Chapter 5 – Early Days: the 1960s
“It made Ashe County. If it hadn’t been for Christmas trees, we’d been worse than any county in the state.”
The Need for Southern Christmas Trees
In a Progressive Farmer article, the need for Christmas trees produced in the Southeast was discussed. According to Johnson (1964), four out of every five Christmas trees sold in the South that year were shipped from northern states or Canada. This amounted to 15 million trees and represented $36 million sent out of the region. In 1962 the South produced less than 11% of the Christmas trees in the U.S. (Hall, 1965). Nationwide in 1964 there were almost 41 million trees sold (Sowder, 1965) with an estimated value of more than $100 million (Brundage, 1965).
By 1960, the NC Christmas Tree Growers Cooperative, Inc., was up and running, with North Carolina growers willing to help meet these demands. In a January 11 letter to M. C. Stewart, Herman Dellinger enclosed a check for $85 to cover membership fee for the national association and annual dues for “our 35 members”. Membership dues for growers were $7 in 1960 which included the American Christmas Tree Growers’ Journalthough they would increase to $10 by 1962.
When it started, North Carolina was one of 19 state Christmas tree associations (Gwinner, 1965). The oldest association began in Pennsylvania in 1942. The National Christmas Tree Growers’ Association was started in 1955 with the conference that preceded the start of the association being held in Pittsburgh in September 1954. The other states and when they first formed are as follows: New Jersey – 1950; California, Indiana, Ohio – 1952; Michigan, New York, Oregon-Washington – 1953; West Virginia, Wisconsin – 1954; Minnesota – 1955; Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire & Vermont – 1956; Illinois – 1957; Massachusetts, Montana – 1958; Missouri, North Carolina – 1959. There was also a Yule Tree Farmer’s Association of Ontario which started in 1954. In 1964, the largest state association was in Michigan with 325 members. North Carolina is listed as having 66 members (Gwinner, 1965).
Interestingly, only one person from North Carolina attended the first National Convention of the National Christmas Tree Association held August 25-27, 1960, at Purdue University. At this first meeting, there were a total of 663 attendees from 26 states and Canada. (The first National Convention, 1960). In fact, there is little record of North Carolina growers having much involvement with the National Association through the 1960s except for Sandy Davison, who became the National Liason in 1963. His involvement included becoming the Editor –in –Chief of the American Christmas Tree Journal in 1967 and vice-president of the NCTA in 1974 (Christmas tree group elects Koch, 1974).
The earliest surviving membership list of the North Carolina Association is from 1961. In it, new members were marked, and so by deduction members from 1960 could be determined. These original members include: Bill Aldridge (Crossnore), Herb Aldridge (Banner Elk, no relation), Kenneth Anderson (Newland), Jake Baker (Pineola), Russell and Thomas Beutell (Tuckasegee), R. E. Black (Sparta), J. A. Burris (Lincolnton), Thomas F. Cannon (Raleigh), Carroll A. Carpenter (Hickory), Sam Cartner (Newland), L. F. Chesson (Winston-Salem), N. F. Church (Banner Elk), Randolph Coyner, Jr. (Hickory), Alexander T. (Sandy) Davison (Durham), Herman Dellinger (Crossnore), John Dhyach (Sanford), Fred R. Ellis (Lincolnton), Raymond Farthing (Vilas), Gett Nell Farms (Winston-Salem), John Gilliam (Boone), Ezra E. Gough (Winston-Salem), Green & Taylor Nurseries (Newland), Zeb Green (Crossnore), Griffins Nurseries (Crossnore), E. R. Guy (Burnsville), E. F. Hays (Elk Park), Ralph C. Heath (Winston-Salem), C. C. Holifield (Winston-Salem), Johns River Nursery (Lenoir), George Johnson (Crossnore), Charles D. Kirby, Jr. (Asheville), Charles E. Long, Jr. (Fort Walton Beach, FL), Fred W. Lowe (Banner Elk), Sam Mortimor (Pineola), George W. Nesbitt (Elk Park), E. R. Ohle (Burnsville), Eugene Penland (Newland), Earl W. Porter (Urbana, IL), Sam Ray (Newland), R. G. Shipley (Vilas), Dr. Eustace H. Smith (Crossnore), Robert Snyder (Blowing Rock), Walter Tennant (Crossnore), Andrew Vaughn, III (Pineola), Conrad Weatherman (Spruce Pine), Kenneth Wilcox (Boone), Don Wiseman & sons (Altamont), Paul Winkler (Boone), O. G. Winters (Elk Park), and Camp C. Young (Minneapolis).
The first meeting of the fledgling association in 1960 was covered in Avery Journal demonstrating again the ties to Pennsylvania:
Tree Growers Meet: The NC Christmas Tree Growers Cooperative, Inc., will be honored by the presence of Mr. M. C. Stewart, President of the National Association; at the Newland Courthouse on February 22 at 2 p.m. Mr. Stewart was one of the first commercial growers of Christmas trees beginning in 1912. He has had years of experience in the production and problems incidental to the production of Christmas trees.
Mr. Stewart is the Editor of the National Christmas Tree Journal Magazine. At 2:00 p.m. the Board of Directors and Committee members will meet, at 3:00 p.m., there will be a question and answer session for members (Tree Growers Meet, 1960).
Additional meetings were held through the year with practical information on how to get started growing trees. A planting demonstration on April 14, 1960, featured Leonard Hampton and John Gilliam. Weed control and shearing white pine were demonstrated on June 20 in Crossnore by John Gilliam (Tree growers demonstration, 1960). But as Joe Clayton stated in a 1980 interview, the information given was “largely an idea without a lot of background to sustain it” (Henry, 1980).
At the July 13, 1961 meeting, Walt Keller spoke on potentials of Christmas tree production in the Appalachian region, quoting a potential for marketing 3 to 4 million per year. Then Dr. Bryson James talked about weed control with Simazine and Atrazine, “Afternoon was spent in touring the chemical weed control plots at Anthony Lake Nursery, Pineola, Hawshaw Gardens, white Pine, and Sam Ray’s planting at Newland. (Christmas tree growers meeting, 1961). The program for the summer meeting stated that the President of the Association had attended the Christmas tree short course at State College in Pennsylvania.
In 1965, there were 85 attending the summer meeting including those from Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and a visitor from England. Dr. W. M. Lewis spoke on herbicides. David Cartner gave the 4-H presentation, “Shearing Christmas trees to improve quality” which had won the state-wide forestry competition. There was also a panel with Gilliam, Clayton, Russell Beutell, and Cartner. In the afternoon the group visited the plantations of Jess Clarke, Kermit Johnson, and Hawshaw Gardens. (Christmas tree growers meet here, 1965)
In 1961, Avery County considered funding a new horticultural agent to assist in Fraser fir production.
Many foresighted Avery citizens are hoping it is not too late to take advantage of the state’s offer to pay most of the cost of an assistant county agent who would specialize in production of more and better shrubbery and fruit.
Authorities on horticulture state that Avery County has much land at the higher elevations most favorable to the growing of Fraser Firs (Christmas Trees) for which an excellent market exists. Very few other areas in the entire country are so favored and hence the market is uncrowded.
It can be seen at once that a tree crop does not mean possible quick cash as a good season with beans or cabbages. But it can also be seen that growing trees is much the surer. And trees will grow on land that is not suited to crops which must be cultivated.
It is understood the State of North Carolina will pay $3600 towards the salary of a trained horticulturist. It will also pay his expenses which are estimated at half as much more per year. Avery County has only to pay the balance of his salary. This balance would be about $1500 per year, it is said. (Editorial: Horticulturalist needed, 1961).
Early Attempts at Production Not Always Promising
Some recommendations were given in the Forest Service Publication, Fraser Fir as a Christmas Tree, which are surprisingly good considering how little information there was to base them on (Williams, 1958). Recommendations included planting at an elevation of 2,000 feet or higher and setting in acid soils (about pH 3.5 to 5.5). Today, most growers plant above 3,000 feet though there are some successful farms at lower elevations and will grow trees around 5.5 or higher pH to make sure that calcium is available to the tree. It was recommended to have County Extension Agents to assist in taking soil samples. “This would also reveal the need, if any, for fertilizers to bring about a more favorable condition for best growth” (Williams, 1958, p.5). Also stated is that, “Most plantation care will be confined to keeping livestock out of Fraser fir plantations, protecting them from fire, cutting out or poisoning competing shrubs and trees and shearing of leaders and possibly some branches in the faster growing stands to maintain good Christmas tree form” (Williams, 1958, p.5). It appears that at this point fertilizing and shearing are only suggestions and trees will pretty much grow themselves. This was a notion that was quickly dispelled as more people grew trees.
