The "perfect tree" gets a little harder to find
In 1967, when I could still count my age on one hand, my dad and uncle Jim, who had farmed together their entire lives, decided to try growing Christmas trees. Knowing that at least some of their children (in time, they would each have five!) would want to go to college, they thought that adding a little "side-business" might bring in the extra cash needed for those tuition bills. That first year they bought a farm with a few trees already growing on it, and planted 5 acres of seedlings, or about 5000 trees. And the rest, as they say, is history.Tree farm memories during my formative years are some of my fondest. Scotch and white pines were lined up around the barn and the fence of the family pool, and we sold them to people from our local community. They ranged from about $5-15. We would stand watch, looking out Mom's sewing room window on cold winter nights, and yell "There's a customer!" when we saw the headlights shine on the yard. Then one of us kids or Mom or Dad would take turns running outside to take care of those in search of the "perfect tree." Kingma's Christmas Tree Farm was a small, humble business. But it grew.
When I was about 15, in one of my more creative moments, I decided to make my mom a wreath using some scrap tree boughs, a metal ring and some wire. I added a red bow, and presented it with pride to my mom. She loved it! And Dad, being the businessman he always was, saw an opportunity for a money-making venture. He suggested I make a few more and sell them out by the trees. I made five more wreaths, each of which sold for $10, and I was feeling quite rich! My dad started researching wreath-making machines, purchased the necessary equipment and supplies, and the next season we added a full-fledged wreath-making operation to the then-growing tree business.Eventually (in 1984), as they looked to the future provision for their families, Dad and Uncle Jim decided to split the farm up. Uncle Jim continued his tree business in the neighboring town of Wheatfield, while my Dad stayed on the DeMotte farm. Both farms flourished.In the following years, Dad added "cut-your-own" trees along with hayrides out to the field. He and my brother Jon, who was now farming with Dad, bought more equipment to make the customer's experience even better. The dead needles could be shaken from the tree on the new tree-shaker, trees were sent through the baler for easy hauling, and a hole could be drilled in the trunk to allow the tree to fit easily onto the spike of the "Easy Tree Stand," which were also sold on the farm.
In 1987, my mom and sister Phyllis realized a long-held dream of theirs with the opening of "The Holly Shop." They sold gifts, angels, ornaments, tree and home decor, and other goodies. In addition to wreaths and the Holly Shop, the "perfect tree" experience was made even more perfect with hot cider, hot chocolate, and peanuts-in-the shell. There were even surprise visits from Santa over the years!
When my brother Jon married Diane and they moved into the big old white farmhouse, Diane also became an integral part of the business. She assisted in, and later ran "The Holly Shop," and also was a "ring-leader" along with Phyllis in the wreath room, which eventually grew to an operation that required the hands of twelve wreath-making ladies which cranked out thousands of wreaths each year, many for school and church group fundraisers. Mom, our expert bow-maker, made hundreds of gorgeous bows by hand each year for the wreaths sold on the farm, or to fill some “extra-special” orders.
Dad and Mom were kept busy every summer attending Midwest, State, and National tree meetings. Dad had become a dealer for shearing knives and other types of tree equipment, which he displayed and sold at conventions. In addition to attending tree meetings, spring and summer was the time of caring for the trees to ready them for the following season.
Each spring, new seedlings were planted. Since it takes about seven years for a tree to be full grown, it took some planning as Dad and Jon tried to forecast the number of trees that might be needed seven years down the road.
In early June, the trees were trimmed. I have fond memories of hanging out with big crews of kids (my siblings, cousins and our high school friends) for a couple weeks each summer...sweating and getting sunburnt in the tree field all day, and then getting rewarded with a splash in the pool afterwards. Later, this job would be passed on to the next generation, as my own kids and nieces and nephews would join other community kids in the task of trimming the trees, and the fun of splashing in the pool. In August, the trees that would be ready for cutting in the coming fall, were tagged and sprayed.
The trees at Kingma’s eventually gained their own notoriety as well, as Dad was asked more than once to provide the tree for the Indiana Governor’s mansion. He brought trees to offices of senators and representatives in the Indiana State Capitol building, and also sent a tree to former Vice President Dan Quayle’s office in Washington, D.C. As a way of “giving back,” Dad sent twenty trees each year for ten years to our military families overseas as part of the “Trees for Troops” program.
Over the years, Dad's dream of sending his kids to college came true. But his dream grew into so much more. The tree business had become a huge part of his overall farming operation, which also included crop farming of corn and soybeans. And while the tree business added an extra-specialness to the season for our family, it also added an incredible amount of work. Dad and Mom, along with Phyllis and her girls, and Jon and Diane and their kids, often worked from dawn to dusk throughout most of November and December. Dad made wholesale deliveries all over the midwest that often required him to get on the road before 3:00 a.m. The Saturdays between Thanksgiving and Christmas came to be an all-out production, as up to 250 trees were sold to customers who came from all around, often as far as Chicago, all intent on continuing their family tradition of cutting their own "perfect tree" at Kingma's Christmas Tree Farm.
Fast-forward to 2017. My Dad is 83. He loves to be out on the farm interacting with the customers and working with the trees. But his endurance and balance aren't what they used to be. My mom has Alzheimer's and Dad needs to check on her frequently, and help out with housework and meals. My brother took over most aspects of the grain farming in 2000, which in itself is a full-time job. Several years ago, after much soul-searching and debate, Jon and Diane, as well as my sister Phyllis, decided that continuing the tree business was not something they were prepared to manage once Mom and Dad were out of it. With the future closing of the business in mind, they stopped planting new trees a few years ago.
It has been fifty years since those first trees were planted with the hopes they might send a few kids to college. Fifty years of planting, trimming, tagging, spraying, cutting and selling. Nearly that many years of wreaths, decor, gifts and other goodies.
This year is the last year that Kingma's Christmas Tree Farm will be open for business.
If strength is in numbers, then this was a strong business. Eventually, my Dad had over 200 acres of scotch and white pine as well as Fraser Firs. During peak years, one season would bring the sale of over 4,000 wreaths, many for fundraisers, over 10,000 trees wholesale, and another 1,200 retail on the farm. Making some very rough estimates I figure that over the years, my dad likely sold over 300,000 trees, and 100,000 wreaths. Yes...the numbers tell a story of strength and success. But they don't tell the whole story.They don't tell the story of those who have spent a cold and snowy (or warm and sunny) day in November or December every year for many years, out on the farm making memories. The families excitedly riding on the hay bales behind the huge tractor...kids romping through the rows of trees to help pick out that "perfect" one...dad getting down on his knees with the saw and yelling "timber" just before it falls...young men getting to saw the tree down for the first time...mom snapping photos for her scrapbook...young couples getting a tree for their first Christmas together...meeting Santa...eating peanuts in the shell...drinking hot cocoa. Kids whose eyes light up with the magic of it all.
One of those kids was me. And then one of those kids was one of my kids. The magic of the tradition lives on from generation to generation.
Kingma's Christmas Tree Farm has been making magical memories and carrying on traditions for so many people, for so many years. It will be hard to say good-bye. There ARE other tree farms out there (or so I've heard anyway...never visited one myself!), and those in search of the "perfect tree" may have to search for a while to find it, but I'm pretty sure they'll ultimately discover it. And they might also find a slightly new and different tradition in the process. And that's okay...we hope they do.
From all the Kingmas...a HUGE thank-you to all who have made the past 50 years something really special.