Hope Historical Society
Monthly Meeting Series
Monograph #1
April 2002
Presented by Bill Jones

 

CHRISTMAS TREES IN HOPE;
THE TALE OF TWO INNOVATORS


Hope's earliest European settlers did not grow, sell, or use Christmas trees. Well after the Revolution, the Christmas tree custom was introduced by German immigrants. Indeed, Anglo-Americans initially attacked the users of Christmas trees for paganism, sometimes burning the trees. Actually, the custom is pagan in origin. Christmas trees did not become a common custom among non-German Americans until late in the Nineteenth Century.

That's probably when Christmas tree use spread to Hope. Although the first European settlers, the Hitts, were German with ties to the German Broadbay (Waldoboro) settlement, Hope was and has remained culturally Anglo. Presumably people cut their own trees, undoubtedly balsam fir (Abies balsamea), which are native and which are still, to this day, the only species Mainers consider suitable for Christmas trees. While Hope was completely logged off and largely converted to pasture or fields to supply fuel and casks for the limerock industry on the coast, balsam firs were probably always available. They seed in and volunteer in pastures because cattle avoid them.

So much for speculation about how Hope's people gathered and used balsam fir from their environment for Christmas celebration. We have no direct evidence, only inferences from Hope's wider context.

Christmas trees as a business -- as a way of using the land and making a living -- started in 1909. It went through two phases, just as human exploitation of earth's renewable plant and animal resources has: a hunting/gathering stage and a culture stage. The two stages are dominated in Hope by two remarkable, innovative individuals, one who gathered trees and sold them, the other who grew trees and sold them.

The Hunting and Gathering Stage
Miller Hobbs

Bt the end of the 19th Century, Hope's population and land use were changing. Population had been declining steadily since 1850. The Civil War accelerated the trend as farmers saw greener pastures and moved there. A disproportionate share of Hope's men died in that war too. Hope's population fell from 1107 in the 1850 census to 641 in 1890 (a loss of 42%), to 497 in 1910 (-55%), before bottoming at 424 in 1920 (-62%).

The remaining people were using land less intensively. Most of Hope's land was never plowed, but virtually all of it was grazed or used for hay fields in the mid-19th Century. Most of that pasture was rough and stoney, but there was a lot of it, in part because of the demand for kiln wood and barrels for the coastal limerock industry. By the turn of the century, that industry was turning to fossil fuel. Decreasing chances to supplement meagre farm income by selling wood and barrels caused more families to abandon their sub-marginal farms. The remaining farmers used the land less intensively.

Less-intensively used pastures and unused hay fields began to grow up. Balsam fir was one of the species that volunteered. As Elston Hobbs, grandson of Hope's hunter/gatherer pioneer, succinctly put it, "...browsing animals kept the trees isolated from the hardwood, sometimes solitary so they grew better."

Miller Hobbs (1872-1954) was the man who saw the commercial possibilities, and who did something about it. His sister was related to Jimmy Robbins and the Sprowl brothers, loggers and mill operators from Searsmont, "...who were already doing it [Christmas tree gathering and sale] big time, so he tried his hand at it." That was in 1909. He was a farmer and already 37.

In the beginning, the trees came off Miller's own property. There was no pruning in those days, but a lot of the volunteer trees were well formed, thanks to grazing animals that kept the competition down.

Trees were selected, felled and baled in bundles of three or four with heavy twine. Elston Hobbs
(1933- - ) recalls the baling operation:

"Larry [1936- - ] was involved in the Christmas Tree business. I was not. I was a daydreaming, sullen teenager who would clearly never amount to a thing. I got to bundle trees, a nasty, wet operation requiring oilskins and that coarse, yellow, many-fibred cord/string/whatever.... There was a conscious attempt to bundle good and not-so-good trees together."

The bales were moved to the rail head at Belfast for the Belfast & Moosehead Lake ("Cracker Barrel") RR or Rockland for the Maine Central RR. Boxcars generally held 600 bundles -- 2200 to 2300 trees.

The tree-loaded boxcars were destined for Boston, New York, Philadelphia, perhaps Baltimore and Washington DC . The Hobbses would travel by train too. There, in the rail yards, the Hobbses met and sold to brokers, who were Jewish. There was no retail operation. What wasn't sold by Christmas eve had to be got rid of in a bonfire. Christmas trees are highly perishable, not for physical reasons but for market reasons.

Since bundled trees were not of uniform quality, as Elston describes it, "You can imagine the selection a buyer would go through at the other end. They'd cut a few bundles open, assess their quality and saleability, start haggling." We have no records showing quantities sold or prices obtained.

