Some of you may be aware from my ramblings over the last seven years as a Western agricultural journalist that my family - the Blake family - has deep roots in the Christmas tree business.
The Edward and Charlotte Blake family started a ‘You Cut’ Christmas tree operation on the family farm in 1961 near Pocahontas, Miss., about 20 miles northwest of the capitol city of Jackson. Until the tree farm closed five years ago due to health issues, the Blake farm was Mississippi’s oldest Christmas tree farm.
My father Ed worked full-time as the public relations director for the Mississippi Farm Bureau in Jackson for 37 years. On the weekends and sometimes weekday evenings, Dad, Mom, and their five children were Christmas tree farmers. Growing beautiful trees was a year round job, but we loved every minute of it.
Young seedlings were planted during the cold winter months. I would use a 5-foot long, foot-based tool called a dibble to open a 6-8 inch-deep hole in the ground. Mom would insert the tree, pushing the roots downward. I would place the dibble into the ground behind the seedling and then use my boot heal to push the soil around the seedling to tuck it in and protect it.
Tree planting often occurred in freezing temperatures. Too often, the winter sky opened up dropping ice cold buckets of water on us. The rain was great for the trees, but froze the tree farmers.
The Blakes grew two main tree varieties in the early years – the Eastern red cedar and Arizona cypress. In the later years, Virginia pine and several other pine varieties were added.
We could grow a 6-foot Christmas tree in just three to five years; pretty remarkable in the Christmas tree business. Christmas trees grown in the northern states require at least twice that due to colder temperatures and different varieties.
Dad mostly used natural means to combat insects but sometimes had no choice but to spray an insecticide. It was either spray the tree or lose it.
We actually lost more trees from the lack of rain than anything else. A 50-percent seedling loss a year after planting from a dry summer was not uncommon.
Our farm was strictly a ‘U Cut’ operation, where families drove to the farm to cut a tree. Mom stayed at home to give people directions to the farm over the phone.
Dad and his brood met the families in search of the perfect Christmas tree at the farm gate. We walked them to several tree plots, handed them a saw, and left them alone to search for their perfect Christmas tree.
Sometimes a few trees grew up to be far from perfect due to weather and other factors; trees that only Charlie Brown would like. It was amazing how many people picked those imperfect trees, verbally noting the Charlie Brown-looking tree, and then proudly cut it down as their family’s special unique Christmas tree.
The Blake farm was much more than the U Cut operation. Mom suggested to families to bring a picnic lunch and sit on a hillside overlooking the tree plots or find an area in the hilly woods to enjoy the outdoors and their family, amid God’s beautiful, scenic, landscape.
We also had a few tall oak trees with mistletoe in the tops. Dad would climb a long latter with saw in hand and pick the perfect branch. With the fresh mistletoe in their hands, young and not-as-young couples always held the mistletoe over each other’s heads, paused, and then kissed.
Holly trees, complete with beautiful red berries, were located near the plots. There was usually a line of people waiting for fresh-cut holly sprigs.
Dad always had a fire going up by the log cabin, usually tended and stoked by me. I directed folks’ eye to the ground around the fire area to find their ‘magical sticks.’ Marshmallows were then handed out, put on the sticks, and then held over the fire.
Everyone was so quiet, completely mesmerized by the magical flames and the fire’s crackling roar. They were all in sync with nature.
This was part of our family’s goal for our guests - to educate people on the importance of the outdoors and agriculture. After the marshmallow roasts, Dad would take the kids for a short hike with the parents in tow.
He asked the kids where their food comes from, and yes, most of them said the grocery store. He talked about the cotton field next to our farm and how cotton farmers grow cotton to make clothes for us to wear.
He also talked about the corn fields near the farm and how corn is fed to cattle to produce meat for hamburgers to fill our bellies and sustain the body.
As the Christmas tree adventure neared closure, the families pulled the trees to their cars. Dad would stand the tree upright and bring out the festive measuring stick. It was 8-feet tall and each foot on the stick was painted either red or green. If the tree was 6 and a half feet tall, it was a 6-foot tree in our books.
In the early years, the charge per foot of tree was 50 cents. A six-foot fresh Christmas tree cost just $3, plus the costs of any mistletoe or holly. The marshmallow roast and walk through the woods was free; just a chance for farmers to inform city dwellers about where their food supply came from and the importance of trees in the world.
A few of the Blake’s largest trees were destined for much larger places. For many years, the State of Mississippi sent officials and flatbed trailers and cranes to our farm to seek the perfect Christmas trees for the State Capitol building, the Governor’s Mansion, and other state office buildings.
Once the best large trees were found (usually 30-60 feet tall), state employees attached the crane to the top part of the tree. Chainsaws buzzed, sawdust flew in mass. It was quite a sight to see the trees carefully lifted and maneuvered to the resting places on the flatbeds where they were laid down and tucked in.
We were proud Christmas tree growers as the semis pulled out at sunset in route to Jackson.
Christmas time is especially important to me for these reasons and many more. For me, none are as important as the birth of Jesus.
This is my Christmas story and I’m sticking to it.
Merry Christmas to all! We are all so blessed.