The early years would end up being trial and error to determine the commonest of cultural practices. In fact, these same sorts of trials were being conducted in other areas in the country on other species. For instance, in the American Christmas Tree Grower’s Journal was an article in 1960 on fertility trials on balsam fir in Maine (Bissell, 1960). In some instances, Extension Forestry would lead the way with Fred Whitfield and John Gilliam examining cultural practices and later Ross Douglas helping with fertility recommendations. But in Ashe County, it would be the North Carolina Forest Service that would help.
Role of the NC Forest Service
Joe Clayton, County Forester in Ashe County, requested that the NC Forest Service approach the legislature to allow him to work more closely with Christmas trees by ruling that Christmas trees were a forestry crop (Anderson, 2009). This recommendation was passed, and Clayton was promoted to Service Forester, working in Avery, Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany Counties. He requested that Junior Anderson, a friend of his working for the Highway Department, join the Forest Service and assist him. The project would last 10 years.
Clayton and Chuck Gardner, County Extension Agent in Ashe County, planted a demonstration plot of an acre of Fraser fir collected from wild seed in 1961 (Carey, 1987). During that time, farmers could also contract with the Forest Service to grow Christmas trees on their property (Anderson, 2009). Clayton and Anderson worked out costs for all production practices on a per acre basis and charged farmers accordingly. They hired high school boys to do most of the work. The boys could do everything from fertilization to shearing to weed control – everything but harvesting the trees because if they could harvest Christmas trees, they could be expected to harvest timber as well. The boys worked in crews under an adult supervisor – 10 boys to one adult. They were paid every two weeks by the State. Anderson remembers as many as 70 boys showing up at his house the day after school ended to work in trees. Agriculture teachers in the county such as Kent Poe and Charlie King helped recruit workers.
Much of Clayton and Anderson’s early work was with white pines. According to Anderson (2009), seedlings were collected from two places in the county where there were big seed trees. Farmers that they worked with early on included Fred Colvard, Gordon MacSmith, J.D. Boone of Boone funeral home, Robert Barr, and Sidney Gambill. Ralph Reavis had one the first fields of fir. Byron Sexton would start raising some of the first fir seedlings. Not only were white pine and Fraser fir being grown as Christmas trees but also Scotch pine and blue spruce. The Scotch pine didn’t fare well, being killed by frost and turning yellow. Production practices were also investigated. Anderson remembers the first use of Roundup to control weeds at a demonstration site at the newly set farm of the Sides in Laurel Springs. The original Roundup herbicide was first marketed in the US in 1974 (Backgrounder – History of Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicides, 2005).
According to the notes left by Bill Stanton, the first weed and grass control research plots were established in Avery County in 1960 to determine how the herbicide Simazine and the Gravely mower would control weeds. Weed control is very important in establishing Christmas tree plantations. Frasers grows well at lower than their native elevation, but then, so does everything else. Since Fraser fir only puts on one flush of growth each year, at lower elevations grasses and weeds quickly overwhelm young trees and grass will kill seedlings.
Growers were doing about anything they could to control weeds, especially in newly planted fields. Wayne Ayers (2007), Mitchell County Christmas tree grower and son of Marshall Ayers, remembers his father using a scythe to mow around seedlings. They hired a man to cut out briars by hand. The first time Wayne used 2,4-D was with a metal Hudson backpack sprayer. The herbicide ended up running down his back. The first year he sprayed in the fall and killed a lot of briars. The next year he treated a bit too early and killed a lot of Frasers as well. Jack W. Wiseman (2007) remembers using tar paper around seedlings. Issues with weed control were compounded by the fact that growers were setting out younger seedlings than what is planted today, making competition with weeds an even greater issue.
The first advertisement for Simazine in the American Christmas Tree Growers’ Journal was in February 1965. In fact, the material was not officially registered until 1967 (Snedeker, 1998). This herbicide, which would be used for so many years in the industry, was advertised as being produced by Geigy – “Creators of chemicals for modern agriculture”.
Shearing Defines Christmas Trees
Shearing was another important skill that growers had to learn. Pennsylvania growers were shearing primarily Scotch pine which has multiple flushes of growth through the growing season and has to be sheared back much like a hedge to make it look like a Christmas tree. Shearing of Fraser fir would require a much lighter touch.
In the November 26, 1959, Avery Journal was an article entitled, “Shearing Christmas Plants.” This may well have been the first written account of shearing practices in North Carolina.
A sharp hedge shears with 8 or 9 inch blades, or a sharp pruning shears, is an efficient tool for pruning and shearing Christmas trees. But a jack knife, grass shears or even sheep shears can be used if the number of trees is not too great. No dressing is needed on wounds.
The top leader is usually cut back to eliminate spindly growth at the top. If there is a double leader, the weaker should be removed or cut back far enough to suppress its growth. Limbs over the rest of the tree should be sheared back, but the shearing must be confined to the present year’s growth so that new buds will form. (Don’t make the beginner’s error of shearing only the upper branches. This makes a squatty tree; too wide and sparse at the bottom.)
Pines should be sheared in the period from the middle of June to the 1st of July in the mountain areas before new buds form. Spruce and fir may be sheared in late summer, fall or winter (Shearing Christmas plants, 1959).
Another article about shearing white pine, written by Sam Cartner, appeared in the Avery Journal on May 12, 1960. Cartner writes, “If no shearing and pruning is done, a plantation of White Pine would yield only approximately 20 to 30 per cent good quality Christmas trees. By following a well planned shearing and pruning program the yield can be increased from 60 to 80 per cent good quality trees” (Cartner, 1960).
Today, Christmas tree growers shear with a large, sharp knife while terminals are shortened and unwanted branches removed with hand-held pruners. Growers will start to shear Frasers by the first week of July which increases bud set for the following year. Waightstill Avery, who would become County Extension Agent in Avery after Cartner, remembers shearing trees with a “Hinkle steak knife purchased at the S&W cafeteria in Asheville; it was good quality but brittle, and kept breaking off on the trees” (Tagner, 2001).
Clayton and Anderson were developing shearing practices for white pines through the 1960s, looking both at timing and what to shear with (Anderson, 2009). Anderson remembers white pine shearing demonstrations at the farms of Gambill and Cook with metal tags in all the trees recording the date and method of shearing to judge the most efficient practice. They progressed from using pocket knives, to hedge shearers to bread knives, and finally to a sturdier shearing knife. In fact, some credit them with developing the use of a shearing knife (Washington, 2009).
The Christmas tree industry nationwide was looking at better ways of shearing through the 1960s. In the May, 1965, American Christmas Tree Growers’ Journal are several articles about different styles of shearing – many recommending using knives for shearing Christmas trees, including one by Bob Kern from Indiana and another by E. P. Farrand, Extension forester out of Pennsylvania. These were the first articles in this national journal about using knives for shearing which cut all the tips in a single swing.
Frank Hollifield (2007), a Mitchell County grower, remembers that some of the earliest shearing wasn’t really shearing at all – rather growers like the Beutells were fork pruning, which is removing the center shoot in a group of three or four to reduce growth. This is very labor intensive but does create a beautiful full tree.
Hollifield remembers that early on people would shear trees the week they sold them. He tried selling some trees that weren’t sheared, leaving them natural. Gordon Morris who took some of Hollifield’s trees to the Atlanta area reported that people came after the natural trees like “a swarm of bees.” Today, most people only shear lightly the year trees are sold, leaving as much natural growth as possible.
In an April 17, 1969, letter from Fred Whitfield to Wall-Del Products of Monroe, Michigan, Whitfield states that he was planning shearing demonstrations in 22 counties in western NC using knives and mechanical shearing devices and if they would like to send a sample of what they sell, he would be happy to show them.
Early Extension Publications
Many of the early production practices were summarized in a 25-page booklet written by John Gilliam and published in June 1962 by the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service called Growing & Marketing Christmas Tree. Some interesting facts from this booklet are listed below:
- In the mountains, Gilliam suggests planting 60% of a farm in Fraser fir, 20% in white pine, 10% in Douglas fir, and 10% in Norway and other firs and spruces. Ultimately the industry would go to almost 100% plantings of Fraser fir. Douglas fir is almost never grown because of problems with disease as well as frost damage. Norways and white pines grow well but have limited markets, especially as Christmas trees.
- It was recommended to kill brush with 1 gallon of 4-pound active 2,4,5-T to 25 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil. This herbicide was one of the components of Agent Orange. It is a broad spectrum material and is currently never used in Fraser fir production. The use of Simazine for weed control was also recommended at the rate of 2 to 4 pounds active ingredient per acre.
- It was estimated that there would only need to be one application to control insects and diseases in a seven year rotation. With so few people growing Frasers in 1962, insect pests weren’t yet a problem.
- Shearing costs were estimated at 1 to 3 cents per tree for each shearing.
