O Tannenbaum

Christmas wreaths line a fence along the property of Meister Trees, a family run tree farm located in Marquette County

Christmas wreaths line a fence along the property of Meister Trees, a family run tree farm located in Marquette County

by Jim Pennell

Unless you live in a cave, or off the grid in the deep woods, you are virtually guaranteed of seeing at least one Christmas tree a day from now until the end of the year. Whether it is in a television commercial, a retail store, on a postage stamp or a Christmas card, a billboard, a sweater, a cookie or in your own home, the image of a decorated evergreen has become iconic for the holiday season. The custom of decorating a tree is one of the oldest Christmas traditions and has outlasted Yule logs, sugar plums and a-wassailing, but unfortunately, not fruitcake.

The tradition began in Germany around the sixteenth century. Early Christmas trees were decorated with fruit, nuts and candles. The invention of electricity made the tradition much safer and glass ornaments, tinsel, garland and popcorn replaced fruits and nuts.

Not only is the decorating of a tree a family tradition, the growing of Christmas trees also seems to be something that stays in a family. George Meister, of Meister Trees, is a third-generation tree farmer and learned the craft at a young age from his grandfather.

“The farm that we’re on, my grandpa bought and built and started it up in 1955,” Meister said. “After that, he started doing Christmas trees. My parents had Meister’s Greenhouses, so I grew up, between my grandpa and my parents, always being involved in Christmas trees. When I was young and in elementary and middle school, I lived next door to my grandparents and I spent a lot of summer days out helping my grandpa with different tasks like pulling stumps and pruning trees.

“Over the years, I got more involved and started selling, so I’ve been learning the ways of it since I was a kid. When I was in college up at (Michigan) Tech, I had a little Christmas tree stand in a parking lot, and when I came back, I started doing it here again with my parents.”

Though he grew up in the business, Meister didn’t decide to move out to the family farm and take over operations until recently, after his grandfather passed away.

“I couldn’t stand the thought of it leaving the family, and that’s where I grew up, so we bought that, and we’ve been there for about a year now,” Meister said. “We’re excited to keep the Christmas trees going out there, keep the stand running and the Cut-Your-Own going.”

George Meister’s dad sells trees at a stand on Wright Street in Marquette, and George sells his through a stand at the farm on County Road 480. You can also cut your own tree fresh from the field there.

“The Cut Your Own has been going on as long as the tree farm has been going,” Meister said. “It’s been a big part of it, and people really like it. Even though we have our own stand, every year we go out, and the kids pick out a tree, and we take our picture next to it like everybody else; then we cut it and bring it in.”

It takes an average of ten years for a tree to grow to market size, and even though Meister has seven different species of trees growing on over 150 acres in three separate locations, both he and his wife have other full-time jobs. Tree farming could almost be considered a hobby to him, albeit a hobby that involves careful planning, considerable time and a lot of work.

“I have a tree planting plan that I follow,” Meister said. “I try to project how many trees I need to plant, of what variety and how many I’m hoping to have cut that year. It’s a long range outlook.”

“It starts with planting saplings, and every year right up until they’re harvested, we’re pruning them and maintaining them and trying to shape them,” Meister added. “There’s a good amount of work that gets scattered throughout the year. You have to plant every year; you have to prune every year. A week or so before you plan on selling them, you go out and cut them and haul them. Then you have to clean up what was cut from the year before, and the fields have to be tended to. It seems there’s always something that has to be done.”

The harvesting of the trees is also something that is carefully planned out.

“At some of the big-box stores, their trees have been cut for several weeks already. With us having our own stand, we’ll usually start cutting the weekend before Thanksgiving,” Meister said. “We open the day after Thanksgiving, which seems to be a traditional day for some families to pick out a tree. Then we continuously cut as we need to. I don’t want anybody to come back to us two weeks later or the next year and say ‘All the needles fell off my tree and it wasn’t fresh.’ We like to cut them as late as we can and get them right to the stand. We mainly cut six- to eight-foot trees along with some three- to four-foot for tabletop trees.”

The business of raising and selling Christmas trees has changed over the years, but Meister is determined to keep his tree farm going and even talks of expanding.

“Christmas tree sales have declined over the years in a big part due to artificial trees,” he said. “Some people like that option, and it can be good for some people, but we’re still hoping over the next five to ten years to grow the business. We’re making an effort to plant more trees and keep making things better and hopefully expand what we can provide and what our services are there for Christmas.

“We’re looking at adding more products and maybe even adding a small shop out there,” Meister added. “One of the things my grandpa said that’s funny and true about Christmas trees is that it takes fifteen years to get into it and fifteen years to get out of it.”

The Narkooli family in southern Marquette County has another multi-generation tree farm. It was started by John Narkooli, whose lifelong hobby was growing and selling Christmas trees. He began selling them in Chicago in 1941; then after the Korean War, he opened several stands in the U.P. He died in 2010, and the farm is now being run by his son, Mike Narkooli. John’s nephew, Tom Narkooli, has some fond memories of working with his uncle at a tree stand in West Ishpeming.

Mark Meister gets trees ready for the public at Meister Trees in Marquette County

Mark Meister gets trees ready for the public at Meister Trees in Marquette County

“I worked with him for one year in the mid-1990s, and we had around 1,000 to 1,200 people come through the lot,” Norkooli said. “Out of all of them, maybe twelve had the Joy of Christmas on their face. The rest of them looked as if it was just another task to do during the holiday.”

He also echoed Meister’s thoughts on the changing Christmas tree business.

“The natural Christmas tree seems to be going by the wayside,” Norkooli said. “Artificial trees are getting better, and some people realize they don’t need the mess of cleaning up needles. Still, there will always be someone who’s nostalgic for a real tree.”

The holiday tradition of a Christmas tree is a strange one, to say the least. It is a custom where you cut down a tree, bring it into your home, decorate it, admire it, care for it, gather around it and place gifts under it. The Christmas tree in your home seems to become a member of your family. What you hang on it and how you decorate it is an extension of your family’s personality. Then you unceremoniously throw it in the yard.

Artificial trees may be cleaner and more convenient, but the look, smell and presence of a real Christmas tree in the home truly defines the holidays.

—Jim Pennell

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