There is a lot of anecdotal information, however, on selling in rail yards. Probably in the early 1950s, when the family business was being operated by Miller, his son Roy Hobbs and grandson Larry Hobbs, they had to take a larger boxcar that held 1000 bales (ca. 3800 trees). Alas, that boxcar got misrouted and arrived in New York City on Christmas morning. As Elston Hobbs has heard the story, consistent over the years, from his father and brother,

"That's a lot of bundles.... Grandfather was screaming at Father, and Father was screaming at Grandfather; Larry got screamed at.... The screaming part is believable; that's the way our intimate family moments went.

While they were trying to find a place where they could have a nice, big bonfire, an old Jewish guy came running down the track (he comes complete with wrinkles and a comical Jewish accent). "I'll give you ten thousand dollars for those trees!' .... Grandfather was of course delighted, relieved, rescued, astonished -- and shipped 'special trees' for this customer for years."

The Hobbses recognize the incongruity of the story, unless the broker had a niche market with Greek or Russian Christians, or unless he was willing to pay handsomely for a priviledged relationship with Hope's pioneer Christmas tree farmer. Trees that were assets become a liability around midnight Christmas Eve. Even $2.60/tree would be an astonishing price. Anyhow, Elston recognizes that this broker was a "heaven-sent benefactor."

Miller Hobbs's business evolved. As the supply of balsam firs from his own land ran out, he "scouted out good locations [on other people's land] and paid something agreed upon per bundle. There were probably as many deals as you could imagine." As my informants remember it, as Hope pastures ran out of balsams, Miller moved to Searsmont and Belmont. Although sources are not quite so sure and don't always agree, Miller's operation continued to go further afield in search of natural Christmas trees, to Lincoln, to the natural fir stands in Hancock and Washington counties, and to Quebec, and to the Canadian Maritimes.

Although Miller got the idea for his business from the Robbinses and Sprowls of Searsmont, he is the one who developed it into a significant enterprise. Without intending to be perhaps, he was also a teacher. As Elston Hobbs reports,

"I remember Father saying once that Grandfather was the one who started the Christmas Tree business around here. He said they'd hire someone to help them, and then after a year or two, the guy would turn into their competition, working for himself. Then they'd hire someone else.... Pretty soon, a lot of people were doing it."

Bill Hardy (1918- -) recalls hearing that early Christmas trees marketed by Hope entrepreneurs also came from natural stands in Warren and Waldoboro, where they seemed to grow better.

Well before Miller died in 1954, a lot of the Christmas tree business had been taken over by his son, Roy Hobbs (1901-ca. 1985), and grandson Larry. Roy continued the business until 1963.

Why did the Hobbs family quit the business after 55 years? Elston identifies both personal and technical reasons. On the personal side,

"Grandfather was the businessman, and maybe Father just ran down and got tired of it without whatever drove his father, without the motivation to keep on, without the pleasure that deal-making brought others. I have half an idea that's when he really got back into bowling and was still astonishingly good at it, in his sixties."

But land use in Hope had changed and the Christmas tree business had changed. Hope's 19th Century pastures that didn't become blueberry fields reverted to hardwood forest, its age determined by when it was abandonned as a farm. The horses and oxen that had provided transport had been replaced by cars and trucks. The sheep were long gone, and the number of dairy cattle was dwindling. The conditions that made Miller Hobbs's gathering operation possible were gone. As Elston recognizes clearly,

"...There weren't many animals in pastures anymore. The beautiful, solitary Christmas tree growing in the pasture was hard to find.

Major competition involved people growing trees, as it is done today. If you didn't do that, who would buy your trees?"

 

Christmas Tree Farming
Bill Hardy

Hope's Bill Hardy was one of "those people growing trees, as it is done today" -- indeed, most likely the first such person in Maine.

But Bill Hardy started in the Christmas tree business when it was still in its gathering phase. He returned from working at the University of Maine Orono in 1952 and began work for E.E. ("Ned") Cutting, a major Christmas tree and blueberry farmer and merchant from Rockport and Warren. Hardy became field man for Cutting, finding and buying trees in Quebec, exercising quality control, arranging shipment. New York and Chicago were major markets. By this time, Cutting was in telephone contact with agents at the destination cities. Bill Hardy remembers one occasion when he realized that Cutting had a carload of a size and quality of tree in Chicago that was not selling but that was in short supply in New York. After some acrimony and phone calls, the car was re-shipped to New York City and its contents sold at a handsome profit.

