The year was 1952, and the Christmas program at Jefferson Prairie Grade School was fast approaching. Mrs. Pearl Duxstad patiently introduced us to the old German folksong, O Tannenbaum, by Ernst Anschutz.
Many of the fourteen students attending the one room country school were of Scandinavian descent; however, we diligently attempted to roll our “r’s” and get the i, e, and a’s in the right order, so that we could sing the song at our Christmas program.
The Christmas program ushered in the holiday season for students and parents alike, and soon we too would be putting up our freshly cut Christmas tree in our homes.
During the week leading up to Christmas, Mother would begin rearranging the furniture in the living room, and then she would bring the boxes of Christmas ornaments and lights down from the hallway closet upstairs. We knew that Christmas would soon be here. Father would head to town to get our spruce tree. Most farms in the neighborhood had a woodlot comprised of hardwoods to supply firewood, but evergreens were normally not available, so it was not unusual for a tree lot or two to be set up in Clinton or Beloit area.
Dad would screw the tree into the stand that was situated in the corner of the living room and then would leave it for a day to thaw out. Once the tree had warmed up, Dad would string the lights, and we kids would go through the decorations and pick out our favorite balls and keepsake ornaments. Placing tinsel on the tree was always the biggest challenge; since we kids just were not very patient, and Mother liked the glittering strands to be placed in an orderly fashion.
The tree remained steadfast
By New Year’s Day the tree had stopped drinking and had started to drop its needles. That is when the decorating process was reversed. We were always intrigued to see what the needles looked like when Father removed the strands of lights; since the lights were always burning hot and left the needles brown and brittle. It was amazing that few fires occurred in our neighborhood at Christmas time. We threaded popcorn and cranberries on long thick tailor string and placed then on the tree. Then the brittle, dry spruce went outside for the birds to nibble on. Eventually this natural, recyclable, renewable tree was placed on the burn pile and incinerated.
Immigrants worked in the woods
After moving to the Northwoods in the late 1960’s, I began to understand the dedication and arduous work that was put into managing our trees and our forests. Just as a dairy farmer must attend to the animals on a regular basis, and a crop farmer must plant and till when the conditions are ripe, so too a tree farmer or one who has a stand of timber must deal with the crop and the harvest.
Many of the Finnish settlers in the Brantwood, Tripoli, Clifford, Prentice area made their livelihood in the woods. The Finns were unfortunately some of the last immigrants to come to Wisconsin, so they had little tillable land on which to settle. The Heikkinen family settled on cutover land near Brantwood, and they bolstered their coffers by farming and working in the woods as loggers, pulp peelers, log haulers, and later as inventors of machines that would make loading and splitting logs easier. When they weren’t putting up crops for winter and farming, the men would go to logging camps for the winter months. The men worked hard in the logging camps, and even Grandma Hannah worked as a cook in the logging camps during the winter months.
Peeling pulp provides income
It was only natural then that our two sons, Eric and Brent learned about farm practices and how to earn income in the woods. As the boys got older, one could find them out in the back forty of our Harrison Hills farm with their father planting balsam and spruce seedlings into the open, cutover, rock strewn hills of Lincoln County
As soon as oldest son, Eric, was old enough to work in the woods, neighbor Pete Voermans asked Eric, “How would you like to earn a little extra spending money for the summer?” Pete had a contract for peeled pulp with the Brokaw Paper Mill, and he was willing to pay twenty cents a stick for peeled wood. Each tree provided four to five sticks a piece. Soon this became the start of a lucrative adventure.
Pete and the boys had a goal of one hundred sticks a day or $20.00 a day each. They fought off mosquitoes, deer flies, excessive heat, and uneven terrain, as well as the occasional near misses of falling trees. Peeling only lasted until the trees started to leaf out, and then the wood would be hauled out by September or October.
Christmas trees take shapeSteigerwalt’s Tree Farm also provided summer employment for the young men in our family. By the end of July, the Tree Farm started looking for young people to clip and trim balsam firs and scotch pine for the Christmas market.
The crews used machetes and clippers to shear the trees. Bees and ground hornets and wasps were a continuous irritation for the hired help. Every tree was to have one and only one top and the workers were to trim the new growth to take the conical shape of a Christmas tree. Trimming started at 5:30 a.m. and continued until 3:00 p.m. The employees each received $3.00 an hour.
The young men learned a new skill and got work experience, as well as a new 1.5-gallon thermos each year. The bugs and pitch would fill up a thermos in a summer and make it unusable. The fellas worried more about having enough OFF insect repellent than sunscreen.
Eric’s goal was to raise $221.00 to buy a Honda 70 cycle with his earnings, while younger son, Brent continues to peel popple, shear trees, plant trees, produce maple syrup and manage his forest crop while working at the Rhinelander paper mill.
The beautiful, fragrant, renewable resource that stands in our home this Christmas season is just one of the numerous farmed resources available to all of us, because of the tree farmer.
We remember the fir tree’s symbol of constancy and faithfulness when we sing together:
“O Christmas, O Christmas Tree
How steadfast are your branches!”