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Chapter 1 – Getting Started: How Christmas Trees Came to Be Grown in the United States

Some Christmas traditions don’t seem strange to us because they are so familiar. In the previous post, “8 Truly Strange Christmas Customs,” the Christmas tree did not appear, although the act of bringing a tree inside and covering it with toys and candy is quite strange. After all, didn’t we move inside to get away from the trees? (Miss Cellania’s files, 2008)

Why a Tree at Christmas?

For most Americans a decorated tree is the centerpiece of the Christmas holidays, but when you think about it, it is a curious habit to bring a tree into the house, take such pains to stand it back up straight, keep it alive as long as possible, and spend hours to cover it with lights and decorations. Yet a Christmas tree has become such a part of the holiday that for most, it isn’t Christmas without it. To understand how the use of Christmas trees got started, there is perhaps no better overview than the book, The Wonderful World of Christmas Trees by Henry H. Albers and Ann Kirk Davis (1997). There’s no need to repeat that history here. But to understand how the Fraser fir became such an important agricultural commodity in western North Carolina, it is necessary to review how Christmas tree sales and production got started in the U.S. and on the east coast in particular.

Marketing Wild Trees as Christmas Trees

When people lived in the country, getting a Christmas tree was as simple as looking in the woods and along fence rows for one the right size for the family. But as the United States became increasingly urban and a tree was not so easily obtained, Christmas trees became a commodity.

The first Christmas tree market in the United States was set up in New York City by Mark Carr in 1851 (Albers & Davis, 1997, p. 17). Carr, who lived in the Catskills, “hauled two ox carts loaded with spruce and fir” (Davis, 1996, p.5) collected from the wild, and for many years, most retailed Christmas trees were wild trees. “By the 1880s the market was buried in evergreens from all over the Northeast. Trees were coming from upper New York as well as from Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire where they were mostly cut from abandoned farm land” (Davis, 1996, p.5). “By 1900, more than a million trees a year were shipped from Maine to Boston and New York (Albers & Davis, 1997, p. 18).”  By 1912, it was estimated that 5 millions Christmas tree were being cut (Davis, 1996).

Many trees were also coming out of Canada in the early years. According to R. Blake Brown (1999), the first trees sent from New Brunswick to the east coast of the United States were carried by railroad in 1905. By 1957, 3.8 million trees were exported from Nova Scotia. “According to the U.S. Department of commerce, Canadian exports accounted for at least 25 percent of all trees sold from 1940 to 1966 in the United States” (Davis, 1996, p. 8).

These trees were small balsam fir “brush” growing in fields and their sale as Christmas trees was a way for people to make a few extra dollars before Christmas. The poet Robert Frost was even approached about selling trees on his property which he describes in a poem published in 1920. The poem relates how a stranger “who looked the city” came…

To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.

In the poem, the poet is offered $30 for 1,000 trees which he ends up refusing. It seems a small amount but the price of only a few cents per tree is accurate at that time. The young trees growing in a pasture were otherwise of no value and were even a nuisance.

The harvesting of these trees became an important cottage industry in the area with an elaborate system of removing trees and getting them ready for shipment.

During the 1920s and 1930s the industry took shape in Lunenburg County (Nova Scotia). In mid to late October farmers and landowners took to their woodlots and fields, and busily began harvesting trees. Often teams of three men worked together: a “cutter”, a “dragger”, and a “tier”. The cutter roamed through an area in search of trees worth taking. The dragger found fallen trees and pulled them over the rough ground to where the tier was working. Of the three, the dragger needed the least experience. For him, all that was required was quick feet and stamina.

The tree tier, on the other hand, was the most skilled. Once the dragger delivered the trees to him, the tier organized them according to size, which controlled the number in each bale. Trees between two and three feet in height were often tied in bales of eight, while trees between nine and eleven feet were placed in bundles of two, and the typical house trees of between seven and eight feet were tied in bundles of four. Once the appropriate number of trees was piled on top of one another, the tier straddled them. First the butts were tied together, then the tier made his way up the trees, bending the branches sharply toward the top, and wrapping binder twine around the bale to pull the branches as tight to the trunks as possible. The average bale needed approximately ten wraps of twine. After each wrap a knot was made, then the twine was cut with a “ring-knife”, a ring worn on one hand with a short but sharp blade attached to it. This was tough work, very hard on both the fingers and the back. Rex Meister, a veteran of the Christmas tree business, remembered the skill of these tree tiers: “Oh there was some rattling good tiers. Lord, I had some fellers tie trees, I remember their fingers just went like a sewing machine. Honest and truly, you could hardly believe that they could tie a knot so fast.” (Brown, 1999, p. 24)

These trees were often of poor quality with “4 to 6 trees in brush content then (1940s) would equal 1 tree in a heavy density tree today” (Lacey, S. 1999). Add to this the fact that these balsams, which do not have as good needle retention as Fraser fir were cut as early as October, there was definitely room for improvement.

