Frasers as well. According to Cartner (Stevens, 1987, p. 42), there were four shrubbery growers in Avery County in 1960 already growing Fraser fir as nursery plants. A field of Frasers grown in Avery County was pictured in a 1958 Forest Service publication (Williams, 1958). This 9-page booklet was meant as a way to get people interested in growing Frasers as Christmas trees. Cartner is pictured trimming the terminals of the young trees. The trees look to be about 6 years in the field, meaning it would have been planted around 1952.

And not all Frasers were being grown to dig. Some were grown to supply boughs for greenery.

The Christmas tree industry in North Carolina, like many other industries, evolved over a period of time and is really an offshoot of another, earlier industry. The first sale of Fraser firs as Christmas trees was a spin-off of the greenery industry in Avery and Watauga Counties.

After World War II, the Forest Service leased boundaries of native Fraser fir stands for collection of boughs and tips for making wreaths and roping. Some people took the tops of the huge trees and sold them for Christmas trees. (Sorrells, 1986, p. 22).

Appalachian Evergreens was started in Boone in 1933 by Charles Cole “Charlie” Wilcox. Richard Sluder started Sluder Floral in Avery County in 1952 and was involved in the wreath and greenery business. According to a July 16, 1959, article titled “Sluder Floral” in the Avery Journal, Sluder Floral sold 70,000 pounds of fresh balsam foliage the year before and had 5 full time and 25 seasonal employees.

According to a 1950 article in the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, weaving foliage of “white pine, laurel, balsam and even boxwood boughs into handsome Christmas ropes that later are strung across streets all the way from West Jefferson to Pasadena” (Davis, 1950) was an important way for farm families to make extra Christmas money. Appalachian Evergreens handled galax leaves, log moss, cones, as well as Christmas greenery. Women would borrow rope making machines, and though they would only get 4 to 5 cents per yeard, many made good money. Two families were reported as making more than $500 in this 1950 article.

Wreath making was springing up as a cottage industry. Many farmers’ wives made wreaths – either selling them to the more established greenery businesses or independently at local stores. People had started planting Frasers to supply boughs. But these trees weren’t used as Christmas trees. Tommy Beutell recalled that “Most people in the area had a few Fraser fir planted in their landscapes and annually trimmed limbs to obtain brush needed for wreaths and roping” (Beutell, 1998). He and his brother Russell approached people about cutting these trees for Christmas trees. “They were shocked by our request. They thought the idea of cutting down a tree, which produced an annual income versus a one time income, was foolish” (Beutell,1998).

Fraser fir production for Christmas trees had already begun in other states in limited areas. Described in Fraser Fir as a Christmas Tree (Williams, 1958) is the largest private planting of Fraser fir at that time, set in 1949, which was in West Virginia on Cheat Mountain. The 8-year-old plantation is pictured showing trees slightly taller than a man. They are extremely light in density and look like they have never been sheared. They also exhibit very poor growth, with only a few inches of growth that year. Another Fraser fir plantation is described near Ithaca, NY, with about 1,000 Fraser fir planted in 1948, but it is not pictured.

Early Usage of Fraser Fir for Christmas Trees

The fact is, few people had been using Fraser fir as Christmas trees until the 1950s. Most families in the mountains either used a red cedar or a white pine and I’ve even talked to some that used a young hemlock. Fraser fir, being limited to the highest elevations of the southern Appalachians, was not easy to get to. And, according to Clapp (1965), “Research studies indicate that adult consumers usually buy the tree species they become accustomed to during childhood.” Therefore, the demand for Fraser fir had to be developed, though the potential for Fraser fir as a commercially grown Christmas tree was suggested in 1949 in the Yearbook of Agriculture by Arthur Sowder (Sowder, 1949).

One exception to this is found in Dr. Gloria Houston children’s book, The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story (1988). Houston based the story on her Grandmother Ruthie, who as a child cut down a “balsam” fir (really a Fraser) from Grandfather Mountain with her mother for their church’s Christmas celebration. One of the points of this story is that Ruthie and her mother went to a lot more trouble than the typical family would to get the church Christmas tree, travelling up the mountain late in the night just to get the perfect tree.