While running the experimental farm at the University of Maine from 1946 to 1952, Hardy had worked with Roger Taylor. This pioneer of Maine's Christmas tree industry introduced selection of varieties and production of seedlings. He introduced species other than balsam fir, specifically Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga taxifolia) from the Pacific Cascade Range and Concolor fir (Abies concolor), a balsam fir relative from the Great Basin area of the west. In addition to his academic job, Taylor had a private nursery operation, to keep his three sons busy according to Hardy, growing Christmas tree seedlings.

In 1957, Hardy left the E.E.Cutting operation. In 1958, he started planting Christmas tree seedlings in rows on his land on Church Street. Roger Taylor had not taken this critical step. Where did Hardy get the idea for this innovation? While working for Cutting in the Antoginish area of Nova Scotia, he saw Canadians thinning and pruning in wild balsam fir stands. Agriculture Canada was supplying seedlings. But that is a far cry from planting Christmas trees in rows like corn.

When he brought this practice to Hope, was Bill Hardy the first to plant rows of Christmas trees in Maine? Probably so. Hardy says modestly that the owner of Moody's Diner may have preceded him, planting 25 or 30 wild seedlings he had pulled in the woods during mud season. They were far larger than optimal size. Mr. Cutting thought they wouldn't survive, but they did. Perhaps seeing Moody's pilot operation in Waldoboro and the knowledge that he knew how to do much better gave Hardy the courage to quit Cutting and launch his innovation.

Starting in 1958, Hardy planted acres of balsam and Douglas fir at the home place in Hope and on property on Pitcher Pond and on Levenseller Mountain in Lincolnville. Almost simultaneously, Hardy persuaded Guilford Payson (1919-1997) to plant Christmas trees: balsam fir behind his house on the side of Hatchet Mountain: and Douglas fir in the Five Acre Field on what is now called Payson's Path. They planted using a tractor-drawn planter. Hardy drove the tractor through the field and Payson sat on the planter and planted. The planter-trailer knife opened a slit in the ground; Payson inserted a seedling from a low tray; then the trailer's wheels squeezed the slit shut.

Hardy and Payson used seedlings from the University. In 1960, they introduced concolor fir from the university collection. A concolor fir still stands beside the site of the Payson house, once the Micah Hobbs (1777-1842) place. It is one of the oldest concolors in the State of Maine. By the time the pair planted Payson's Five Acre Field, there was an alternative supplier of seedlings to Roger Taylor at Orono; it was Western Maine Forest Nursery in Fryeburg. For this field, Payson got his Douglas fir seedlings from Fryeburg; these proved to be less well adapted for Christmas trees than the earlier Dougas seedlings from Roger Taylor which Hardy had planted in Lincolnville.

Christmas trees that were farmed, not collected from pastures or from wild stands, could be cared for. The most suitable varieties of each species for Christmas trees could be chosen. While lumbermen were selecting for fewer lateral branches, Christmas tree farmers were selecting for more of them. Dark needle color and long needle retention after cutting were and are desired.

Almost immediately, Christmas tree farming produced much higher quality product than hunting and gathering from pastures and wild stands. The market recognized this difference. Today, most Christmas trees come from planted, farmed trees. Those that don't come from managed wild stands where competition is controlled. Balsam fir trees are thinned, and the remaining, selected trees are pruned. This transitional stage to farming is not practiced in Hope but in Hancock and Washington Counties.

Hope Christmas Tree Growing in 2000

Like Miller Hobbs, though perhaps more intentionally, Hardy was a teacher. Besides Guilford Payson, he helped two other Hope families to take up Christmas tree growing. John ("Ted") Wilson (1932- -) planted his field between the Barnestown Road and Hobbs Pond to Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris) in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Under Bill Hardy's tutelage, Bill (1937- -) & Judith Jones (1942- -) began planting Christmas trees at the Jones Taylor place off Smith Drive in 1980. Because balsam seedlings were not available that year, the Joneses began by planting white spruce (Picea glauca), known in Maine as cat or skunk spruce. They have subsequently planted mostly balsam fir and now have several thousand Christmas trees growing at any time.

The Joneses are now the only Christmas tree farmers in Hope. The Hardys and Paysons are no longer in production. Artie Sprowl (1938- -) bought Wilson's Christmas tree field and has replaced some of the Scotch pines with balsam fir in the part not occupied by his house. These trees are being enjoyed as scenery rather than sold to make a living.