There were several methods employed to conceal poor quality trees in shipments to American buyers. Some people cut their trees in mid-October and then put them in a swamp to prevent them from appearing dried. The process of baling the trees in bundles created the greatest opportunity for trickery, since it was impossible to judge the quality of the trees after they were tied. One veteran grower recalled how this was done:

“I have to admit, an awful lot of trees that were shipped weren’t Christmas trees. They were tied up in a bundle and you didn’t know what was in there. You put one good tree on each side and put a slink [a tree with a few branches] of a thing in the middle – the butts showed and that’s all.”

This became a relatively common practice, and local tiers grew adept at producing a good looking bale with poor quality trees (Brown, 1999, p. 27).

In Vermont, the young trees gathered were spruces (Copeland, 1919). Farmland was growing up into woods, and young spruces were plentiful. There were a reported 5 million trees being shipped out of Vermont in 1919 for Christmas trees, gathered by two-horse heavy wagons and trucks to railway stations.

Growing Christmas Trees

W. V. McGalliard is thought to be one of the first to actually set seedlings specifically for use as Christmas trees (Albers & Davis, 1997, p. 25). In 1901 he planted 25,000 Norway spruce in Mercer County, New Jersey. The field was one that was no longer productive for agricultural crops, but McGalliard had noticed that Norways grew well there, even though these trees are not native to the U.S. Seven years later he began to sell his trees for $1 each.

Using otherwise unproductive land for Christmas tree production would become a common practice through the years. In fact, many Christmas tree farms had dual purposes. Some land was planted for saw timber but trees were thinned out and used for Christmas trees. In other instances, evergreens were planted for soil protection with Scotch pine, white spruce and Norway spruce seedlings used to reduce wind erosion and younger trees cut for Christmas trees after four to nine years. These species could be purchased cheaply by the landowner when used for soil conservation (Sowder, 1949).

Many of the early Christmas tree innovators would come from Pennsylvania, and in fact, Pennsylvania has the oldest Christmas tree growers association, starting in 1942 (Gwinner, 1965). Fred Musser of Indiana, Pennsylvania planted pines and spruce in 1928 for Christmas trees and timber and would be one of the leading “advocates of the Scotch pine” as a Christmas tree (Albers & Davis, 1997, pp. 25-26). Musser also started growing seedlings which he sold to other growers, “to improve the quality of Christmas trees.” Another, Charles W. Strathmeyer, started out walking the woods and dragging trees for his father’s grocery story in York, Pennsylvania which catered to a large German population. Because of the demand, he planted trees for Christmas trees in 1932 (Albers & Davis, 1997, pp. 26-27). Of course, Pennsylvania did not have a monopoly on growing trees. “A state bulletin suggesting that Christmas trees might be grown as a farm crop was published in Michigan in 1915… and was concerned with Norway Spruce” (Gwinner, 1965). This was one of the first publications on Christmas tree production in the US.

Another Pennsylvanian, Andrew Abraczinskas who was an immigrant from Lituania, grew both Norway spruce and pines, setting his first trees sometime between 1910 and 1916 (Davis, 1996). “Andrew developed a technique for shearing Scotch pine that attracted the attention of universities and Christmas tree growers in several states (Albers & Davis, 1997, p. 21).”  Shearing involves cutting the side shoots and the top of the tree to hold back the growth, allowing the production of a denser tree in a true conical “Christmas tree” shape. Some species, like Norway spruce and eastern red cedar, are fairly dense even at a young age. But other species, especially the pines and even Fraser fir, will grow tall and spindly without shearing. Even Norway spruce and cedar will make a prettier tree when sheared. Therefore, shearing was a foundational innovation that helped create the Christmas tree industry. In The Wonderful World of Christmas Trees, Abraczinskas’ development of shearing was said to occur in the 1920s, but in an earlier article written by Ann Kirk Douglas, shearing was said to have developed in the 1940s (Davis, 1996).

“As President Franklin D. Roosevelt pointed out, “While only God can make a tree, we have to do a little bit to help ourselves (Albers & Davis, 1997, p. 35).” This improvement on wild trees would eventually spell the end of harvesting wild trees. According to Brown (1999), by the 1950s, “two new competitors appeared on the American marketplace: the plantation-grown Scotch pine, and the artificial Christmas tree.”

