Time Machine

Time Machine: Iowa Christmas tree growers organized 65 years ago to guarantee holiday greenery

Gary Hughes of Cedar Rapids carries the family's Christmas tree to the family car Dec. 7, 1984, after cutting it at the
Gary Hughes of Cedar Rapids carries the family’s Christmas tree to the family car Dec. 7, 1984, after cutting it at the Hoffman Tree Farm on C Avenue north of Cedar Rapids. (Gazette archives)
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Christmas trees were first sold commercially in the United States in the 1850s. The trees were chopped down in forests and sold from metropolitan tree lots.

By 1911, trees suitable for home use were becoming scarce, according to a Gazette article.

When teams of wood cutters invaded Wisconsin forests weeks before the holiday to cut trees, they found most of the smaller trees gone. So they cut down larger trees, taking just the tops to sell.

As a result, northern forests were becoming depleted.

“The merchants say that the cutting down of trees in the northern pineries evidently must be stopped in a short time,” The Gazette story said. “The merchants say that trees must be planted by the nursery men, men who will devote all of their time to growing trees for the Christmas trade.”

Of course, the nursery trees cost a lot more than those grown in nature, but the “growing of Christmas trees by the nursery men is inevitable.”

Tony Naso was one of Cedar Rapids’ largest dealers in Christmas trees in 1913. He brought his trees into town from a Scotch Grove nursery in Jones County.

Growth of tree farms

Over the next 40 years, Christmas tree farms became more common. In 1955, growers organized a national association of Christmas tree growers, with state associations following.

The commercial growing of trees was expanding in Iowa in 1957, when Martin Craine, a forester for Iowa State University Extension, talked about how Iowa-grown trees would be fresher than those imported into the state. He also tried to stop the practice of cutting off the tops of windbreak evergreens, saying the practice stopped the trees’ growth and deformed the trees.

By 1958, Craine reported 89 Iowans, in the previous 10 years, had planted 700,000 Christmas trees on 517 acres in 38 counties. It takes six to 12 years to grow trees mature enough to sell, he said, adding that 11 Iowa-grown tree crops were mature enough to sell in 1957.

Iowa association

The Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association got its start in June 1963 at the Town House Motel at 4747 First Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids.

Twenty-three growers attended, and nine were selected to draw up a constitution, bylaws and articles of incorporation, the Ames Tribune reported.

“The object of setting up such an organization is to promote the production and sale of Iowa-grown Christmas trees and to standardize grades of trees to provide the consumer with a quality product,” the story said.

The association’s next official meeting was June 6, 1964, in the Yellow River State Forest in the northeast corner of Iowa.

Norman Hansen of Drakesville, the organization’s first president, laid out the program topics: weed control, shearing and shaping trees, and where to get seeds for Scotch pines. Everyone was asked to bring their own lunch, since no restaurants were on site.

The 200-plus growers at the meeting were encouraged and guided by ISU foresters to take advantage of the home market. The two most popular trees for Christmas use then were Scotch pine and red pine. Next came Austrian and white pines.

Forester James H. Gottsacker encouraged growers to keep up on their weeding and to shape and shear their trees annually after the second growing season.

Choose and cut

Most Iowa Christmas tree farms are classified as “choose-and-harvest,” meaning customers wander through the fields of trees, choose the tree they want and cut it down themselves. As trees are harvested, more are planted to replace them.

Walter Hagen started a 4-acre Christmas tree farm in 1957 on his 370-acre farm in Allamakee County in northeast Iowa. He also planted a test site with 18 varieties of evergreens. In 1965, he hosted the tree association’s summer meeting in July.

In the 1970s, one of the largest cut-your-own tree farms in Eastern Iowa was the Hoffman tree farm, 2 miles north of the Bowman Woods neighborhood in northeast Cedar Rapids. Other Eastern Iowa tree farms were in Monona, Iowa City, Manchester, Scotch Grove, Decorah and Waukon.

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In 1988, Iowa had 120 Christmas tree growers, and in 1992, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship published a directory of 123 choose-and-cut tree farms.

In 2020, about 100 tree farms are in Iowa, covering more than 1,500 acres, according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and the Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association website.

The National Christmas Tree Association says Americans buy between 27 million and 33 million live Christmas trees each year.

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