- Stump culture was recommended as one way to establish a second crop. With stump culture the lower live whorl of branches at the base of the tree is left when harvested and a new tree allowed to grow from it. This was a practice that never caught on, though Russell Beutell was talking about it even in the 1990s.
The following is a cost and return worksheet Gilliam included at the end of his publication based on 1959 dollars:
|1.||Interest on land investment – $75.00 @4%||$23.70|
|2.||Property tax – 25¢ per acre per year||2.06|
|3.||Land preparation – $10.00 per acre||13.16|
|4.||Seedlings (Fraser fir 2-1 stock) – $40.50/M planting 2,700 per acre||143.90|
|5.||Planting cost – estimate $15.00 per thousand||53.30|
|6.||Shearing years 3, 4, 5, and 6 – 2,160 trees (survival based on 80%) – 2.5¢ per tree||284.26|
|7.||Weed control – 2.5¢ per tree per year||88.85|
|8.||Insect and disease control (3¢ per tree per tree – estimate) – 1 application per rotation||75.82|
|9.||Administration and inspection – 0.5¢ per tree per year||88.85|
|10.||Harvesting (1,750/A) based on 65% at 25¢ per tree||438.00|
|11.||Sales expense – 1.5¢ per tree||26.25|
|12.||Maintaining harvest roads and fire lanes – $10.00 per acre per year||81.05|
|Total Estimated Cost||$1,319.20|
|1.||1,750 Fraser fir per acre @ $1.50/tree||$2,625.00|
|3.||Net return per acre||1,305.80|
|4.||Net return per acre per year||$186.54|
A much more detailed budget was worked up in 1963 by Gilliam, John Gray, and Robert L. Johnstone, farm management and public affairs Extension Specialist. They estimated it would take 1,657 man-hours to produce and harvest an acre of Fraser fir Christmas trees and in fact, all the production practices they described were done by hand.
Information on several diseases and insects of Christmas trees was written during the 1960s, including a Farm Forestry Facts sheet written by Fred Whitfield in August 1965 entitled, “Some Diseases of Christmas Trees” and a list of potential insect and disease problems of Fraser fir by Charles F. Speers, principal entomologist with the Southeastern Forest Experiment Station in Asheville, for a meeting September 1966. Most of the pests listed were problems in balsam fir farther north and never did become a problem in Fraser fir in western North Carolina. Examples of these include balsam gall midge, balsam fir sawfly, and balsam shoot-boring sawfly.
Whitfield and Douglass also produced a Farm Forestry Facts informational bulletin on “Trees Suitable for Christmas-Tree Production in North Carolina” in January of 1966. By now, problems with insects and diseases of Scotch pine were recognized and its freedom from pests was listed as poor whereas Fraser fir and Douglas fir were listed as very good.
An article in the American Christmas Tree Journal by Ross Douglass, Extension Forestry Management Specialist from North Carolina State University, entitled “Mineral Nutrition of Christmas Trees,” reviewed a fertilizer experiment conducted in 1962 on Fraser fir. There were few conclusions that Douglas was able to draw from his study. Having the hindsight of more than 40 years, it is easy to see some of the flaws in his experimental design. Douglas was working with very small 2-1 seedlings planted in the field with little weed control. One observation Douglass made was that adding phosphorus retarded seedling growth; whereas we know today that low phosphorus is often a limiting factor in Fraser fir growth in western North Carolina. A further examination of the data demonstrates that Douglass’ small trees were not growing very quickly. The average growth after four years was only 15 inches. The main conclusion he drew was “that if fertilizers are applied, then there must be a definite weed control program” (Douglass, 1966, p. 25). If nothing else, this illustrates how all components of management need to be present for optimal growth – from fertility to ground cover management to pest control to shearing. It would take years before growers would learn how to put the total package together.
The culmination of work by extension staff was a publication that was to be updated several times through the years, Growing Christmas Trees in North Carolina. The first edition was written by Fred Whitfield and printed January 1968. The different species grown for Christmas trees are discussed as well as selecting and preparing a planting site, caring for and planting seedlings, controlling pests and weeds, fertilizing, shearing, harvesting and marketing. Trees Whitfield recommended for growing in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain include red cedar, Virginia pine, Scotch pine and white pine. All of these were also recommended for the mountains along with Fraser fir, white fir, balsam fir, white spruce, Colorado spruce and Douglas-fir.
Some interesting recommendations from the book are as follows:
- The balsam twig aphid was not even mentioned. Today it is a major pest of Fraser fir that must be treated by almost all Christmas tree growers in western North Carolina every year. This pest is native to natural stands of Fraser fir, so it was present in the 1960s but as yet had not become a problem.
- Spider mites were recognized as a pest, and treatments included using malathion, kelthane, or aramite.
- Control of pales weevil was recommended by dipping white pine seedlings in 2% Aldrin solution.
- It was recommended to control tip moths and sawflies with DDT.
- Herbicides recommended include amitrole, dalapon, simazine, 2,3,4-T, and paraquat. Of these, only simazine was ever used extensively in Fraser fir production.
- Cost of labor was estimated at $1.30 per hour.
- An acre of 6-foot Fraser fir was worth an estimated $3,833. The total cost for growing that acre was estimated at $1,284. Of the original 1,742 trees planted in an acre, 80% or 1,394 would be harvested and sold wholesale at $2.75 each.
- Putting harvested trees in bundles was still discussed. Today trees are baled individually by running them through a baling machine that draws the branches up towards the trunk and uses twine spun around the tree to secure it. Cartner remembers the first baler he used which was “a truck tire set up between two makeshift wood supports” (Tagner, 2001). Netting was also used which would get tangled and snarled. “And not only that, ‘it would take all the buttons off your shirts,’ Cartner said” (Tagner, 2001).
No matter how recommendations were shaping up, most of the work was done by hand. For instance, Wiseman (2007) remembers Kermit Johnson, an Avery County grower, hauling seedlings into the field with a team of horses. And everyone pitched in. Fred Wagoner (2007) remembered the first farm he and his brother bought in Ashe County. While he and John were closing on the land in town, their wives and kids were already setting trees.
The Business of Doing Business
At the annual winter meeting of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers’ Cooperative held in Lenoir on November 17, 1962, Dr. Joe O. Lammi, Professor of Forest Economics from North Carolina State College gave “a detailed discussion on cost and returns of producing an acre of Christmas trees as related to species and quality” (Annual winter meeting of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers’ Cooperative, November 17, 1962). Probably more important at this same meeting, James O. Buchanan, real estate loan officer for the Farmers Home Administration from Raleigh gave on talk on the “type of loans available, who qualifies, and how to obtain a loan for Christmas tree production.”
An April 12, 1963 letter from Melvin H. Hearn, state director of FHA to John Gilliam an apparent request by Gilliam to determine if Christmas tree growers could get low-cost forestry loans from the organization. The letter announced that such loans wouldn’t be allowed as Christmas trees were not considered forestry by the organization.
In talking with some of the early growers such as Wayne Ayers (2007) and Tommy Beutell (2007), the problem of obtaining the kind of capital needed to start a business that wouldn’t see any returns for at least six years was truly daunting. Viewed by today’s standards, mountain land at that time was cheap, selling for as little as $20 to $50 per acre (Beutell, 1998), but banks wouldn’t give growers loans for steep land which they viewed as unprofitable.
Beutell planted his first tree in 1954, and for the next eight years until his first harvest, he didn’t have much of an income.
“The first year we had $850,” Beutell said. “It took $350 for gas to get up the mountain, and Joan and I lived on $500. We grew food in the garden, and our parents gave us some canned goods. But mostly we just did without.”
All of Beutell’s time was invested in his farm. The couple made a little money collecting and selling Christmas tree seed, and they cut some firs from natural stands to sell at retail. They invested all of their income in the farm. (Mills, 1982, pp.12-13).
Most growers weren’t able to grow Christmas trees full-time. Jack W. Wiseman worked at in Morganton at Drexel Furniture for many years before going into Christmas trees and nursery full time in 1979 (Rogers, 1995). Jack S. Wiseman, “one of Avery County’s largest tree growers and developers, grew his land holdings from a mop handle, a tool he used long hours every day cleaning buildings in Charlotte after he returned from Army service in Korea” (From mops to trees, Wiseman stays the course).
Ayers (2007) remembers his first attempts at getting credit so that he could grow full-time. He was asked by Farm Credit to develop a 12-year projection to buy land, clear it, plant it, harvest and reset it. Ayers admitted in a recent interview that he “didn’t know how to project anything.” Still he worked up figures based on fertilizer costs, labor at $2-3 an hour, $10 wholesale value for his trees and 50¢ harvest costs for each tree. His projections were sent to Columbia, South Carolina, and were initially rejected, but the Vice President of Farm Credit attended a Christmas tree meeting in North Carolina and from information given by specialists, decided that Ayer’s projections were reasonable. They ended up giving him the loan, but initially would reimburse him his receipts through an escrow account and only $5,000 a year living expenses. According to Ayers, it was difficult making ends meet until his trees got big enough to sell, but through Farm Credit, he was able to work in Christmas trees full time.