Plantation-grown Scotch pine began to appear in the United States around 1950, and the numbers grew quickly in the following decade as millions of cultivated trees were established on plantations in the northeastern United States. Until the 1950s, balsam fir from the Maritime Provinces and the northeastern United States provided the majority of the Christmas trees for the eastern American market. Balsam fir was the traditional tree, but the price of the Scotch pine made it popular. Balsam fir between six and eight feet tall retailed for $2.50 to $3.50 per tree in the late 1960s. In comparison, a similar Scotch pine sold for $1.75. In addition to price, Scotch pines were heavily sheared, and therefore denser, contrasting sharply with the thin, natural balsam fir grown in Lunenburg County during the 1950’s (Brown, 1999, p. 29).

From the first survey of Christmas trees conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1948, it was estimated that about 100,000 acres of “plantations are now devoted to growing Christmas trees in this country… Pennsylvania has nearly 40,000 acres in Christmas-tree production (Sowder, 1949, p. 251).”

Most of these farms were small. According to one survey of Pennsylvania Christmas tree farms, the average grower sold less than 2,000 trees a year and received less than 10% of their income from the production of Christmas trees (Brundage, 1965; Stevens, 1987, p. 59).

Though balsam fir was the favorite Christmas tree used in the US in 1948, “by 1962, the Scotch pine, a plantation tree, had reached the top in consumer preference (Gwinner, 1965).

Christmas Tree Use in the US Prior to 1950s

Christmas tree sales developed slowly. “About 1912, the United States Forest Service estimated that 5 million Christmas trees were being cut and that every foruth family had a tree in the home” (Davis, 1996, p.6)

The United States Department of Agriculture conducted a nation-wide survey in 1948 which estimated that 28 million Christmas trees were distributed in the United States (Sowder, 1949). “No data on the U. S. production of Christmas trees were available prior to the first Chrsitmas tree survey made in 1948, but it was estimated that 15 to 18 million Christmas trees made up the yule-tide harvest in the forties” (Sowder, 1965)

The following were estimates of where the trees were coming from.

Recent estimates of the cut of the Christmas trees in 11 Northeastern and Middle Atlantic States were 6,428,000; 3 Lake States, 5,200,000; the 5 Central States, 207,500; 14 Southern States, 3,163,500; 4 Prairie States, 5,000; 6 southern Rocky Mountain States, 150,000; 5 Pacific Coast and Northwest States , 6,296,400 – a total of 21,450,400 trees.

More than 5 million trees are imported annually. In 1947, the figure was 6,808,158 trees valued at $1,909,167. Nearly all the trees were shipped in from Canada… (Sowder, 1949, p. 248).

Sowder goes on to relate that some states were trying to develop standardized grades for trees with graduated prices. Though plantation production was developing, most trees were still cut from the wild including Federal, State and private land. This would make many question the wisdom of using a real Christmas tree, but Sowder has the following to counter critics:

Those who object to the cutting of Christmas trees might well remember that forestry looks not only to the perpetuation but also to the wise use of woodlands… Actually, if properly directed, there is no reason why the joy associated with the Christmas evergreen may not be a means of arousing in the minds of children an appreciation of the beauty and usefulness of trees; and keen appreciation of the beauty and usefulness of trees is a long step toward the will to plant and care for them (Sowder, 1949, p. 247).

To help market the use of wild trees the following was sometimes used. “Trees cut from national forests may bear a tag with the following statement: ‘This tree brings a Christmas message from the great outdoors. Its cutting was not destructive but gave needed room for neighboring trees to grow faster and better. It was cut under the supervision of the U.S. Forest Service on the – National Forest (Sowder, 1949, pp. 249-250).’”

Table 1 shows estimated annual production of Christmas trees by species in the United States in 1948 (Sower, 1949, p. 250).

Table 1. Estimated annual production of Christmas trees by species in the United States in 1948

Species Estimated
Production
Percentage
of total
Balsam fir 6,435,000 30%
Douglas fir 5,830,500 27%
Black spruce 2,363,000 11%
Redcedar 2,128,545 10%
White spruce 1,990,200 5%
Scotch pine 806,925 3%
Southern pine 652,550 3%
Red spruce 594,160 3%
Virginia pine 370,000 2%
White fir 335,400 2%
Norway spruce 303,400 1%
Red fir 165,000 1%
Red pine 156,000 <1%
Alpine fir 148,450 <1%
White pine 45,450 <1%
Grand fir 34,980 <1%
Arizona cypress 19,980 <1%
Jack pine 15,000 <1%
Colorado blue spruce 9,540 <1%
Pinyon pine 3,150 <1%
Hemlock 1,600 <1%
Juniper 810 <1%
Engleman spruce 300 <1%
Miscellaneous pines 8,670 <1%
Not identified 32,000 <1%
TOTAL 21,450,400

As the trees coming out of Canada were primarily balsam fir, that tree made up an estimated 47% of Christmas trees used in 1948. Fraser fir and southern balsam are not listed.

