Fraser firs

Every year, farmhands cut down the mature Fraser firs and bundle them for loading onto trucks. Once stacked, the trucks transported the trees to the Wolf Creek Tree Farm depot off of N.C. 107 in Tuckasegee.

Several people have told me that they like it when I write about Christmas trees, referring to a string of columns over the past two decades that mentioned my experiences working for Tommy Beutell on his Wolf Creek Tree Farm.

I’ve been reminded of those comments as I see the trucks loaded with Fraser firs rolling out of Canada community as they do every November. The harvest is winding down now, but that doesn’t stop the flood of memories triggered by each loaded truck I pass.

As regular readers know, I came to Jackson County from the Atlanta area to attend Western Carolina University. I loved it here, and I didn’t want to leave. Christmas trees were the reason I was able to stay.

It all began with a chance meeting in the laundromat that used to be on campus. As Dona and I were waiting on our clothes to wash, we met three former Brevard College students who had also come to town to do their laundry.

They were living on Round Mountain and were supporting themselves by working on Tommy’s farm. They needed a ride home, so Dona and I enlisted our good friend Linda Hardy, the only one of us with a car, and we all piled into her yellow Datsun station wagon to deliver Tim, Chuck and Hugh, along with their clean clothes, to their cabin near the Jackson/Transylvania line.

We had no inkling of where we were going or what we would find. Dona and Linda knew something of the area, but I had never even been to Tuckasegee. None of us had any idea that the last six or seven miles on N.C. 281 were not paved, or that it would take close to an hour just to reach their house. It was during that ride that I learned of Tommy’s Christmas tree operation.

That was in the spring before I graduated from WCU. In July, Dona and I went to work on Tommy’s tree farm. We learned to use razor-sharp, foot-long knives to shear white pines. “Just make it look like a Christmas tree,” the old-timers told us.

Dona returned to class that fall, but I stayed in the fields, pruning the fir trees in September and October and then helping with the harvest in November and December.

I was grateful for the work that let me remain in the mountains, and I enjoyed getting to know Tommy’s crew, most of whom lived in Canada community: brothers Alvin and Roger Burrell, one a Republican and one a Democrat; Roger’s son Estes, who was the crew foreman; L.C. Brown, who could drive any vehicle and fix anything with a motor; and another set of brothers, Bo and Bunny Brown, sons of the legendary Fib Brown.

Alvin was sociable and funny and provided nicknames for us foreigners. Tim became “Kim,” Dona was “Chunky,” I was “Red,” and Linda, who joined us for a little while when she was between other jobs, was mysteriously dubbed the “Long Ranger.”

Though lacking formal education, the people I worked with knew things a city girl like me had never even thought to think about.

Like where they were. Alvin showed me Sugar Creek Gap from every field we harvested. About all I knew was how to get to Estes’ house where we met way before daylight. Then I’d ride in the back of someone’s truck until we got to wherever we were going to cut trees that day.

As a rule my co-workers were tolerant of my mistakes and attributed my general ineptness to my sheltered upbringing. Only occasionally, when I presented them with an especially confounding example of the depths of my ignorance, did I hear, “Didn’t they teach you anything down there at the college?”

By the time the next two harvests rolled around, I was something of a pro. I could tie knots in the baler string while wearing gloves. I could drag the heavy trees out of the field, and I had learned enough local geography that I could mostly figure out where I was.

During two decades in the newsroom, I realized the two jobs had some similarities – both had to get done on time, no matter how late it gets, how much it snows or how long the commissioners choose to meet.

As I got older, though I missed the people I knew and the places I saw, I was happy to have traded Christmas trees for Tuesday night deadlines. I might still have had to work late, but I wasn’t loading trucks while snowflakes fell.

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.