One early grower, Dale Shepherd, was able to borrow money to purchase a large tract of land already set in Frasers (Anderson, 2009). Sandy Davidson, John Gilliam and 16 investors had set 140,000 Fraser fir in Ashe County, but according to Anderson, the trees had been largely neglected. The 100 acres came up for sale in 1968. Valued at $65,000, it was a large investment in the mid 1960s. Anderson says that Shepherd was able to borrow not only the purchase price but also $40,000 a year for four years to raise the trees to market size as well as to set more trees. Shepherd was able to burrow such a large sum from Herbert Francis, a local banker, because he owned the pharmacy in Jefferson and therefore had the capital to borrow against, something few other farmers had at the time.
Trees Viewed as a Risky Enterprise
Something that almost all of those first growers commented was how their neighbors viewed their new labor intensive, long-term investment. After all, who was there in the mountains to buy all of those Christmas trees? Few besides those already marketing trees could imagine the demand there would be for this native tree.
Jack W. Wiseman (2007) was a young man in college when the association started in 1959. He remembered how his Uncle Ray sat down with Bill Aldridge and told him that he had “absolutely ruined Jack. He’s out there setting my pasture in trees. It will never be worth anything.” Uncle Ray later apologized to Aldridge after Wiseman’s trees started selling and even he could see that trees might be worth more than cattle.
Another example involves Watauga County grower, Kenneth Dotson.
When Kenneth started planting white pine and Fraser fir in the early sixties he encountered ridicule from both his family and neighbors who teased him for planting trees when they grew wild all around him. However, Kenneth had a dream and a love of the land and thus worked hard and long to make that dream come true. From a small four acre plot of white pine grew a substantial farm containing many acres of Fraser fir, hemlock, and rhododendron.
Kenneth worked full-time for companies like D.O.T. and IRC. When he got home in the evenings and on weekends, he worked raising trees.
His first idea of perhaps growing trees someday came to him at the age of 14 when he and his father and an old mule cleared and burned a patch of red rhododendron near their home.
“I knew then there was something wrong. They grew four to six feet and they were the prettiest things I’d ever seen.” At that time in his young life he knew that he loved plants and trees.
In 1960 he got four acres of land from his father and informed him that he intended to plant pine trees. He said his father “cursed up a blue streak” and laughed at him (Sargent, 1993, p.17).
Marshall Ayers also recounted others’ opinions in a 1998 newspaper article.
“Yeah, everybody in this country around here told me I was crazy, said I was crazy planting those little tiny seedlings. One feller watched me for awhile, asked what I was doing. When I told him, he said I was crazy, said I would be dead and in hell before they’d grow to where I could cut them,” says Marshall, who smiles at the memory (Joslin, 1998).
The article was accompanied by a photo of Ayers as an elderly gentleman shaking hands with the President of the United States when his son and grandsons took a tree to the White House in 1993. But of course in the early days, no one envisioned trips to the Oval Office.
“Our main obstacle was trying to motivate farmers” reported Cartner. “They always grew potatoes, beans, cabbage, ran some cattle and pulled galax. We were trying a new crop for a new source of income. The trouble was that there were so many farmers who just didn’t see the opportunity we had right here” (Stevens, 1987, p. 43).
Ayers was not as understanding when his daughter informed him that she and her new husband were going into the Christmas tree business full-time. “’My father told me I was crazy when he heard Thomas and I were going into the Christmas tree business full-time,’ she said. ‘He said, ‘You’ll starve to death. You can’t make a living growing Christmas trees.’” (Mills, 1982, p. 12).
One promotional article Cartner wrote for the Avery Journal reads as follows:
If you plan to sell Christmas trees or frasers as ornamentals in 5 to 7 years, it still means that you must transplant in order to have them. So, from an economic standpoint, it seems to be a good investment, even though there is a waiting period of several years before the returns (Cartner, 1962).
Of course, that was a long time to wait. Waightstill Avery remembers his first time growing trees. “’That first year you’re excited. The second year you’re still excited. The third year you start to look around and wonder when the harvest is going to come in. The fourth, fifth, and sixth years you are ready to give up. The year before the harvest, if you’ve make it that far, you are excited again.’ Many farmers did give up in those years” (Tagner, 2001).
A New and Deadly Pest Threatens the Fledgling Industry
Even while the new industry was just getting started a truly daunting problem was threatening to stop it before it was well begun. The balsam woolly adelgid was found on Mount Mitchell by US Forest Service Entomologist, Charles Speers, in October 1957 in a group of 12 trees below Stepp Gap (Hay et. al. 1978). The insect was positively identified by L. M. Russell at the Beltsville Maryland USDA lab. It was the first reported occurrence of the pest in the southern Appalachians (Speers, 1958). Reports of dying fir had started as early as 1953 at Mount Mitchell (Report on research and control methods used to combat the woolly aphid pest in the balsam forests of the Southern Appalachians, 1964). Several groups of 10 to 200 dead fir trees had died in the Toecane District of the Pisgah National Forest in 1955 (Hay et. al., 1978). Speers reported another related species, Chermes nusslini, was found damaging and killing Fraser fir near Luray, Virginia, in 1956 (Speers, 1958), however as today this species is not known to be in North America, it was most likely balsam woolly adelgid as well (Hain, personal communication, July 17, 2009).
This pest was initially referred to as balsam woolly aphid and even the scientific namewas different than it is today having changed from Chermes picea in 1960 to Adelges piceae. Early on growers sometimes referred to it as the “woolly booger.”
Importance of this pest was questioned by those not connected with Christmas trees.
Most of the remaining Fraser fir has little commercial value from the utilization standpoint because of its size, limited accessibility, and relatively small acreage. Therefore, it does not appear practical to advocate silvicultural or management control methods.
Chemical control may be justified because of the recreational, aesthetic, and watershed value involved and limited range occupied by Fraser fir. Miscible oil, contact, and residual-type sprayers have effectively controlled this pest and may be used where fir is desirable as a component of the forest or as an ornamental tree (Speers, 1958, p. 516).
Spread and impacts on Mount Mitchell were quick. Speers and George Amman, another US Forest Service Entomologist, examined trees more closely in 1958 and found that the adelgid was present on 1,400 acres. The year before, Speers had reported 12 dead trees – now at least 11,000 trees had died in an area 260 acres in size. Incredibly, by the end of 1962, more than 10% of the Frasers on Mount Mitchell were dead (Amman & Speers, 1965).
How the adelgid spread across the region is also well documented, as US and NC Forest Service personnel monitored other Fraser fir stands and Christmas tree farms. In 1961 the adelgid was detected in the Pineola (Amman & Speers, 1965) and on Jonas Ridge (Hay, 1980); in 1962 on Roan Mountain (Ciesla & Buchanan, 1962), in Burnsville, in Linville, and near Boone (Hay, 1980); in 1963 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (detected at Mt. Sterling) and Grandfather Mountain (Johnson, 1980); in 1964 in Moses Cone Park (Green, 1965); in 1968 in the Balsam Mountains (Hay, 1980); and in 1972 on Clingmans Dome (Johnson, 1980). The only other natural stand of Fraser fir, Mount Rogers, seemed to avoid any infestation for many years. But in 1979, it was discovered. When one infested tree was cut down, it was determined from its growth rings that the pest had been established during 1962 (Hay, 1980).
The rapid spread and mortality got everyone’s attention in the Christmas tree industry. Not only were people concerned that Fraser fir might die out like the American chestnut, the fear was the only source of seed would die out with it. Fraser fir seed was only available from the natural stands in the early 1960s and Roan Mountain was the primary source.
Meetings were held on January 12, 1960, in Asheville among mostly forest service personnel and again on February 15 in Durham to include Extension Specialists and growers to discuss the appearance of this new pest in the Southeast and the ramifications to the developing Christmas tree industry. Notes from both meetings exist thanks to extensive documentation saved by McGraw in 1979. Attending the February 15 meeting were John Gray, Fred Whitfield, J. C. Jones (Forestry Extension Specialist from 1948-1952 and again from 1961-1969) and John Gilliam with Extension; F. H. Claridge, P. A. Griffiths, and H. J. Green with the NC Division of Forestry; Hugh Redding, R. K. Smith and R. J. Kowal with the US Forest Service; Dr. Bruce Zobel with NC State College; and A. T. Davison and Bill Aldridge with the Christmas Tree Association (Claridge, 1960). Speers and Ammon had attended the meeting in January.