A few Frasers were being sold commercially as Christmas trees during the early 1950s and even in the late 1940s. Denver Taylor (2007), nurseryman and Christmas tree grower in Foscoe, related how he would hike up on Grandfather Mountain and carry out 4 or 5 little Frasers which he would sell as Christmas trees along the roadside for $1 each. It would take him 4 to 5 hours to walk up the mountain, cut down and tie up the trees, and walk back to the road, but $5 would go a long way. When he got married in 1957, you could buy a week’s worth of groceries for $8 to $10. To put these figures in perspective, in the May 21, 1959, issue of the Avery Journal, a 25 lb bag of flour was advertised at $1.49, 5 lbs of sugar for 29¢ and fatback for 9¢ a pound. You could purchase a house for $5 down and pay $46.20 a month for 60 months for a total of $2,777 over 5 years. So getting enough money for a down payment on a house from trees that cost you only a few hours walk and trouble was well worth it.

Some of the first Fraser fir of any number sold commercially as Christmas trees were made available through the Forest Service. Clearing these areas on the Roan allowed for roads to be established and paid for. Cutting native fir from Roan Mountain is described in Fraser Fir as a Christmas Tree:

A forest ranger, a producer, and a dealer inspecting a natural stand of Fraser fir Christmas trees.

Caption reads: “A forest ranger, a producer, and a dealer inspecting a natural stand of Fraser fir Christmas trees. (Courtesy North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development.)” 1958

The first commercial cutting of Fraser fir for Christmas trees was made by the U.S. Forest Service on Roan Mountain, which is on the North Carolina – Tennessee line. This mountain, famous for its floral display of purple rhododendron, attracts thousands annually. Interspersed with the rhododendron and crowing the mountaintop is a stand of evergreen trees of about 800 acres, consisting of 90 percent Fraser fir and 10 percent red spruce. This vigorous 20- to 25-year-old forest, which came in after the pulpwood cutting operations, is part of the Toecane Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest. By developing a market for native fir and spruce, the Forest Service in 1950 sold 1,000 trees and a few hundred pounds of boughs. The district ranger (at Burnsville, N. C.) reported that this business has grown each year. In 1955, 22,000 trees and thousands of pounds of boughs were sold from cuttings on his district, and the demand exceeded the supply.

The harvesting of trees is confined to compartments, which are carefully laid out. Every tree in these units that should be removed is marked. A prospectus describing the contents of the units is sent prospective buyers who may want to cut and market the trees… Each Christmas tree from Roan Mountain is labeled with an attractive red tag which informs the user that its cutting was not destructive but gave needed room for neighboring trees to grow faster and better (Williams, 1958, p. 6).

However, trees were probably being taken from the Roan and other areas prior to 1950. An Avery County Christmas tree grower and nurseryman, Charles Pittman (2009) recounted how his father and others were selling Frasers in the Charlotte area that had been collected off the Roan and the Roaring Creek area. The Beutells were also getting Fraser fir from the North Carolina mountains prior to 1950.

Still, the general lack of commercially available Frasers for Christmas trees is confirmed in a December 31, 1959, letter from John Gilliam, Extension Forester with North Carolina State University, to C. Campbell Wilson which read, “At present the only cut Fraser Fir being marketed from N. C. comes from the Roan Mountain area of natural Fraser Fir on Federal Forest land. These trees are auctioned off each year, sometime in October. Most of the plantation grown Fraser Fir are sold as dug stock to be used for landscape purposes.”

Many Christmas tree growers remember purchasing “boundaries” on Roan Mountain to sell as Christmas trees. These early entrepreneurs such as the Beutells who had seven Christmas tree lots in Atlanta starting in 1946, the Sides from Winston-Salem, and the Wagoners from the Greensboro area were already selling other species. The Forest Service personnel probably thought most of the trees would be used as greenery, but those already selling Christmas trees saw the value in the top 6 to 8 feet of a 30-foot tree as a Christmas tree. Conditions were far from easy harvesting these trees. Several people I interviewed had stories about going up on the Roan to cut Christmas trees and the harsh conditions.