The Jones's operation became vertically integrated. Years before their oldest Christmas trees were ready for market, Craig Nash suggested that they ought to develop a market. Craig Nash then bought Christmas trees locally and marketed them in Newburyport Massachusetts at Zeke's Furniture. The Joneses made a deal with the Francis Scott Key public elementary school in Washington DC, which their kids attended. They arranged a sale in school yard to benefit the PTA, mobilizing customers from among their neighbors and work-mates at the World Bank. Craig Nash drove in with a truckload of Maine trees. In 1981, 85 trees sold the first day; the next, a rare Washington DC snow kept Craig's Zeke's truck from getting up the hill to the school, so he drove back to Newburyport with the remaining trees.

Since then, the two-day sale has become a community institution in the Palisades neighborhood of DC. The Jones are partners with Cary Nash and Joel Morse (1937- -). They sell their own trees, plus trees, wreaths, garlands, and decorations bought in Lincolnville, Searsmont, and Pennsylvania. In the past, they have bought Hope trees from John Wilson, Bill Hardy and Guilford Payson. The Joneses supply a group of churches in the DC area, including the Episcopal National Cathedral, whence the Joneses Christmas decorations may be seen on TV when the Christmas morning service is broadcast on Maine Public Television. Through Farley's, their trees usually appear in public places in Camden and at MBNA, and at John Travolta's house on Isleboro.

Although the Joneses are Hope's only commercial Christmas tree growers at this time, Cliff Meservey, who has moved here from Lincolnville has plans to start.

Techniques of Christmas Tree Farming

Farming Christmas trees, not just gathering wild ones, involves land clearing and site preparation.

It involves planting seedlings. Hardy did this with a wheeled planter towed behind a tractor. This method is appropriate for planting large numbers of seedlings on relatively level, well-cleared fields. Since no one is planting the large areas of good fields that Hardy and Payson (and Roger Hunt in Lincolnville) were in the late 1950s and 1960s, this planting method has now given way to hand planting with a dibble (in the case of containerized seedlings) or planting spade (in the case of bare-root stock). Dibble or spade planting is also usually a two-person operation with one carrying the seedlings through the field and making the holes and the other planting them and closing the holes. Fertilizer pills are sometimes inserted in the holes at planting. Bare-root stock are often dipped in fungicidal solution before planting. Planting is usually done in May but may also be successful in August, provided (especially in the latter case) that there is adequate rain after planting. Survival of bare-root stock ought to range from 80 to 95%, of containerized stock, at close to 100%.

Planting Christmas trees is relatively simple. Producing well-shaped, healthy trees of the size demanded involves a lot more work. That is why many times more Christmas trees are planted in the US annually than harvested. Assuming that the ground is wet at planting and that it rains enough shortly thereafter, the main problem is controlling competing plants other than the Christmas trees. Small trees are quickly over-topped by resurgent brush or grass. Most Maine growers rely more heavily on chemical means. By contrast, Hope growers control competing vegetation principally by mechanical means. Locally, the main chemical use is simazine to kill grasses around very young seedlings that would otherwise retard their growth or even kill them by competition.

Once trees are tall enough to fend for themselves, mowing the competition is mainly a matter of not losing the field. The main cultural practice, and the most labor-intensive task, becomes pruning. Pruning is sometimes by swinging a long, very sharp, machete-like knife to cut off outliers and give the tree a conical shape. But not all of the pruning objectives can be achieved by knife. Customers like Christmas trees to have a single, straight top -- something that frequently does not happen naturally. Top pruning with hand clippers achieves this result. Hand clippers are also used to correct other "defects" in what has become an ornamental shrub. Trees are usually also butt pruned to give them a "handle" that will fit into the Christmas tree stand. In Hope, Christmas trees do all of their growing between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Pruning may take place any time after that.

Balsam fir has remained the predominant Christmas tree in Hope, and in the rest of Maine. It has fewer disease problems than other Christmas tree species and is relatively easy to prune. Some diseases, such as witch's broom, can be controlled by pruning them out. Others, like balsam twig aphid when it is severe, can be controlled only by spraying. Still others, like balsam shoot fly, cannot be controlled at all.

At present, the only other Christmas tree species grown in Hope is white spruce. Despite their bad reputation in Maine, the Joneses discovered a niche market for "cat" spruce in Washington DC. They are particularly prized by middle Europeans (Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Belgians, Netherlanders, Danes), probably because they are the closest they can come locally to the black spruce they use for Christmas trees at home. Mainers at the DC sale, Joneses, Nashes, Morses, or Tripps, are strictly forbidden to say cat or skunk. Each year, customers ask for a tree like the "wonderful smelling" one they got last year. Directed to the balsam, if they fail to respond, they are directed to the "even more aromatic" white spruce.

