Thursday, December 24, 2009

Oh, Christmas Tree!

Oh, Christmas Tree! Oh, Christmas Tree!
Thy leaves ar
e so unchanging.
Not only green when summer's here,
But also when 'tis cold and drear.
Oh, Christmas Tree! Oh, Christmas Tree!
How richly God has decked thee!

This post is a tribute to our Dad and Mom - who with great foresight, devotion and hard work - created a Johnstone family Christmas tree tradition that will be remembered by many for years to come. After 45 years, the business is winding down. But Angie is ensuring that a small plantation is maintained up north by the cabin to provide trees for family and friends for years to come.

We have asked our "guest blogger", D
ave, to write the tribute. Kathryn Johnstone Grafsgaard

By Dave:

I got in on the tradition of the Johnstone Christmas tree business about a decade ago. The only reason I’m writing this post is because the sisters handmade are still hand making for the people who decide to order Christmas gifts at the last minute, or for their own gift-giving needs.

A few times on the way back from deer camp I would stop and help cut trees on the Johnstone tree farm adjoining the house, and at the property "Up North". Glen had carefully marked the trees so a knucklehead like me didn’t cut the wrong one. At the time, these trees were shuttled over to Glen’s Tire, where they were sold in the parking lot. Several times a season a run needed to be made Up North to grab a few more trees to restock the homemade wagon wheel tree stands at the tire store. Glen is not a guy to give up on a vehicle and on one such trip the hood latch broke at 60mph on Hwy 65. We just pulled over, yanked the hood down, and wired it to the bumper. No big deal.

When the trees got to Mora and were purchased, the dead needles were shaken off in Glen’s invention, the Rube Goldberg-like ‘Shake-O-Matic’, a contraption into which the trunk was inserted into, the unit switched on, and then shook the hell out of the tree. Lots of people in Mora and the surrounding area bought their trees from Glen and probably more people, including the Catholic Church, were given trees. Glen and Jean,being very charitable folks, have often given trees to those who stop by right before Christmas after likely spending most of their limited funds on gifts for their family. This is a labor of love for them.

The tree planting began in the early ‘60s. Margie, daughter 2, remembers trips Up North with her little girlfriends to walk behind Glen during planting and stomp the seedlings in. Once they are planted they need to be sheared in the heat of the summer. With the heat, humidity, and a mosquito or two (thousand) this is not the most popular part of the Christmas tree business. Daughter Angie has stepped up over the years for this thankless task and as a result the trees always looked great. Angie continues her tireless efforts to help manage the plantation.

Thanksgiving weekend each year marks the beginning of the cutting. Kathy, the eldest, remembers being stuck under a pine tree in the snow Up North and told to keep an eye on her younger sisters, of which there were only a couple at the time, while Glen went off to cut trees. She figures she was about five years old at the time.

I was supposed to arrive for cutting one Saturday morning at 9am to help Glen and Angie’s hubby Paul. I rolled in to the tire store at around 9:45 and when they asked me what the holdup had been, I told them I had stopped by the house and was filled in on the morning plan by Angie. Knowing nods and the remark that ‘in that case I was right on time’ followed.

The idea to sell Christmas trees was initially to make a few extra bucks for Christmas presents for the rapidly expanding Johnstone clan. The first trees sold for a buck in 1964. In 2008 dollars a buck would be about $7.50 so tree costs have not outpaced the Consumer Price Index by much. Jean’s main job was as the ‘tree twirler’. The tree needed to be spun around so the discerning prospective buyer could make sure the entire tree fit the space and d├ęcor in their house. Of course most guys would just head down and buy the first tree they see without paying much attention, much less requesting a ‘twirl'. Many of them would be back shortly with a sheepish look on their face after being ripped by the missus, and instructed a bit more specifically on what they needed to look for. You can bet these guys asked for a twirl.

David, 5th kid in the clan, now owns Glen's Tire - and has contributed a great deal to the sales at the 'shop'. Living the closest to home, he has always been loyal and 'on call' for the tree business - often offering the services of his great employees in a pinch. Mark, the 9th 'kid' in the family, being a tree guy and lumber professional - is 'jack of all trades', and is always around to lend a hand. Tess, Anner and Erik offer moral support from Colorado and when back in Minnesota are sure to be Up North surveying and enjoying the land.

There are lots of great stories! One memorable incident occurred when an over the road trucker, deadheading home, cut a ‘Charlie Brown’ tree from the side of the road. When he noticed the beautiful trees at Glen’s Tire as he rolled down Hwy 23, he figured he better stop and get a decent one to avoid any marital criticism when he arrived home. Unfortunately he was tapped out, no money. Jean gave him the tree and wished him a merry Christmas. On his next run through Mora he stopped and paid her for the tree.

Over the years many folks were given trees and a number of trees were delivered right to people’s home, a mission that I’ve participated in a few times. One time a customer was looking for a specific size and type of tree and the perfect tree was growing right in the front yard of the Johnstone home. Glen cut er’ down and the customer went off with a tree and a great story as well.

A few years back a new priest arrived in Mora after doing a stint in Africa. He was so pumped about the snow and winter that he insisted in heading Up North with Glen to cut down two perfectly matched trees for the front of St Mary’s Catholic Church. The duo made this trip an annual event for a few years.

Since 1964 there have been thousands of trees planted, sheared, pruned, cut, shaken, sold, and enjoyed by families in countless homes, businesses and places of worship all over the Mora area and beyond. A tree always made it back to North Dakota on the roof of Kathy's car on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It was tradition! She and two tired little boys would set it up quickly Sunday night - ready to decorate during the week.

As I sit and type this post I’m looking at and smelling a perfect white pine, my favorite tree on the planet, that came from Glen and Jean’s land. Its hard to overstate all the hard work that went into the trees but as I look at our white pine (large retro colored lights that we had when I was a kid, by the way) I have to figure it was worth it. If you think of all the folks that have experienced the same enjoyment that we are over the years, the people that bought or were given trees, it has to make Glen and Jean smile just a little bit inside. It was a great run.


  1. I remember pruning trees with my sister's Barbara, Mark, Angela, and Danny. I do remember pruning in those hot temps in June with Ang mostly. We transitioned from pruning shearers to machetes in the late 70's, early 80's. I remember ALMOST losing my left middle finger when sister Barbara was pruning on the same tree as me. This happened right after my Dad told us not to prune on the same tree. I thought he would take me to the hospital but he tore off his undershirt and wrapped it up. Tess

  2. That was nice! I enjoyed helping out with the trees last year, everytime I get the opportunity to vist Mora and the Johnstone home it is always memorable. Merry Christmas!