Fred Wagoner (2007) remembers purchasing a boundary that had about 500 trees or so. They went up three weekends in a row to harvest trees. Wagoner talked about one man they had working for him and his brother John, who didn’t have a coat on since it was fairly warm when they left Gibbonsville that day. On the Roan, however, it was snowing. They sent him to the truck with some harvested trees and when he didn’t come back, Wagoner became concerned and went looking for him. He found the man sitting hunched over a pile of green Fraser fir branches and shoots, thinking he’d built a fire. Hyperthermia had addled him and Fred thought it was lucky that they’d found him, or he might have died.

There were no commercial tree balers to tie trees up at the time. Marshall Ayers recounted baling trees by hand:

To bale them, we’d just lay them down on the ground, tie a string around the butt end of them, then you’d just start rolling that tree with the string around it. You’d keep the string tied all the time, till it was all baled up. (Joslin, 1998).

Sanford Fishel, Ashe County Christmas tree grower, remembers helping harvest trees in the early sixties as a pre-teen (Fishel, 2009). His father’s farm was next to the Sides. They would spend Friday night in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, and drive to the Roan the next morning, cutting 30-40 foot trees and taking the top 6-7 feet as a Christmas tree. They would mount an old tractor tire on a frame to make a simple tree baler. Their boundary was next to the Wagoner’s, and he remembers the Wagoner’s had a cable on 2 big spindles that they would free fall boughs to where they could be loaded. The Sides had a pulley with a motor that 10 trees could be put in. The Forest Service would then slash cut what was left, and those areas were left to regenerate. Years later Fishel would collect Fraser fir cones off of trees that had grown up on those same areas.

Making these trees available allowed the public their first taste of the qualities that make Fraser fir a superior Christmas tree. The business of growing them would follow the market demand. According to Tommy Beutell in his 1998 address on the industry’s history, “The foresight and generosity of the US Forest Service, especially George Vitas, District Ranger in Burnsville, unknowingly, paved the way for today’s NC Christmas tree industry.” Beutell continues, “The building of the Balsam road, in time, attracted tree retailers. This created a pull, if you will, from the retail end. Local folks began to realize the potential of Fraser fir as a cut Christmas tree.”

The importance of the Forest Service in promoting Fraser fir Christmas trees is evidenced in a newspaper article from the Tri-County News out of Spruce Pine. Fraser fir were making an impression on the public wherever they were displayed. The following article, “Balsam Fraser Fir Christmas Tree from Roan Wins Praise” was printed February 29, 1959.

Each year a special display of American Christmas trees and Christmas decorations is put up in the patio of the Agricultural Administration Building in Washington DC. Agricultural employees and people from all over the District of Columbia and adjoining areas come to view the display.

During the past several years the Toecane Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest has furnished a choice Balsam Fraser fir Christmas tree from Roan Mountain North Carolina on display. Last December’s tree was an outstanding specimen and was the center of much attention. The tree bore a name plate that it was a Balsam Fraser fir from Roan Mountain. No tree in the exhibit received so many compliments.

It helped stimulate further inquiry and interest in Fraser Balsam fir as a Christmas tree and has brought Roan Mountain, North Carolina to the attention of many people who were unaware of this beautiful mountain.

Role of State Agencies

Others agencies were also helping to pave the way for the industry. Both the North Carolina Cooperative Extension and the North Carolina Forest Service had an important role to play.

The Agricultural Extension Service program began with the Smith-Lever Act of May 8, 1914, providing for the cooperation between the United States Department of Agriculture and the Land Grant Colleges of the various states. North Carolina was the fourth state to start an extension Forestry program when it appointed J. S. Holmes, former State Forester, to the position of Extension Forester on July 1, 1918 (Keller, 1979). By the 1950s there were Extension Foresters throughout the state. Each had a geographical assignment and lived in their respective district, handling “all the forestry questions that arose on a day-to-day basis” (Keller, 1979, p.43).

