Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A trimmed Christmas tree in 1939. © Dorothy Cassoday

A trimmed Christmas tree in 1939.
© Dorothy Cassoday

December 2014

Back in the day

Kathryn A. Kahler

Like everything else, holiday traditions have changed a lot since my childhood. For our family, picking out a Christmas tree meant hiking into the woods near our home. A far cry from today's perfectly shaped cultivars, the naturally–grown, long–needled pines we dragged back home had irregular branches and gaping holes. The purpose of decorating was to fill those gaps with as much stuff as possible. Younger siblings pasted strips of red and green construction paper into seemingly miles of chains, while those who could be trusted with darning needles, strung sturdy thread through popcorn and cranberries. The much awaited final step, of course, was the tinsel. Back then, the dazzling, pencil–thin strips were actually made of metallic foil and great care was needed to hang it piece by piece to look like real icicles. The process always began with great precision, then lapsed — along with our attention span — into flinging handfuls in the air in hopes it stuck to the tree.

As holiday decorating has changed, so has the Christmas tree industry. In the early 1900s, most Christmas trees in American homes were cut from naturally reseeded forests. Gradually, entrepreneurs realized it made more sense to plant trees than to harvest them from forests, and tree farms sprouted across the country. Consumers became choosier, preferring the perfect pyramids achieved by shearing to the more natural trees of the past. Now, over 350,000 acres of land in the United States are devoted to Christmas tree production in all but five states.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), Wisconsin ranks fifth in production and the most common species grown include balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, Scotch pine and white pine. The central sands region of the state is home to the largest concentration of Christmas trees, grown in huge tracts of 50,000 trees or more.

That's where the Kirk Company — centered in Tacoma, Wash., but with plantations across the northern United States and Canada — began purchasing deserted farms in 1953, eventually spanning more than 10,000 acres in its "Wautoma plantation." These photos from November 1964 show workers loading trees onto trucks and boxcars for shipment to markets in the Midwest and beyond.

As the Christmas tree industry evolved, the market for natural trees declined due to oversupply and a rise in popularity of artificial trees. Statistics kept by the NCTA from 2006 through 2012 show a decline in real tree purchases (28.6 million to 24.5 million) and an increase in artificial trees (9.3 million to 10.9 million).

The real versus fake debate flares up this time every year and each side has its merits. Artificial trees are convenient, come with their own lights and don't shed needles. But real trees can be cut locally and aren't made overseas. Best of all, they have that unmatchable aroma that pairs so well with fresh baked apple pie and cinnamon. It's your choice, but maybe this is the year to start, or bring back, a family tradition.

Kathryn A. Kahler is an editorial writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.