By Bruce Stambaugh
Larry and Jan Coldwell, of rural Killbuck, Ohio, have been selling Christmas trees for 24 years. Area families were sad to learn that this year was their last.
“This decision has been harder than when I retired from teaching,” Larry said. Coldwell taught at Killbuck Elementary School until 2006.
“Growing Christmas trees was a hobby that got out of control,” Larry said. “We started selling a few, word spread, and it became an annual business.”
Both Larry and Jan said it would be difficult to end the business because of the relationships that have developed over the years. They have never advertised their trees for sale, yet were as busy as they wanted to be since 1987.
Larry said he began planting Scotch and White pine trees for wildlife and conservation purposes in 1981. When someone asked if those trees were for sale in December 1987, the Christmas tree selling began.
Since then, scores of people returned year after year to pick out their own tree. Of course, Larry accompanied them up the steep hillsides to help cut the tree.
“I kept a written record of who bought what species every year,” Larry said. Over time, he realized he had to expand his offerings as customers’ tastes changed.
“People were looking for more than just pines,” Larry said. With the help of his family, Larry planted several varieties of conifers, including 12 different kinds of fir.
Larry said the first two weeks of December were always the busiest for selling trees. People would even come tag their trees ahead of time in order to pick just the right tree, he explained.
“If they came the third week in December,” Larry said, “color was more important than shape, fragrance, density or needle texture.”
Friendly folks that they are, Larry and Jan both said that they would miss the annual interaction with their customers.
“I got to be a pretty good photographer,” Larry said. “People wanted a family picture with the tree they chose.” He said he recently took a family picture of four generations who had cut Christmas trees. The youngest in the photo was a toddler.
As their three children grew and left home, all the year-round work of maintaining and preparing the trees for sale at Christmas simply became too much for the couple.
“It’s a very labor intensive enterprise,” Larry said. “Growing trees on steep hillsides eliminated the possibility of mechanical farming.”
During the growing season, Larry fertilized, sprayed and trimmed the trees, plus he mowed between the rows. Jan pitched in with hours of weed eating.
Larry credits his late father, Loren, for his avid interest in conservation.
“Dad loved the out-of-doors,” Larry said.
Over the years, the Coldwells have received letters, cards of thanks along with pictures of customers’ trees. Some trees were even cut when no one was home, but they never had trouble with people stealing trees.
“We would find money in our mailbox, between the doors and some even brought money to school to pay for trees they had cut while we were away,” Larry said.
“It’s not the money that we will miss,” Larry said. “It’s the people.”
Larry will continue to operate his certified 113-acre tree farm and be an active board member of the Killbuck Valley Landowners Association. Jan is a nurse at Walnut Hills Nursing Home in Walnut Creek, Ohio.