It was agreed at this meeting that a permanent seed source(s) for Fraser fir should be identified and steps taken to preserve it from infestations of the adelgid. A Task Force was formed with Bill Aldridge as the Chairman (Claridge, 1960).
The following is from a letter dated September 15, 1962, from Sandy Davison, who was President of the Association that year, to Mr. J. J. Green, Pest Control Forester, Department of Conservation and Development, Raleigh.
Dear Joe: I have been working on the Roan off and on during the past weeks and have talked with Jack Kelly, the Assistant Ranger of the district about the balsam woolly aphid infestation that he and his crew found. It appears to have been there for several years but has not spread very far. Naturally we in the North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers’ Cooperative are very concerned about our seed source on the Roan, and we wish to take immediate steps to enhance its protection. As you know, we started work two years ago toward setting up a protected area with the cooperative of Mr. Rettig and your National Association Trustee who spent some time looking over possible areas and decided on the southeast arm of the Roan as having the best trees and accessibility for such a purpose. Because of Rettig’s retirement much of the early enthusiasm of the USFS appears to have died. We are undertaking to renew our activity with them, and I have talked over our problem with several officers of the National Association of Christmas Tree Growers at the recent meeting in Lansing. We are having a directors meeting on September 22 at the Holmes Nursery which Mr. Griffiths has kindly agreed to attend. One of the more important subjects for consideration will be the seed production area, and the increasing threat of the Balsam Woolly Aphid. If you could come up with him I would be very glad for your attendance. We must act soon, before we have nothing on which to act.
The Governor of North Carolina, Terry Sanford, applied to US Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman in October of 1962 for help in combating the pest (Sanford seeks federal help against aphid, 1962). A meeting was held in Asheville on January 8, 1963, by request from the Governor to discuss the woolly adelgid infestation. Agencies attending the meeting included the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC Christmas Tree Growers Association, NC Forest Service, NC National Forests, NCSU Extension Forestry, NC State Parks, USDA, and US Forest Service. Russell Beutell was the grower representative (Claridge, 1963).
The following is from meeting notes presented by R. K. Smith with the U.S. Forest Service describing the difficulty of the task at hand:
No one has attempted the direct control of this insect before. The insect has caused extremely heavy losses in both the northeastern and northwestern portions of the United States as well as in Canada… At one time as many as 38 people were working on the aphid problem in Washington and Oregon. It should be pointed out that the primary concern in these sections of the U.S. is in timber values whereas the concern in western North Carolina is based not on timber values but on esthetic and recreational values (Claridge, 1963, p. 6).
In fact, little money would be put to research on the adelgid because Fraser fir was not of value to lumber and pulp industries. “It figures prominently in the Christmas tree industry, but this is a relatively new undertaking in this area and has not begun to reach its potential importance” (Report on research and control methods used to combat the woolly aphid pest in the balsam forests of the Southern Appalachians, 1964).
Meeting notes from a presentation given by John Gilliam are as follows:
It is felt in most Balsam Christmas tree plantations, the aphid will not present a serious problem. Should infestation occur in the plantations, direct chemical control can be easily employed. The problem effecting the Christmas tree industry is the assurance of an adequate seed source for the production of nursery grown seedlings. Plans are being made for establishing a seed orchard at the Holmes State Forest tree Nursery in Henderson county. In the past seed has been available by being collected from the natural stand on Roan Mountain. Should this stand become heavily infested and in danger of being killed, it is almost certain that the Division of Forestry and the U. S. Forest Service can establish an area as a seed source and protect it by insecticide spraying (Claridge, 1963, p. 7).
The seed orchard was never established at the Holmes nursery. One would be developed on as yet unpurchased land in Crossnore by the end of the decade. But the establishment of the protected seed area on the Roan would occur later that same year. A 25-acre seed production area was established by the US Forest Service and NC Division of Forestry (Johnson, 1980). “Three hundred trees were marked and subsequently included in the protection zone” (Johnson, 1980, p. 16). Those who worked on the project included Dwight Brenneman, Nursery Superintendent of the Edwards State Forest Nursery in Morganton, Bob Kellison who had been hired that year as a forestry faculty member, John Gilliam, Leonard Hampton and others presumably with the Forest Service. Trees had been thinned in the fall of 1963 to increase cone set, but the shallow rooted habit of the Frasers made them prone to blowing over (Green, 1965).
Trees were originally sprayed November of 1963 with BHC, a precursor to Lindane, and more trees sprayed along the 2 ¼ mile Balsam Road in the summer of 1964 (Green 1965). Treating these areas with insecticides and other areas in natural stands cost an estimated $100 per acre (Claridge, 1963). “Spraying was discontinued in the seed production area in 1974 after many trees had been lost to windthrow” (Johnson, 1980, p. 17). In 1963 the summer meeting of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers’ Association was held in Burnsville on August 23. Fred Whitfield introduced speaker Dr. M. H. Farrier, entomologist with NC State College. Growers on the field tour visited Mount Mitchell to observe damage caused by the balsam woolly adelgid. Also on the program was, Dr. Charles Hodges, pathologist with the southeastern forest experiment station. Dr. Hodges, though now retired, is still helping diagnose diseases of Fraser fir and other conifers at the Plant Disease and Insect Clinic in Raleigh.
“An interesting development,” was reported in a January 27, 1965, meeting on balsam woolly adelgid. “Mr. Ted Carpenter, Vocational Agriculture teacher at Harris High school, has, with the help of his students, offered a community service on ornamental trees for a nominal charge. Last year they sprayed approximately 300 trees and have requests for spraying this spring” (Green, 1965, p. 8). Even today, Fraser fir grown in yards remains a source of woolly adelgid for growers to contend with in their fields. This also illustrates how many Fraser fir were planted in the landscape.
It was determined in 1957 by the USDA S. E. Forest Experiment Station headed by R. J. Kowal, that BHC or benzene hexachloride and malathion were effective (Claridge, 1963). Christmas tree growers are more familiar with Lindane, a similar product that was described as “BHC with the stink taken out” (McMurray, 2009). Lindane was more highly refined, making it more water soluble and not as prone to “salt out” or separate when in storage. Lindane was first produced for commercial use in the US in 1950 (Gandhi, 1998). Malathion was recommended in areas where wildlife was a concern. In addition, oil solutions and lime sulfur were evaluated. Time and again, however, the more toxic BHC proved most effective.
The 1967 North Carolina Agricultural Chemicals Manual listed balsam woolly aphid under Fraser fir in the Forest Insects section. This was written by M. H. Farrier, entomology research and Fred Whitfield, Forestry Extension. The recommendation was to spray the second half of May with BHC.
Amman and other US Forest Service entomologists evaluated 22 or more predators of balsam woolly adelgid (Green, 1965). Several became established in NC including three beetles: Laricobius erichsonni, Pullus impexus, and Aphidecta obliterata; and three flies: Aphidoletes thompsoni, Cremifania nigrocellulata, and Leucopis obscura (Mitchell, Amman & Waters. 1970). But the research was discontinued. According to notes from the January 27, 1965, BWA meeting reviewed by Speers:
Personnel are required to determine the needs of predators so that their numbers can be increased and releases synchronized with proper conditions for their survival in the field.
Thousands of dollars are spent collecting predators from foreign countries. When these arrive in Asheville, personnel are not available to determine the needs of these predators for survival. In most instances, they are simply released in the field where the insects are “on their own” (Green, 1965, p. 13).
Such releases without knowledge of a predators’ impact are simply not done any more. Currently there is a great push to evaluate predators for a similar pest, the hemlock woolly adelgid. Many of these same predators are being re-evaluated. But if a predator is brought in from another continent, many studies are conducted to make sure that it is effective, and that there will be no unwanted consequences from its release.
Developing a Seed Source
To support the developing industry, Fraser fir seed had to be collected and seedlings grown. A bumper crop of cones was produced in 1960 (Speers, 1963). Experiments were undertaken to determine when cones should be collected and seed germinated.
To lesson the problems with depending on native trees for seed, the development of seed orchards gained importance. An August 26, 1963, letter from Robert C. Killison to Dwight Brenneman discusses newly grafted plants for a seed orchard, presumably in Morganton from Roan Mountain stock.
Early on it was recognized the need for not just any seed, but superior seed. In the November 17, 1962, meeting, one speaker was Dr. Bruce Zobel, Professor of Forest Genetics at North Carolina State College. His talk was “Improve Quality and Yields Through Genetics.” The summary of his talk is, “Quality of Christmas trees can be improved by starting with superior planting stock. Ways and means in starting a genetic improvement program for Christmas tree growers.” This would be a recognized need by the industry through the years and is still continuing today.
