During a recent conversation with retired Clerk of Court Frank Watson, he said he liked it when I wrote about my days working in local Christmas tree fields.
I was reminded of that Thanksgiving morning when several truckloads of Christmas trees passed us as we drove through Canada community on our way to the Blue Ridge Parkway. As they do every year, those trucks triggered a flood of memories because, way back before I worked at The Herald, I spent several autumns in Tommy Beutell’s Christmas tree fields.
In one sense newspapers and Christmas trees are similar careers. Every week, no matter what, the paper comes out. Likewise, every fall, in good weather or bad, the Christmas trees have to be cut, baled, loaded, hauled, sorted, counted and shipped south in time for city-dwellers to enjoy them throughout the holiday season.
Rain, snow, sleet or dark of night had no effect on tree-cutting. We worked every day until a certain number of trees were out – quitting time didn’t exist during harvest time. I spent a couple of Thanksgiving days way up on Tanasee Mountain, practically in the shadow of the Parkway, dragging trees to the baler.
It wasn’t all bad, though. It gave me a few of those stories us old folks like to tell our kids – you know, the ones about how bad it was back then and how much harder we had to work. And the scenery was spectacular. Most of Tommy’s balsam (Fraser fir) fields are way high, offering dazzling vistas that unfolded as I trudged up and down the rows, dragging the evergreens behind me.
The people I worked with were mostly from Canada community; though lacking formal education, they all knew things a city girl like me had never thought about.
Like where they were. The late Alvin Burrell showed me Sugar Creek Gap from every field we visited that fall. It didn’t help me much at the time, though. About all I knew was how to get to the foreman’s house where we met before daylight each morning. Then I’d ride in the back of someone’s truck until we got to wherever we were going to cut trees that day.
I will say that my husband Richard’s skill with maps and a GPS have succeeded in helping me master some geography. We’ve even hiked to Sugar Creek Gap – a high notch in Rich Mountain – and continued on to friends’ houses on Caney Fork.
Mostly they were tolerant of my mistakes and attributed my general ineptness to my sheltered upbringing. Only when presented with an especially confounding instance of my ignorance about all things related to Christmas trees did I hear, “Didn’t they teach you anything down at that college?”
By the time the next two harvests rolled around, I was something of a pro. I could even tie knots in the baler string while wearing gloves. I had moved to Rock Bridge (an area in Canada almost to the Transylvania County line) and had learned rudimentary local geography.
When I think back to nights in the newsroom, still struggling to accomplish a job that had to get done every week – no matter how late it got or how long some governmental body chose to meet – maybe Christmas trees were better. I might have had to work late, but I didn’t have to go back and write the story for the next day’s newspaper.
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.