Much of the following comes from notes on the Christmas tree industry developed by Bill Stanton, Extension Forestry from North Carolina State University. These notes are not dated, neither do they have the names of all those interviewed, but his are some of the oldest information surviving on Extension’s involvement with the developing Christmas industry in North Carolina. According to Stanton’s notes, Christmas tree production wasn’t exactly a novel idea in North Carolina in the 1950s. The production of other species of conifers such as cedars and pines for Christmas trees had been experimented with since the 1930s. In an Extension Forest Resources memo at NCSU, several pioneers are mentioned, including A. A. Battle from Edgecombe County, J. C. Powell, a County Extension Agent, and Rufus Page, Forestry Extension Specialist from 1935-1938 (Huxster, 1979, Keller, 1979). Yet Christmas tree production had never really caught on. Stanton noted that prior to 1952, there were approximately 2,200 acres of Christmas trees in North Carolina – mostly red cedar.

As we’ve already learned, the mountains had at one time some of the richest forests in the country. But after extensive logging, high grading, fires, and the ravages of chestnut blight, profitable forestry was just about a thing of the past. The trees in the mountains may be beautiful, but they have little economic value – not at all like the pines that grow in the eastern part of the state. The goal of Extension Forestry as described in a 1947 Plan of Work was: “To assist farmers in developing a systematic program of forest management, protection, and harvest of the timber crops and to aid in the marketing of forest products with the long-time goal of making the farm woods a permanent-producing part of a balanced, economic farming enterprise” Keller, 1979, p. 42). But how could this be accomplished in the mountains, where so little profitable forestry was left? At a meeting in Raleigh, John Gray, the head for the Extension Forestry Department at the time, raised the question, what could mountain landowners do to increase their forestry income? The answer would be Christmas trees (Gilliam, 2008).

Jack Sheets conducted a study of Christmas tree dealers in 1952 to determine customer demand for Christmas trees. Fred Whitfield, Extension Forester who would work extensively with the developing Christmas tree industry, remembered the 1952 survey.

Extension Forester John L. Gray requested district forestry specialists determine species and prices of Christmas trees being sold in lots in North Carolina (circa 1952).

I was assigned the western district to obtain this information. Christmas trees being sold at that time were from northern states and Canada.

A nursery in Avery County was growing Fraser fir that could be used as Christmas trees. The foreman told me, however, that Fraser fir was being sold as balled and burlapped shrubbery in Northern states while culls were cut and sold as Christmas trees. I told him that would soon change (Through the fields… Industry memories and accolades, 1999, p. 7)

Whitfield began his career as an Assistant County Extension Agent in Edgecombe County in 1948 (Fred Whitfield honored, 1975). In 1949 he was appointed as an Extension Forest Resources Specialist (Keller, 1979) and would work more and more with Christmas trees as the years went on. As Keller remembers, Whitfield “fell in love with it and got wrapped up in it” (Keller, 2007). McGraw dedicated notes on the balsam woolly adelgid to him in 1979, calling him “a friend of Fraser fir.”

Keller himself had an interest in Christmas trees, his family having produced some when he was growing up in Pennsylvania. He too remembers how hard it was to get people interested into growing Christmas trees. His father, John W. Keller who had since retired, was involved in seedling production and would provide seedlings, but Walt Keller couldn’t find a landowner who was interested in setting them out. Finally Jim McLaurin, District Conservationist, volunteered to set them on his property on Mount Jefferson in Ashe County. Keller obtained 800 seedlings, including 2 types of Scotch pine, 2 types of Douglas fir, and Canadian balsam fir (Keller 2007). From that demonstration, it appeared that Douglas fir and Canadian balsam would grow well.

According to notes developed by McGraw dated November 5, 1979, “During 1954, the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service began promoting the potential of growing Fraser fir in plantations in western North Carolina for the cut-Christmas tree market” (McGraw & Huxster, 1979). One promotional item was a news release dated in December, 1956 by John Gilliam called “Home grown Christmas trees for state market” which discussed red cedars. A Forsyth county grower, C. C. Holyfield was dicussed who had planted 10 acres of red cedar for each of the last four years.