Southern Christmas Trees

Tommy Beutell is long-time North Carolina Christmas tree grower with farms in Jackson and Mitchell counties and one of the original members of what would become the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association. He reported on the importance of balsam fir, Douglas fir, and Scotch pine in an address he gave on the history of the North Carolina Christmas Tree industry at the Nation Christmas Tree Association meeting in Asheville on August 6, 1998. Beutell, along with his brother Russell, sold Christmas trees in the Atlanta area starting when Tommy was just 12 years old in 1946, before becoming involved in growing Christmas trees (Tompkins, 1998).

Some short needle species, primarily Douglas fir, were being imported from the Rocky Mountains, and the balsam fir from areas of New England and Canada. These imported trees were sold from farmers markets located near railroad tracks or through food chains such as A&P and Kroger. Farmer retailers would buy bundles of trees from these sources to supplement inventory and offer greater variety on their lots. The retail season was much later in those days. Most trees sold after the 10th of December. (Beutell, 1998)

The eastern red cedar had become a traditional Christmas tree in the South because it was commonly found in the woods and fence rows. Anyone living in the country could find a young cedar, but again, city dwellers needed a commercial source of Christmas trees. Jay Irvin Wagoner, Guilford County Agricultural Director and his brother-in-law, Roy Homewood, set trees in an inaccessible field on his farm – planting loblolly pine trees for timber, and setting cedars between each pine for his twin sons, John and Fred Wagoner, to sell as Christmas trees to raise money for college (Wagoner, F., 2007, Pittard, 2008). The Wagoner’s farm is featured in North Carolina Century Farms, with a Simeon Wagoner listed in the 1860 census as a 32-year-old farmer (Gorman, L., Martin, M. H., Ellison, D., Woody, J., Devine, J. F. 1989). The Wagoner twins, born in 1923, began selling those trees in 1939 for $1 to $2 each, using the same trade route their father used to sell vegetables (Ingle, 2003: Rogers, 1996). “That was the year before my brother, John, and I went to college, and those trees provided us money for school” (Pittard, 2008, p. 116). After the trees they raised were sold, they started paying neighbors 75¢ for each cedar to resell in Greensboro. Eventually they also started buying Scotch pine and Canadian balsam that often still had snow in the branches (Wagoner, F., 2007).

Trudy Law Ingle, later to become Trudy Helms, had this to say of the Wagoner Brothers:

In those days the season was short – only about 10 days. Most trees were cedar and dried out very quickly and it was customary to wait later to decorate for Christmas. The men would even help Santa deliver a tree on Christmas Eve. They worked in those days through the 24th of December. At first the lot was not open on Sunday until the afternoon Fred and Dot drove up to find someone else selling their trees. After that they opened and sold seven days a week. Trees were selling for 1-5 dollars at that time. If you sold a $2 tree you had really done something and $5 was really the big time (Ingle, 2003, p. 10).

By the late 1950s, the time was ripe in North Carolina for its citizens to produce their own Christmas trees. According to a Progressive Farmer article (Johnson, 1964), four out of every five Christmas tree sold in the South in 1964 were from northern states and Canada. With an average retail price of $3 per tree, that was a $36 million industry lost to southern producers.

Scotch pine, balsam fir, Douglas fir, and red cedar were the primary trees being sold commercially in North Carolina by the 1950s, though many were still getting their Christmas trees out of the woods – typically cedars or white pines. But waiting in the clouds was a tree that was far superior to any of these as a Christmas tree. Its habitat had shrunk. It had been cut out of the way to allow the harvest of its neighbor, the red spruce. Its home had eventually been protected through legislation. Now it only needed to be discovered and grown by the people of western North Carolina who were finding it hard to make a living in their mountains.


Prepared by Jill Sidebottom, Ph.D.
Area Extension Forestry Specialist, Mountain Conifer IPM
NCSU College of Natural Resources
N.C. Cooperative Extension Service

Updated June 20,2011

Written By

Photo of Jill Sidebottom, N.C. Cooperative ExtensionDr. Jill SidebottomExtension Specialist (Mountain Conifer IPM) (828) 684-3562 jill_sidebottom@ncsu.eduForestry & Environmental Resources - NC State University
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