The NC Forest Service established a seed orchard at the new Linville River Nursery in Crossnore from 1967 to 1969 (Leggins, personal communication, January 27, 2009). Fred Whitfield and Marty Shaw were involved in selecting superior trees from growers’ fields. These were also evaluated by Bob Kellison. “Before (trees) were included in the orchard, they underwent a grading process by the North Carolina State University Cooperative Tree Improvement Program and the NC Forest Service. Trees that made the final grade were dug and planted in the Lodge Orchard. This included 312 trees” (Leggins, personal communication, January 27, 2009).
Russell and Tommy Beutell may well have been the first growers to own a portion of the natural stands and therefore their own seed source. A 1963 farm management plan listed them as owning 33 acres of natural stands of Fraser fir in the Richland Balsam area which they were starting to manage for seed, including eventually treating for balsam woolly adelgid (Gilliam, 1963). Beutell would later describe finding the best stands in the wild, then selecting the best trees within the stands and digging seedlings around them or collecting cones from them from as early as 1955 (Tompkins, 1998).
Getting Enough Seedlings
Availability of Fraser fir seedlings and transplants would plague the industry for many years to come. Especially in Ashe County, many more people were wanting to grow Frasers than there were seedlings available. Some would start out with white pines, however, the preference was always for Fraser fir which is the superior Christmas tree. Even when Fraser fir became more available, some growers couldn’t afford them and so would grow white pine as a way to get started (Washington, 2009).
The North Carolina Forest Service provided landowners with low-cost seedlings provided that the seedlings would be used for forest plantings, erosion control of windbreaks, and not for ornamentals or for resale. “The one exception to this regulation is that southern balsam fir seedlings or transplants for Christmas tree production may be resold by the purchaser with roots attached” (Ollis, 1961). R. C. Wyatt (1961), soil conservationist said “The interest in Balsam Fir for Christmas tree production has increased sharply during the last three years.”
The Board of Directors of the N. C. Christmas Tree Growers Association met at Holmes Nursery near Penrose on November 27, 1964, to examine Fraser fir seedlings available for distribution that year and to discuss grading procedures.
Some of the points of discussion were as follows:
- A limited supply of 2-2-1 stock is available at the cost of $100.00 per thousand. These transplants are of heavy caliper and range in height from 8 to 18 inches. In the grading process, trees that do not meet the qualifications for this grade will be included in the 2-2 transplants.
- The 2-2 transplants will sell for $55.00/per M and will have a minimum height of 6 inches. As a means of maintaining the quality and volume of this classification, 4-0 stock will be used when the quality is equivalent to the 2-2 trees.
- Beds of 4-0 seedlings are available at $45.00/per M. These seedlings will be graded to remove undersized and poorly formed trees.
- In each grade classification, the trees will have a normal terminal growth or a strong lateral that will assume terminal position the first growing season.
- Culls from grading will be discarded or sold at the nursery at $30.00/per M.
- The location of Holmes Nursery presents a serious problem in the production of high quality Fraser fir seedlings due to the damage from late freezes.
- Mr. Griffiths of the NC Forest Service stated that a long term lease would be taken on the Roan Mountain seed orchard in order to assure the continued availability of this source of seed.
Members of the Board of Directors in attendance at this meeting were: John Gilliam, A. B. Hafer, Russell Beutell, Raymond Farthing, A. T. Davidson, D. R. Burns and J. F. Clayton. Representatives of the NC Forest Service were: Phil Griffiths, Dwight Brennenman, and Homer Orr (Clayton, 1964).
In those early years, Fraser fir transplants would only be sold to members of the state association (Sharp, 1963). In several letters dated 1963, Tennessee growers were wondering how they could obtain Fraser fir and other seedlings from the North Carolina forest service nurseries. They were informed they could if they joined the growers’ association first (Sharp, 1963).
It was in 1968 that the NC Forest Service began producing seedlings at the Linville River Nursery in Crossnore (Leggins, personal communication, January 27, 2009).
Other states were growing Fraser fir as well. In 1962 in the American Christmas Tree Growers’ Journal was a picture of Fraser fir grown in Maine. In 1963, growers from West Virginia took a trip to NC, visiting Roan Mountain with Jack Kelly, assistant forest ranger, and also visiting the Holmes nursery (Hale et. al, 1964). There were also Fraser fir seedlings available from other states. In the November 1960 issues of the American Christmas Tree Growers’ Journal, there was an advertisement for Forestry Associates in Allentown, Pennsylvania, selling North Carolina Fraser fir seedlings from Yancey County – presumably off of Mount Mitchell. In the same issue was another nursery – Eccles Christmas Tree farms in Rimersburg, PA – selling Fraser fir seedlings with a limit of 10,000 per customer. There were only 50,000 available. Another advertisement in 1963 in what was now called the American Christmas Tree Journal said, “Christmas tree growers are missing the boat if they do not plant Fraser fir. Difficult to distinguish from balsam fir. Grows most anywhere. Shapes well. Prunes well. 5 year transplants – $80 per M. Western Maine forest nursery in Fryeburg, Maine.
Getting the Word Out
Promotion was another big task of the new association. Fraser fir growers were just beginning to learn what a phenomenal tree they were working with. In a letter dated January 1960, Herman Dellinger writes, “One producer has a tree that was cut three weeks before Christmas and there has been no needle drop as yet” (Dellinger, 1960, January 29). Of course, trees were sold closer to Christmas in the 1960s than they are now. Several surviving letters from 1960 and 1961 are from buyers looking for trees all dated the first week of December. In today’s market, probably half the real trees are already sold on retail lots by that date.
The first logo was developed sometime in the early 1960s. It was designed by the Long-Haymes advertising agency and cost $25 to have it drawn up for reproduction
In a September 28, 1964, letter sent by John Lynch to Bill Aldridge the following is written:
Dear Bill: I know you will have your hands full but you have a committee member of your Public Relations Group in Winston-Salem, Mr. Dan F. Reynolds. Can you induce him to get us some newspaper space, preferably with a picture of the trees with either: 1. The best looking girl available, 2. The most appealing child. In the event pictures are taken, please get us two glossy prints for the National Journal etc.
This was one of the first attempts at advertising.
Extension contributed to promotion of Christmas trees by producing an undated brochure prepared by Leonard Hampton and signed by the Director of Extension, George Hyatt. The four-fold brochure is entitled “Buy Christmas Trees Grown in North Carolina.” A picture of a Fraser fir is on the front panel. Inside Norway spruce, red cedar, white pine and Scotch pine are also pictured. There are instructions on caring for the tree in the home, and what to look for to purchase a real tree. The back panel says the following:
The Christmas tree plays an important part in the average North Carolina home each year during the Yuletide season.
The increasing population, the movement of rural farm families to the cities, and the deep-rooted American custom of using a decorated tree at Christmas time has played a vital part in keeping the Christmas tree tradition alive.
During recent years, the growing of Christmas trees as a profitable crop on farms in North Carolina has developed into a full-fledged enterprise, with the capabilities of the state becoming a major producer of Christmas trees. Climate, nearness to large metropolitan markets and good transportation facilities should enable North Carolina farmers to sell high-quality trees at competitive prices.
Estimates show that approximately one million Christmas trees are used in North Carolina homes each year. Currently, about eighty percent come from Canada and other areas, with the remaining twenty percent home grown.
On a national scale, the growing and marketing of Christmas trees is big business, representing an estimated $60,000,000 annual retail business.
North Carolina can obtain its share of the national and local markets if we will produce a better product and supply it fresh to the consumer (Hampton, undated).
“Avery County 4-H members joined the Christmas tree crusade and won first prize at the 1961 North Carolina State Fair with a booth titled ‘Fraser Firs for Christmas Trees’” (Stevens, 1987, p. 59). Sam Cartner and Marie Scott, the home economics agent, assisted 4-Hers Johnny Thompson of Ingalls and Shuford Carpenter of Hughes with the display (Avery 4-H exhibit wins first place at state fair, 1961). There were examples of Frasers from Christmas tree size to seedlings, and good management practices were shown. The booth was featured in Progressive Farmer in December of that year (LaRue, 1961). The article, “Fraser Firs for Christmas Trees” was probably the first national article on the subject. It featured 15-year-old Shufford Carpenter who had set out 1,000 Fraser fir seedlings with his dad.
A news release about the new industry was written in December of 1962 by Woody Upchurch entitled, “Christmas tree production catching on throughout North Carolina today.” “This is a completely new industry in North Carolina. While some Mountain people have sold the relatively few wild trees available to them for several years, the practice of planting, cultivating and trimming trees is new. There are some 300 growers in the state. These represent an increase of about 100 per cent in the last four years. Some 40 of these are members of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers Cooperative.”