Seedling Production

To start growing Christmas trees you first must have growing seedlings, and according to McGraw’s notes, it was in 1955 that the North Carolina Forest Service agreed to try Fraser fir seedlings.

According to Keller (2007), however, Fraser fir wasn’t the first Christmas tree species the state tried to grow. They had previously produced some Nordman fir seedlings. Nordman was chosen because there was a commons in Tarboro, North Carolina, where a large Nordman fir was growing well, and it was thought that might make a good Christmas tree species for the state. Some Nordman fir were started in the Ralph Edwards Nursery (originally called Catawba Nursery) in Morganton, as authorized by the state forester, Fred Claridge, to Phil Griffiths who was in charge of the seed production. The plan was to distribute the seedlings to many people in lots of only 100 trees all across the state to learn how they would grow in different regions, but one weekend an order came in for all the Nordman fir and an employee who didn’t know what they were intended for lifted and sold all of them. It was never known what became of them.

Some Fraser fir seedlings grown by the Forest Service may have come initially from Mount Rogers. According to Keller (2007), the first seedlings were gotten from the natural stands and not grown from seed, therefore speeding up the process. It was originally decided to get these seedlings from Roan Mountain, but Pete Hanlin who was supervisor of the North Carolina National Forest, was worried about the repercussions of lifting seedlings from the natural stands, and so the seedlings were collected from Mount Rogers. These were planted at the Morganton nursery.

Where and how the seedlings were grown is described in Fraser Fir as a Christmas Tree.

Because of mounting public interest, Fraser fir seedlings are being grown for Christmas tree stock in two State nurseries in North Carolina. One is the Holmes State Nursery near Hendersonville at an elevation of about 2,200 feet. The other is the new Catawba Nursery at Morganton, about 1,200 feet elevation, where Fraser fir was seeded in the spring of 1957.

According to B. H. Corpening of the North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development, the oldest stock at the Holmes nursery in 1957 was 2 years old and probably would be large enough for lifting at the end of the third growing season (Williams, 1958, p. 2-3).

The Holmes nursery, named after John Holmes, was created in the 1938 and was initially run as a seedling nursery by the Civilian Conservation Corps (Helsley, 2007). Bobby McDowell was in charge of that first crop of seedlings, with the entire facility devoted to the production of Fraser fir stock. According to McGraw’s notes, there were 567,000 2-0’s set – possibly from natural stands. Transplants are described by two numbers – the first being the number of years in a seed bed and the second the number of years in a line-out or transplant be. In this case, the seedlings were 2 years old and had not been transplanted. That year the nursery also agreed to try transplanting 200,000 3-0’s (three years in a seed bed) in an attempt to produce better planting stock. Unfortunately, problems with Phytophthora root rot would develop. The Holmes nursery became an educational state forest in 1972 (Helsley, 2007).

These seedlings were advertised as “balsam fir” in the January 8, 1959 issues of the Tri-County News for $15.50 per 1,000. “This year for the first time there seems to be ample tree seedlings for all land owners who are interested. As you may know there are no more free tree seedlings from T. V. A.” (Tree seedlings on sale by NC Forestry Dept at low rates, 1959). Many of these trees were planted in Avery County that year.

This spring, Avery County farmers have planted 253,000 tree seedlings. The species planted were as follows: white pine 170,000, balsam fir 70,000; and yellow poplar 6,500. The seedlings were sold to farmers by the Forestry Division of the NC Department of Conservation and Development. All the Agricultural Agencies in the county have helped promote tree planting. There are many more acres of steep land in Avery County which is better suited to trees than any other crop (Soil conservation news, 1959).

Growers were already lifting seedlings from wilderness areas, with or without permission. For instance, in the 1956-1957 planting season, McGraw notes that the US Forest Service permitted Haywood County 4-H Council to lift Fraser fir seedlings from thick natural reproduction under virgin fir stand near Burnsville for planting stock.

