Industry of Trees

Despite this year's damaging drought, the local Christmas tree business rolls ever onward

About 500 years ago, the Germanic pagan custom of decorating evergreens in celebration of the winter solstice transformed into a Christian tradition. By the 1800s the practice had spread across Europe and into the United States, and be it Fraser fir or faux fir, the Christmas tree has become an immutable element of holiday festivities in American households. That's why today you'll find yourself driving slowly along Clinton Highway in a desperate search for the perfect tree to adorn your living room carpet with pine needles. And each season, a small local industry kicks into gear to help you do just that.

A short drive out to Corryton will bring prospective buyers to House Mountain Christmas Tree Farm where families have been coming for years to cut down their own tree and strap it to the tops of their sedans for the drive back home. The farm has 20 acres of White Pines, Virginia Pines, and other popular varieties that will grow at this elevation, and though this year's drought has been particularly hard on the coppice, business has been strong.

"We try to make it an experience instead of just a ‘going to buy a tree' event," says Zach Henry, owner and operator of the farm. "We encourage as many people who will, to come and cut their own tree. They come and they bring their family. Since we have a large piece of land the children seem to enjoy just playing in the field."

There's more room than usual this year. Henry counted about 200 trees that didn't survive the months of dry weather and therefore had to be cut down. There are also several others whose fates are still undetermined, and if they do survive, Henry says he expects it to take several years before they are back to Christmas tree quality.

"The weather was very disastrous to us," he says. This was the second year new sprouts were unable to survive. The 2006 summer was bad, but the 2007 summer was devastating.

Trees on the farm grow about a foot a year, so a five-foot tree takes half a decade in the ground, which still hasn't been soaked enough for a healthy crop. Henry says some families like to have the roots balled so the trees can be replanted after Christmas, but the current soil conditions have made that practice more difficult. The taller trees at House Mountain Christmas Tree Farm are 15 or more years old, with the smaller trees as young as four or five years old.

"There are a lot of people who come each evening," he says. "We help them find a tree in the dark."

In Fountain City, across Broadway from the former Target building, Chuck's Tree Forest offers Christmas tree shoppers an opportunity to buy the most popular variety of holiday evergreen, the Fraser fir, without taking the drive to the upper elevations of the Appalachian Mountains necessary for the trees to grow.

Charles Rader and Deborah Reagan, of Knoxville, create a forest of precut trees by bringing them down from a farm in the mountains of Ashe County, North Carolina. Though they stock a few White Pines, most customers prefer the Fraser fir, Reagan says.

"The branches of them hold ornaments a whole lot better, and they're a softer needle," she says. They were also nervous about repercussions from the dry weather, but business has been good for them this season.

Trees at the pseudo-forest range in age from short two-year-old trees to the average five or six-year-old tree or older. They range in price from $15 for a very small tree to around $100 for the taller ones.

After Christmas at Chuck's they have a few unwanted trees picked up by the Knoxville Zoo to be used with the larger animals, Reagan says. And some are taken by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to be used in area lakes as fish beds. Elsewhere, they often get thrown in with the garbage, pitched into a nearby forest, or maybe taken to a tree recycling center. Others of the artificial type are merely folded up in a box and taken back to the garage. Reagan says people have different reasons for choosing a real tree over a fake tree—mostly just family traditions.

"Everybody tells me they like the smell," she says. "It's just really a personal preference."

Cindy Yarbrough, of Fountain City, was browsing the selection of trees at Chuck's recently, considering the purchase of a live tree this year. She used an artificial tree once and says she didn't care for it.

"It doesn't replace the real thing," says Yarbrough, who was raised with real trees as a child. "As a kid, the bigger the better."

Chuck's has some trees that top the 10-foot mark, which may not fit in most people's living rooms, but can be a nice addition to a breezeway or back porch.

"I've had several people come in and say they have artificial trees at their houses, but also want a real tree," Reagan says.

"I'm allergic to a lot of the stuff they have on trees," says Lisa Kitts, of the Halls community, who suffers from asthma and thus requires an artificial tree. "I can leave it up a lot longer. I put mine up the day after Thanksgiving."

Real Christmas trees may have been around for 500 years, but a good aluminum tree can last even longer.