In 1963, the association led by Fred Whitfield and Bill Staunton, an Extension Forestry Specialist in the eastern part of the state who would be instrumental in promoting choose & cut farms there, set up a Christmas tree display at the NC State Fair (Worksheet, 1963). The displays were also shown at the Dixie Classic Fair in Winston Salem (Whitfield, 1968, ACTJ) The display would showcase many species of trees grown in North Carolina surrounded by a split rail fence covered with white pine roping. From the photo the display appears to be next to the Dorton Arena. Most of the trees are white pines with one rather large Fraser fir which looks as if it came from the natural stands.
In 1964, the association was also looking to promote itself among potential growers. The following letter was sent to the Raleigh News & Observer from John D. Lynch, President.
Dear Sir: This organization which was incorporated in 1959, holds its annual meeting at 10:00 a.m. Saturday, February 6 at the Caldwell County Agricultural Center in Lenoir. Some years back, someone in the Department of Conservation and Development discovered that a considerable sum of money was expended in North Carolina each year for Christmas Trees imported from Canada and elsewhere, and this in a state which grows Fraser fir, white pine, red cedar in natural stands and whose soil will accommodate many other species including Douglas fir and Scotch pine. Under the circumstances, can you give this meeting some coverage? If your people will make themselves known, we will give them the best co-operation possible. Yours very truly, John D. Lynch, President (Lynch, 1964, January 26)
John Lynch was certainly optimistic about the possibilities of Christmas tree production in the state. Later that year he wrote to George Conrad, Mitchell County Extension Agent, asking for help in promoting the industry. He writes, “While I don’t want to impose on you, I would appreciate your sending me from time to time names of people in Mitchell County who are interested in joining the association. The association needs members, must have them to exist, and, by the same token, the growers committed to an industry with a projected annual sales volume of $100,000,000 need the organization this association offers” (Lynch, 1964, August 12). In fact it would take many years before the wholesale value of Christmas trees would reach that value.
Sometime in the late 1960s, the Association started showing trees at the Christmas Show in Charlotte. Bob Zimmermon with Southeastern Shows was involved with the displays and acquiring trees from growers. A September 3, 1968 letter from Whitfield to Tommy Beutell discusses the need for trees.
Working of the Association Changes through the 1960s
The Association was also still figuring out how it wanted to function. A more complete listing of rules including duties of its officers was printed in 1960 where an annual meeting was prescribed to be held the 3rd Friday of November each year in Newland.
More people from other areas of the state and even other states were becoming involved. In 1963, the Articles of Incorporation were amended and the name changed from “Cooperative” to “Association.” A cooperative implies growers working together to purchase supplies and sell their trees. An association is an organization which includes associated businesses and educators as well as growers. Another change in the 1963 Articles was that the Board of Directors would determine the time and place of the annual meeting, no doubt as people from counties other than Avery County became more involved. These changes occurred while Russell Beutell was President. In 1968, the word “Growers” was dropped from the name.
The 1963 changes to the Articles of Incorporation would include a new purpose:
The purpose of this Corporation is to foster an identity of interests among the growers and marketers of Christmas trees and related products in North Carolina and adjoining territories and to promote such interest aggressively and cooperatively by all lawful and ethical means.
The differences between regions of the state were already becoming apparent. In a letter dated Monday August 31, 1964, from Ralph Heath to Herman Dellinger, the following idea was brought up.
I’ve thought up an idea that I’d like to suggest we consider at the next meeting of the NC Xmas Tree Growers Directors meeting. We have a state-wide association, and I think this is right. On the other hand, the state has 3 distinct geographic regions that have different growing conditions. My suggestion is that our state-wide association consist of 3 “chapters” one for the mountains, piedmont and coastal plains. Each “chapter” could deal with their own peculiar problems and take what-ever state wide joint action seems appropriate. So far, only the Mt. Region seems interested. John Gilliam could try to get chapters started in each of the other regions, and they could concentrate on their own problems. I think this should be considered before we draw up the constitution. Yours, Cy Heath.
Through the years, Fraser fir growers would not be satisfied if trees other than Frasers were discussed, while growers from other areas of the state would not appreciate going to a meeting dominated by information on firs. During the 1980s “pine” meetings were held separately from “fir” meetings. In January 1990, the Eastern North Carolina Christmas Tree Association broke off from the State Association and formed a separate association for growers producing trees off the mountain (“Mr. Ralph” Sasser Honored, 2001).
One important addition to the Association occurred in 1966. According to an article in Limbs & Needles based on an interview of John Gilliam, John Wagoner became Secretary-Treasurer. “The Association has been most fortunate in selecting dedicated and competent Secretary-Treasurers. Herman Dellinger served in this capacity from 1959 to 1962, Walter Tennant in 1962, Raymond Farthing was Treasurer in 1963 and 1964 and Joe Clayton was Secretary. James M. Gregg served in 1965. In 1966 John B. Wagoner was elected Secretary-Treasurer and has served since with the help of his wife Helen. This in spite of the fact that Helen threatened to sell the farm most every time John left home!” (Thiel, 1991, p.17). John served as Secretary-Treasurer until 2007.
A New Competitor
At the same time that the NC Christmas Tree Growers Cooperative was getting started, a new face for an old competitor was being developed. “During the 1960s, when the Christmas tree industry was gaining a foothold in the Southern Appalachian highlands, a competing product, the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) artificial tree was introduced nationally” (Stevens, 1987, p. 61).
The use of an artificial Christmas tree dates back to the mid 1800s when artificial trees were made of feathers.
Like many inventions, tabletop feather trees came about out of necessity. By the mid-19th century, decorated trees were more popular than ever; however, in Germany deforestation was widespread, especially during the holiday season. It had become the fashion to chop off the tip off a large Fir tree to use as a Christmas tree; however, this practice prevented the tree from growing taller and thus made it useless as a timber tree (Giaimo, 2006).
These trees were offered for sale in the Sears-Roebuck catalog in 1913 (Paun, 2009). Other types of artificial Christmas trees were to follow. “In the 1930s, the Addis Brush Company created the first artificial-brush trees, using the same machinery that made their toilet brushes! The Addis ‘Silver Pine’ tree was patented in 1950” (Bellis, 2009).
Another significant event had its beginnings in December 1958. Aluminum Specialty Company toy sales manger Tom Gannon had noticed a small, homemade all metal tree used as a display in a Ben Franklin Five and Dime store in Chicago, Illinois. He thought it was a wonderful idea, and presented it to his company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, right away. At the time, Manitowoc was known as the Aluminum cookware Capital of the World, and the company president thought that Tom’s idea was a splendid one. The design department sprang into action, and by Christmas of 1959, they offered the very first all-aluminum Christmas tree to a somewhat confused public. After a surprisingly busy first year of sales, the idea really took off, and by 1960 The Aluminum Specialty Company had perfected their flagship tree: The Evergleam. Although the company records and archives have long since been lost, several estimates put the factory output at four million trees during their 10 year production time from 1959 to 1969. The company never advertised their tree as artificial, but rather insisted that their offering was simply a “Permanent Tree”…Due to the extreme danger of using electric lights on the highly-conductive aluminum branches, rotating multicolored floodlights, called color wheels, were sold to illuminate trees (Nelson, 2008).
Artificial tree sales were booming even while the fledgling Fraser fir industry was trying to get off the ground. But in December 1965 the real Christmas tree industry would get an unexpected boost from an unlikely source. That was the year that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired on CBS. This beloved holiday special preached against the commercialism of Christmas, pink aluminum trees, and promoted celebrating the holidays with a real tree, even if it was a “Charlie Brown tree” that needed a little love. By 1968, most catalogues no longer listed the aluminum tree (Nelson, 2008).
Figures on How the Industry Was Growing
So how many trees were being set in those early years? “During the 1961 planting season there was a total of 98,000 fraser firs planted in the county; 237,500 white pine, and 500 loblolly for a total of 350,000 seedlings planted. The 1962 planting season should exceed this number if we are to make the best use of the land on each of the farms in Avery County” (Agriculture Extension Service, 1962, January 4).
At the same time, Ashe County growers Fred Colvard and Sidney Gambill were planting significant acreage in Fraser fir, blue spruce, Scotch pine and especially white pine (Carey, 1987).
A few years ago Sidney B. Gambill, an Ashe County man living in Pittsburgh, PA, commenced setting out seedlings with the idea that Ashe had an ideal climate, altitude and soil for growing Christmas trees. Pennsylvania is a major Christmas tree growers state and Gambill had observed the business in that state. He figured that the principal cost of marketing trees was the cost of transportation. The trees are bulky and only a given number can be put in a railroad car or on a truck. Besides, Ashe is 500 miles closer than Pennsylvania to the southern market. Since Ashe was ideally situated for growing Christmas trees, why not grow the trees closer to the southern market?