Seedling Collection

Seed collection was described in the 1958 publication Fraser fir as Christmas Trees. B. H. Corpening of the NC Department of Conservation and Development described collecting about 100 bushels of cones in 1957 (Williams, 1958). “The cost of gathering Fraser fir seed in the cone in this area is about $5 to $15 per bushel, depending on quantity of cones on individual trees. This results in a cost of about $3.50 to $10 per pound cleaned seed” (Williams, 1958, p. 3).

Extension Personnel Involved in Early Christmas Tree Production

Now that a source of seedlings was developing, the task of learning how to grow these trees could begin. John Gilliam, hired as an Extension Forestry Specialist in 1958 (Keller, 1979), and stationed in the mountains, was assigned to help the Christmas tree industry. Whitfield would continue to be involved with Christmas trees until his retirement on July 31, 1975. Whitfield’s specialty was pest control. Other Extension Forestry Specialists to work with Christmas trees include Leonard H. Hampton who was a specialist from 1958 to 1967, and Ross S. Douglass who worked from 1948 to 1977 and specialized in fertility issues (Keller, 1979).

Gilliam knew nothing about growing Christmas trees, so he visited both Pennsylvania and New York to learn how their premier tree – Scotch pine – was grown. His visits were made at different times of the year to learn all the aspects of Christmas tree production from planting in the spring, to caring for them through the summer, to harvesting, shipping and marketing in the winter (Gilliam, 2008).

Of course, there was only so much to be learned from watching how Scotch pine is grown if your ultimate goal is Fraser fir Christmas tree production. Scotch pine, at least in those early years, was easier to cultivate than true firs. In the 1950s pines were planted on what was typically marginal farm land, sheared from the third year on, and harvested after 8 to 10 years. Some insect control may be necessary, but in general, the crop was considered non-intensive (Koelling, Hart, Leefers, 1998). True firs are much more demanding in site selection. Putting on only one flush of growth each year, they also take longer to grow. So though much could be learned up north, much more would still need to be learned through trial and error. But Gilliam’s first task would be getting enough people interested in growing Christmas trees to start the industry.

Gilliam sent notification of his intensions to the County Extension Agents in his district. It was 1958 and the only agent he said that responded with much interest was Sam Cartner (Gilliam, 2008).

Sam Cartner grew up on a farm in Davie County (Cartner, 2007). He graduated from NC State College in 1946, and served in the military like most young men did at the time. In fact, one of the boys he knew in High School was part of the crew that dropped the atomic bomb in Japan. After the war, he took a job as an Extension Agent in Avery County.

His wife Margaret was from Macon County. She graduated from UNC-G and was hired as a 4-H Agent in 1948 where she met Sam and married him later that year. Sam became County Extension Agent in Avery on February 15, 1949, and would remain an Agent and eventual County Extension Director for more than 20 years.

At the time, Cooperative Extension had a policy of not allowing County Agents to work in the county they were from. But people in Avery County weren’t always accepting of strangers, even a man like Cartner who was from rural North Carolina. In the 2007 interview, he said the local people said of him, “That little ole’ boy didn’t even know how to bridle his own mule.” Still, being a hard worker himself, with a hard worker for a wife, he and Margaret were making a new home for themselves.

That new home didn’t even have a bathroom in it or a road to it when they first bought it. You had to cross the creek by a foot bridge. But by 1957, he had bought a 72-acre farm on Spanish Oak to raise cattle on (it’s now in Christmas trees) and had three sons that he would always encourage through the years to do anything else but farm.

Encouraging Avery County farmers to grow Christmas trees would not be an easy task. People who were used to raising a 120-day crop were now being asked to raise a 7 to 10 year crop. In early spring of 1959, only a few would be interested.

Still, Avery County was the perfect place to start people thinking about growing Christmas trees. After all, burley tobacco was big in other counties like Watauga, Ashe, Haywood and Madison, but never Avery. And Avery County had something other counties didn’t have. They had Bill Aldridge – and Aldridge knew the value of a tree.

The nursery industry in the mountains started back as early as the first plant collectors. Rhododendrons, mountain laurel, and other plants commonly found in the woods were the foundation for that industry. Men started by going into the woods, usually with a mule or horse, digging up rhododendrons and other plants, and hauling them out of the woods to sell. The practice was reviewed in a May 1, 1994, article in the Morganton News Herald (Joslin). The article follows Ralph Beam and Bill Vance as they take two Belgium horses, Charlie and Pete, to dig the shrubbery from clear cut or burned out areas where the plants of interest were growing back.

