Tree Farmer Makes Season Merrier

  • Duke Wagatha drives down from northern Michigan each year to sell his Christmas trees. While in Ann Arbor, he and his crew live in this 1951 Vagabond trailer.

It’s that time of year again – parking lots across the country are filled with Christmas trees. Just about one out of every three people who celebrate Christmas buys a live tree. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush spent some time with one tree grower in the height of tree selling season:


It’s that time of year again – parking lots across the country are filled with Christmas trees. Just about one
out of every three people who celebrate Christmas buys a live tree. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Mark Brush spent some time with one tree grower in the height of tree selling season:

(sound of generator, saws, people chatting)

It’s a crisp afternoon at this Christmas tree lot in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That generator you hear is
powering the electric saws. They trim up the base of the tree so it’ll fit your tree stand. The guys’ hands
are blackened with sap and dirt from handling the hundreds of trees that came off of flat-bed trucks. They
take the bundled trees – open them up, and stick them onto stands. They’ve created a makeshift forest in
the middle of this strip mall parking lot. Customers wander through the forest searching for the perfect

Duke Wagatha runs the tree lot. He appears each year from north Michigan to sell his trees:

“We get here the weekend before Thanksgiving. Takes us probably about a week, or
five days to get set up, with the idea of opening the day after Thanksgiving. We like to let folks get one
holiday out of the way and then we start on the next.”

“Hello folks, how may I help you?…” (fade tree lot sound under)

He calls his business ‘Flat-Snoots Trees.’ You couldn’t tell from looking at his face now – but he
calls it ‘Flat-Snoots’ to make light of a broken nose he suffered in high school.

Duke seems to be a hard working free-spirit. His coveralls are all tarnished with pine needles and sap.
And when he moves, you hear ringing from the bells on his hat. He moves between the trees in his
parking lot forest telling his customers jokes and filling their heads with visions of Scotch pine, Fraser
firs, and Blue Spruce.

Margaret Jahnke has been buying trees from Duke for more than six years:

“He just makes it really personable – and there was one year it was really kind of warm and he had his
Hawaiian shirt on and his straw hat, and he was out here partyin’ away! And I’m like, ‘Whoa!’ It’s fun
to come, you know, just to run in, you know, to talk to him. And they’re really helpful!”

While they’re in Ann Arbor, Duke and his crew live in a 1950’s vintage trailer. The trailer’s paint is
faded, but Duke spruces it up for the holidays with wreaths and pine bows. And when you step inside, the
old lamps and rustic furniture make it seem as if you’ve stepped back in time.

(sound of trailer door opening)

“Whooo! It feels better in here doesn’t it?”

(sound of trailer door closing)

The trailer also doubles as his office. Customers pay for their trees in here and on occasion they’ll have a
complimentary nip of what Duke calls his “bad schnapps.” And the kids might be offered coupons for
free hot chocolate.

Duke is from Mesick, a small rural town in northern Michigan. Christmas tree farming is big business
in Michigan. The state is second only to Oregon in the number of acres that are in Christmas tree

Duke, however, calls himself a small-time grower. He’s a carpenter by trade, but his work tends to dry up in the
long winter months:

“It’s not enough to make a living for me and my family year-round, uh, but it’s a good extra source of
income and uh, winters are tough up there, so if you make a little bit of extra money – winters are tough
and expensive – uh, living in the country, you know, like anybody, you got propane bills and all that, and
it’s a little colder up there, so to make a little bit of money going into winter is pretty nice.”

A lot of work went into growing the trees that have now arrived on his lot. Each summer workers plod
through the rows and rows of trees swinging razor sharp machetes. They trim each tree to give them that
classic, symmetrical, Christmas tree shape.

After about ten years, the trees are ready for harvest. They’re cut, they’re run through a baling machine,
and they’re loaded onto trucks and shipped down to the lots.

(sound of tree lot with sound of Duke)

Even though there’s a jovial atmosphere on the lot, there’s also a sense of urgency. After all, Duke only
has a few weeks to sell trees that in many cases have taken more than ten years to grow.

And while selling the trees is an important part of Duke’s income – he gets something else out of it. He
really likes people. And he enjoys making connections with them – whether it’s getting them to laugh, or
just simply helping them buy a tree:

“Sometimes you get some grumpy folks coming in, and it’s usually just because they’re overwhelmed
with shopping, it’s cold out, they didn’t wear their long underwear, or whatever, but we can usually get
them turned around, you know, we have a little fun with them. Like I say, if we have to bring them to the
trailer and have a shot of bad schnapps with ’em – hey, that’s just fine too.”

It’s closing time at the tree lot. The workers are headed for a warmer space. Right now, Duke’s trailer is
filled with his relatives and friends.

(sound of door opening)

“Come on in! This is Duke’s family. It’s warm in here, huh?”

(more rowdy banter)

Duke will continue to sell his trees right up until Christmas Eve. Then he’ll drive home to spend a few
days with his family before he comes back to tear the lot down:

“It’s kind of like the circus coming to town. You build up your tree lot, you almost build like, well I
wouldn’t say a village, but a little spot where there was nothing – just an asphault parking lot. And when you leave – there’s nothing
left – we sweep up and go – so it’s almost like a mirage. Were those guys really here?” (laughter)

And so, they spring to their trucks and drive out of sight, knowing they helped make the season
merry night after night.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.

Inner-City Children and Lead Exposure

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