Disease is more of a problem in white spruce than in balsam fir. The most serious disease is spruce gall. The Hardys must have once marketed spruce Christmas trees; Anna Hardy (1918- -) recounts how customers admired the "cunning little cones" and she hadn't the heart to tell them that they were galls. Trees with a light infestation are salable, but heavier infestation weakens the tree and must have been the problem that Charlie Brown's tree had. Spruce gall can be contained, if you are lucky, by spraying. Another serious white spruce disease is white pine weevil, which attacks spruce leaders if no pine is available. Leaderless spruce eventually recover. The winning white spruce Christmas tree at Union Fair is usually one that has lost its leader at least once to white pine weevil. Control is by individual spraying.

Three species were formerly grown for Christmas trees in Hope. Guilford Payson used to grow Douglas fir on Payson Path and sold them to the Joneses, among others. Douglas fir is subject to needle drop, a virus and, like human viruses, practically untreatable. The Joneses, who bought Payson's Christmas tree operation, regretfully had all of the remaining Douglas fir, heavily infected with needle drop, felled and burned.

Various local farmers used to grow Scotch pine, a European native, for Christmas trees. These have had disease problems here, though not any more so than in the major Scotch pine growing areas in Pennsylvania and New York. The problem for this species in Maine is that we have no particular advantage, as we do for balsam fir , but a geographic (and therefore economic) disadvantage. Very few local people like Scotch pine for a Christmas tree, so they have to be shipped a long way, where they compete with closer sources. Moreover, there is already overproduction of Scotch pine Christmas trees in their primary growing region. And, demand is shifting away from the pines. All of these factors depress ex-farm prices, even for good-quality trees, to the point where growing them is no longer interesting.

Bill Hardy introduced concolor fir, which proved extremely popular. It has few disease problems. The closest relative of balsam fir, it holds its needles extremely well. Some of these were marketed through the Joneses. The concolor's problem in Maine (and that of the Douglas fir too) is that our springs are far less predictable than springs in their native habitat. When signs of spring appear, concolor and Douglas break bud; native balsam firs and white spruces are wiser and wait. About one year in four, a late, hard frost hits the open concolor and Douglas buds, with visible results. When Gwyneth Jones (1978- -) was about 5 and trying to meet a customer's request, she asked, "Mommy, what's the name of the tree with the frizzy hair?" Not everyone appreciates this frost-damage effect on concolor fir. The Joneses now get their Douglas fir, Scotch pine and concolor fir in Pennsylvania.

Most growers now fertilize Christmas trees. Trees will grow with the soil's natural fertility. However, trees generally have to struggle on natural fertility. As a result, they are less dense. In balsam fir, the difference is obvious in the needles. If the tree is happy, getting the nutrients it wants, its needles are slightly longer. More remarkably though, they cover three or four sides of the branchlets; balsams struggling on insufficient nutrients will have only a row or two of needles on each side. So, most growers top-dress with nitrogen and phosphate fertilizer just before Memorial Day, when the trees start growing. Some, the Joneses included, also top-dress nitrogen in September in hopes of strengthening the roots and darkening the green of the trees' color. The benefits of late fertilizer application are not yet established. The trees are indifferent as to the source of their N2 or P2O5. The Joneses use urea, a natural product made from atmospheric nitrogen that is 23 times as potent as manure, and ammonium phosphate, made from Polk County, Florida phosphate rock and which also contains nitrogen. In Hope, fertilizer is applied by dragging sacks of fertilizer to the field, mixing as required, carrying the fertilizer from tree to tree on a bucket, and spreading it by hand around the drip line of the tree.

In September through November, when the year's growth is over and the trees have started to harden off, they are surveyed for possible harvest and tagged. Pruning mistakes can sometimes be corrected. Harvest takes place as close as possible to Christmas to assure freshness but certainly after the first hard frost to assure good needle retention. (Maine's southern competitors have sometimes not had a hard freeze by harvest time, with disastrous results when their Christmas trees get into warm living rooms!) Tagged trees are felled by chain saw. They are carried to the steel-funnel bailer, which is equipped with plastic netting. If they are small or medium, they can be pulled through; larger ones have to be winched. The purpose is to save volume during transportation. Then they are loaded onto trucks for transportation to market.

At present, only one commercial Christmas tree farm remains in Hope. It exports about 10 tons of Christmas trees, wreaths and other greenery a year, mostly balsam fir (in which Maine has an absolute advantage) in two truck loads. Two Hope families that have not previously grown Christmas trees are considering planting them.

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For a series of pictures showing the harvesting of Christmas trees in the 2008 season click here.

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