Bill Aldridge saw more opportunity than just grubbing the woods for trees. He started cultivating these plants – developing techniques for propagation – and was always looking for new plants of interest. As he experimented he learned how to use the resources of State College for help in solving problems. Aldridge was also interested in helping his neighbors to grow plants, and many were starting to grow what most called shrubbery. Aldridge, who was a member of the Royal Horticultural Society in England, was inducted to the Western North Carolina Agricultural Hall of Fame for his contributions in helping to start the nursery industry in North Carolina (William Nevada Aldridge, 1997 Obituary).

The following is from his obituary in Limbs & Needles: “Mr. Aldridge’s interests expanded into evergreens. He realized that the North Carolina Fraser fir was a natural Christmas tree and worked hard to establish a quality uniform product” (In Memoriam: William Nevada Aldridge, 1997, p. 31). Aldridge, Cartner and Dellinger would end up being the people Gilliam and Whitfield needed to start the industry.

White Pine Production for Christmas Trees Important in Ashe County

Christmas tree production was also starting up in Ashe County at the same time.

Some of the earliest plantings (1957) consisted of white pines, initially set as a soil conservation project by Jim McLaurin, District Conservationist, and Fred Colvard, Ashe County farmer and project cooperator. Upon maturity, these were thinned to a timber stand and Mr. Colvard began marketing the cut trees outside the county. Friends tell that he drove to nearby Roanoke, Virginia, with a trunk full of pines and sold his first trees to Kroger Stores in 1964. He later expanded to A & P’s and other grocery chains in Charlotte, Raleigh and Asheville (Carey, 1987).

Colvard was a farmer in the Jefferson area who had at one time one of the largest commercial farms in North Carolina, producing 200-300 acres of potatoes and cabbage as well as other crops and employing more people than area factories (Keller, 2007). Those first 300 trees he sold that were worth only about 50¢ each in 1960 probably seemed like a small project compared to his other ventures, but it was a start.

Jim McLaurin along with County Forester Joe Clayton took growing white pines one step further. Clayton, who referred to Christmas trees as “short rotation timber trees” (Robinson, 1992) had others he was working with. Wilson Barr, Ashe County Christmas tree grower and nurseryman, had a similar experience with white pines.

I was a freshman or sophomore in high school and my father, Russell, and my uncles, Robert and Frank, had bought a little farm out in the Boggs Community and set it out in white pine to grow into timber.

At that time, Joe Clayton tried to get them interested in Christmas trees and had convinced them to set aside a couple of acres to trim and shape. They figured that would be a good job for me. After several years of shearing and shaping, they began to look like Christmas trees. About 1956 or 1957, a guy came down from Ohio and bought them all for a landscaping project. I liked what I saw from that experience and decided to buy a farm – about 15-20 acres in the Baldwin Community to grow trees on (Barr, 1992).

Ashe County was close to another native stand of Fraser fir – Mount Rogers in Virginia. George West, who owned land in the Mount Rogers area in Virginia, and Byron Sexton were beginning to sell Fraser fir trees “off the mountain” (Fishel, 2009). Sexton remembers harvesting as many as 6,500 trees from Mount Rogers to sell as Christmas trees (Trees, 1997) and pulling Fraser seedlings. Ray Phillips also worked with West, making wreaths and roping out of Fraser fir boughs (Anderson, 2009). Homer Sides remembers buying trees from George West in 1957 (Worth, 1995). Much of West’s property would end up being declared by the U.S. government a national recreational area.

According to Sexton’s daughter-in-law Joanne, Byron Sexton was a farmer who was always interested in trying new things (Sexton, 2009). Sometimes his ventures didn’t pan out too well. She remembers that once he became interested in herbs, and since there was a shortage of catnip, planted several acres. As Sexton’s son, Ken, would later joke, they went from having a shortage to flooding the market in a single year. Mostly Sexton grew burley tobacco and vegetables such as green beans. But he was always walking in the woods and looking at plants and how they might be used. He often thought that Fraser fir would make a good Christmas tree because of its sturdy branches, it should hold ornaments well (Sexton, 2009).