Soon Gambill’s Brother, A.D. Gambill of Crumpler, became interested. So did Fred Colvard, owner of Colvard Farms, Earl Goodman of Nathan’s Creek, Alexander T. Davison of Hillsboro, who has recently commenced planting Christmas trees of various sizes growing in Ashe and that more than 100,000 seedlings are being set out each spring. A substantial number should be ready for market in December, 1964, and available trees should increase each year thereafter (Xmas trees important industry, 1964).
A surviving Extension sheet entitled, “Information on the 1962 Christmas Tree Industry” and dated January 20, 1963 which might have been filled out for the USDA stated that there were 300,000 trees harvested and 50,000 were shipped out of state. This document lists the following species being sold: 60% red cedar, 28% white pine, 10% Fraser fir and 8% Norways and 60-80% of the trees were listed as being sheared. The trees were given a wholesale value of $600,00 and a retail value of $900,000. Also listed were the values of Fraser fir where a 6-7 foot tree had a roadside value of $4, a wholesaler value of $6, and a retail value of $8-12. Also listed were 800,000 pounds of boughs being sold at a value of $0.08 per pound or $64,000.
From association membership forms, it was estimated that by 1964 (in other words, the survey included multiple years of plantings back into the 1950s), more than 2 million Christmas trees were set out across the state on slightly more than 1,000 acres. Of these, 48% of the trees were white pine, 36% Fraser fir, 11% Scotch pine, 2% Douglas fir, 1% Norway spruce and red cedar, and less than 1% of Canadian balsam, Concolor fir, blue spruce, and white spruce.
County Agents also participated in a state-wide Christmas tree survey of seedlings planted in 1963-1964. According to surviving records, there were 43 counties reporting Christmas trees including: Alleghany, Anson, Ashe, Avery, Burke, Brunswick, Buncombe, Cabarrus, Cherokee, Columbus, Cumberland, Davison, Forsyth, Franklin, Gaston, Gates, Rutherford, Guilford, Haywood, Henderson, Hertford, Johnston, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Pasquotank, Pender, Pitt, Polk, Richmond, Robeson, Rockingham, Stokes, Swain, Transylvania, Wake, Washington, Watauga, Wayne, Wilkes, Yadkin, and Yancey. The following trees were reported as planted during those years: White pine – 527,200, red cedar – 88,800, Scotch pine – 47,300, Arizona Ccypress – 9,500, Norway spruce – 8,000, Virginia pine – 3,000, longleaf pine – 2,000. The numbers for Fraser fir are unclear because the Ashe County report was not in the same format and confusing, but there were well over 100,000 Frasers planted.
Christmas tree production was starting to be viewed as a profitable enterprise that would boost western North Carolina agriculture. In 1961 estimated the farm income in Avery County was $2,145,000 (Agricultural Extension Service, 1962, July 5). This article announced the launching of a five-year agricultural opportunities program called “1.6 in ’66.” It was an effort to boost the agricultural income to $1.6 billion by 1966 in the state of North Carolina.
After careful analysis of the resources of the county, it was decided that the enterprises or areas that seem to offer greatest potential are: nurseries, Christmas tree production, flowers, apples, blueberries, vine ripe tomatoes, and small fruits, with the continuation of the present cabbage acreage and an increase of the beef cattle program in the county. It was brought out that specialized crops offered “our greatest potential where we would not be competing with crops from other areas where the topography of the land was adapted to mechanization. We do have opportunities in Avery County that you do not find in all parts of out state, and it is with these advantages that we need to work with regard to our agricultural program (Agricultural Extension Service, 1962, July 5).
This same potential was reflected in the 1962 Avery County Planning Board goals. There were three prongs of development listed including:
(1) tourism and resort development; (2) agricultural specialties such as nurseries of ornamental shrubbery, Christmas tree farms, commercial orchards, berry plantings, greenhouse flower productions, cash crops and livestock traditional to the area; and (3) industrial and service enterprise of a magnitude consistent with real rather than imagined resources and limitations. (Avery County Planning Board, 1962, p. 22; Stevens, 1987, p. 41).
By the mid 1960s according to Jack W. Wiseman (2007), white pines were selling for $1.25 in the field and Fraser fir for $3.50 to $4.00. Most trees sold were small by today’s standards. According to Denver Taylor (2007), few trees were over six feet tall. Wayne Ayers (2007) remembers his father Marshall selling 7-8 foot Frasers for $7 in 1966. He estimated they had 75¢ in each tree, so though the labor of planting and caring for trees on steep ground made the crop difficult to grow, there was a good return on the investment.
Fraser fir production was continuing in other states as well. According to Wright (1965), there were “successful plantations at lower elevations in the southern Appalachians and as far north as southern New England and southern Lake States” (p. 846).
However, it was not always easy for people to find Christmas tree growers in North Carolina. Surviving letters written by Fred Whitfield in 1968 to people inquiring about where to buy trees said for them to look at the North Carolina-Grown Nursery Stock Directory which includes White pine and Fraser fir growers. But this Directory did not distinguish between those selling Christmas trees and nursery stock.
Real Tree Sales in North Carolina
The potential for a viable Fraser fir industry was certainly there in the 1960s, but it takes awhile to grow trees. During this time, Fraser fir still only made up a fraction of the market.
In 1964, there were one million trees sold in NC, and it was estimated that 1/5th were produced in the state.
The majority of trees are sold at roadside Christmas tree stands, located in strategic positions, usually close to a shopping center or on the outskirts of town along main highways. These stands are operated by local groups who are in this business two to three weeks out of the year.
Large numbers of trees are being sold by chain stores such as food chains, Sears, Roebuck & Company and others…
This year the annual auction by the U.S. Forest Service of native Fraser Fir from the Roan Mountains was very successful. More than 20,000 trees were sold at an average price of $1.65 per tree on the stump. Most of the trees were large enough that boughs could be cut from the lower branches with the top six to ten feet being used as a Christmas tree.
The retail price of native Fraser Fir was from seventy-five to $1.00 per foot with the majority of the trees going south to Atlanta, Georgia and points in Florida…
We also are planning to start a marketing program within the Association to encourage all association members to sell their trees with association seal attached.(Gilliam, 1960, p. 37).
In 1964, North Carolina harvested 220,000 trees while the citizens of the state used 200,000 of those trees (Hall, 1965). Of these, only 22,000 were Fraser fir. Frasers were selling for as much as $6 apiece (Hall, 1965).
The North Carolina grown trees are not a factor in our market at present. Cedar is fast losing its place as the local preferred tree. Fraser fir from wild stands in the mountains of North Carolina are in very heavy demand, with wholesale prices about $0.50 higher than last year (Davison, 1960, p. 38).
A more detailed accounting for markets in North Carolina was published in 1970 by two economists from the Forest Products Marketing Laboratory, part of the Northeastern Forest Experiment Station in Princeton, West Virginia. Their paper called, “Factors That Influence Christmas Tree Sales” begins with the premise that, “Most Christmas tree retailers have little knowledge of marketing… The result is a disorganized and unstable market” (Pendleton, 1970, p. 1).
The researchers conducted a survey of Christmas tree retailers in Winston-Salem in 1967 and 1968 which included information on trees sold, trees left unsold, lot location, and advertising. Most important to the history of Fraser fir Christmas tree production in North Carolina is information on tree type and prices. The following table is from data compiled in the paper.
|# in stock||Percentage sold||Average price||# in stock||Percentage sold||Average price|
|Eastern red cedar||
*A color-processed natural spruce.
Combining data from these two years, the percentage of trees for sale for the different species are as follows: balsam fir – 41%, white pine – 17%, eastern red cedar – 16%, Scotch pine – 11%, and Fraser fir – 7%. At the end of the 1960s, Fraser fir still made up less than 10% of real tree sales in an area 2 hours or less from the mountains.
Nationwide, the Scotch pine greatly gained favor in the 1960s. “In just 10 years it went from 4 percent to over 21 percent of the market, replacing balsam fir and Douglas-fir in popularity” (Davis, 1996, p. 9).
Associations run by growers are a volunteer organization and are only as good as the amount of time these officers and board members put into it. One grower wrote on his application in 1963 the following: “Gentlemen: It appears to me that the Association is not progressing at the same pace as it was originally. It has been such a long time since we received a NEWLETTER that I can’t recall when it arrived. Has a letter been issued since the last meeting on genetics and the like in the Spruce Pine area? I do not recall that the results of this meeting were ever furnished to the membership. Hope that the present officers can put more life into the organization.”
There is no record of any response to this criticism. But by 1970, new life would indeed come to the Association. Frasers were about to make an appearance on the national scene. A Crossnore grower, Kermit Johnson, would win the National Christmas Tree contest which would give him the right to place a Fraser fir Christmas tree in the nation’s first home – the White House – for the very first time.