Fraser Fir Christmas Tree Production in the 1950s

So who should be credited as the first person to set Fraser fir specifically for Christmas trees in North Carolina? Several names are frequently mentioned in Avery County. Charles Pittman, an Avery County nurseryman and Christmas tree grower, says his father Claude set out Frasers for Christmas trees in either 1950 or 1951 (Pittman, 2009). Claude Pittman had been digging rhododendron and mountain laurel and with his partner, Ras Owen, and selling them in New York and other places up north. They had also been getting Frasers off the Roan or at Grassey Ridge at the head of Roaring Creek and from White Top and selling them in Charlotte for Christmas trees. Those first trees Pittman planted were not sheared. Other people in Avery that were growing Frasers in the early ‘50s or even the late 1940s were Ira Vance and Lindsey Daniels (Hundley, 2009). Like Pittman, they were also selling their trees in Charlotte but as far as anyone could remember, these trees were never sheared.

Herman Dellinger set trees in 1957 (Hundley, 2009). Those trees would be sold in Charlotte by his nephew, Jack Wiseman of Newland in 1965. Jack W. Wiseman in Crossnore remembers planting his first trees in 1959, though he didn’t remember where he got the seedlings from (Wiseman, 2007).

The following table is a list of individuals who had set Fraser fir in the 1950s, who were members of the young Christmas tree Association in the early 1960s and indicated that they were wanting to harvest these trees for Christmas trees. These figures are based on a membership survey conducted by the Association in 1963-64 through membership applications which are now found in the Association’s archives.

Table 2: Early Christmas tree growers

Name Occupation Farm Location # Frasers Set Years Planted
T. L. Penland Bailey Forester Penland 12,000 1959-1963
Russell and Tommy Beutell Farmer/Christmas tree retailers Jackson 60,000 1958-1963
N. F. Church Builder and nurseryman Banner Elk 7,000 1958-1960
Fred N. Colvard Farmer Jefferson 20,000 1959-1963
A. T. (Sandy) Davison Forester Alleghany / Ashe 80,000 1959-1960
Sidney B. Gambill Lawyer Ashe 20,000 1958-1959
John Gilliam Extension forester Crossnore 120,000 1959-1960
Mrs. Tom Melton Registered nurse Pensacola 35,000 1954-1955
E. R. Ohle Physician Micaville 2,500 1959-1960
Eustace H. Smith Physician Crossnore 10,000 1959-1964
H. Walter Tennant Teacher Crossnore 14,000 1959-1963
Conrad Weatherman Nurseryman Ingalls 15,000 1958-1960
William Woodruff Mountain Evergreens Lowgap 35,000 1953-1963

Of course, western North Carolina growers were not just planting Fraser fir. According to Sam Cartner, 40,000 seedlings were planted at Haw Shaw Gardens in Avery in 1959 where they “put in every type of tree we could find – Black Hill spruce, Scotch pine, Fraser fir, Siberian spruce, concolor fir, Norway spruce, white pine, blue spruce. Some to sell as ball and burlap for landscaping” (Tagner, 2001; Hamilton, 2004, p. 49).

Ralph Reavis is also remembered as one of the first to plant Fraser fir in Ashe County (Anderson, 2009). And of course, many more people had been setting white pine and other species for Christmas trees in the 1950s. For instance, the Sides planted their first trees in 1951 including red cedars, Virginia pines and white pines (Worth, 1995). But if growers in several counties were experimenting with Christmas trees, it would be almost exclusively Avery County growers who would form the new Christmas tree association in 1959.

Written By

Jill Sidebottom, N.C. Cooperative ExtensionDr. Jill SidebottomExtension Specialist (Mountain Conifer IPM) Call Dr. Jill Email Dr. Jill Forestry & Environmental Resources
NC State Extension, NC State University
Page Last Updated: 9 years ago
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