Half decent Christmas trees cost $5

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

RALPH Hunt's Christmas Trees? Anybody here will tell you where that is. You take the road out from Camden toward Hope, turn off past the church camp ('cross from where that woman sells jam in her driveway every summer), and go on past Orville Young's place. Then you cross the creek and turn up toward Moody Mountain, where Ralph used to have his chicken farm. You'll see his house sitting up top the rise -- kind of low and modern for these parts -- and you'll see his yard littered with trees and his wreaths hanging up all over the place. That's Ralph's.

Chances are, Ralph will be in his garage making a wreath -- tying sprays of balsam onto a frame with a spool of wire, then trimming it into shape with hedge clippers. At another table, his wife, Gerene, will be decorating the wreaths and tying on the red bows (velvet or plastic, whichever you wish).

But Ralph, who retired from the poultry business in 1969, will hear you coming. After years of having to keep one eye out the window, this spry, garrulous Yankee trader has gone modern. This winter, he put a rubber hose across his driveway hooked up to a bell in his garage. It rings with a loud double gong. ``Best thing since the self-starter,'' says Ralph, slipping his red wool jacket over his bib overalls and heading for the door. He pronounces it ``stah-ta.''

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Ralph's been growing his own trees in an eight-acre field behind his house since 1958, when he started planting 5,000 seedlings a year for five years. He says he spends just about the entire month of June trimming them -- cutting off the tops to make them fuller, and snipping off the sides to coax them into shape.

He's got Scotch pine, white pine, red pine, white fir, and Douglas fir -- and plenty of balsam fir, the runaway favorite. With tree costs in Boston climbing this season to $50 or $60 for a large tree, Ralph's Down East prices are hard to beat. His three categories of trees sell for $5, $8, and $10 -- marked by handwritten signs stuck in the lawn, each surrounded by trees of all sizes.

``Size,'' says Ralph, ``is not a factor.'' He recalls that in the late 1960s, when his first trees were ready to sell, ``I couldn't find anyone to buy them.'' A few years later, when he began to find buyers, ``I had more big trees than I did little trees.

``What I wanted to move was big trees,'' he explains, ``so I don't want to discourage anybody from buying a big tree by putting the price too high.''

In fact, he finds that ``a surprising lot of people want a tree that I believe is far too big for their house.'' He reminds them, dryly, that when you approach a doorway with a Christmas tree it mysteriously doubles in size.

But if size doesn't matter, why does he have three different prices? Because of quality, he answers. He brings the trees in on a jerry-rigged wooden contraption mounted on the front of his old red International tractor. When he gets to the driveway, Gerene stands inside the garage behind the window (where it's warm) and inspects each tree as he stands it up. Then she holds up a placard with the price on it. ``I call her `The Oracle,' '' says Ralph, pointing out a hardly noticeable place where a branc h was missing at the base of a perfectly shaped balsam that drew from her an ``$8'' instead of a ``$10'' rating.

Then what makes a good tree?

``People say, `I want a full tree.' Don't talk about a `full tree' to me,'' he snorts. ``Are you talking about density or are you talking about width? I think [a good tree] should be quite dense,'' he continues, noting that ``you don't want branches far apart.''

Whenever he cuts a tree, he tries to leave a good-sized stump with several lower limbs on it. That way, he says, it will produce new shoots and, ultimately, new trees -- sometimes two or three per stump.

``My best trees are grown from stumps,'' he says. Such a tree ``has more notion to make every bud a branch,'' because of its ``tremendous root system.''

But when two trees grow together from one stump, don't they interfere with each other?

``It has a tendency to make 'em flat,'' Ralph concedes. ``But actually,'' he adds with a chuckle, ``most people don't set their Christmas tree in the middle of the room anyway. They put 'tup against the wall. And there's half of 'em that realize this, and they'd rather have a tree that's kinda flat. Of course there's other people got to have a perfectly round tree even if they're going to cut half the branches off,'' he adds. For years, he says, he's toyed with the idea of writing a newspaper ad tha t says ``Ralph Hunt's, where you can get a half decent tree for $5 -- course a decent tree costs you more!''

Last year, he calculates, he sold 700 trees. This year he's already topped that -- and hasn't got another tree to sell. ``Now that I've got all this lovely business going, I'm running out of trees'' -- since, he explains, he's not planting any more seedlings.

Why such demand? ``Well,'' he explains, ``there ain't anybody else selling them [locally].'' Weekends are especially busy, he says, noting that this year, on the second Sunday in December, he sold 140 trees in one day.

And if the tree business is flourishing, the wreath business is going through the roof. ``Everybody's making wreaths,'' he says. ``I bet you the state of Maine is selling twice as many wreaths as they were five years ago,'' he adds. He started the season with about 360 wreaths, he says, and was already running out of supplies by the second week of December. He sells a decorated wreath for $6.50.

Ralph got into wreathmaking after his tree-selling business began to catch on in the early 1970s. ``When I started this,'' he recalls, ``I was treading around waiting for somebody to come by for a Christmas tree, and I said to [Gerene], `Why don't you show me how to make a wreath?' '' Gerene, a smily great-grandmother who learned to make wreaths in the depression when a local nursery paid her 15 cents apiece for them, showed him the technique. Now he does all the wreathmaking, handling the bristly fi r without gloves as though it were lamb's wool. She adds the decorations.

They gather most of their materials, she says, during walks through the woods and meadows near the house. But the pudgy, round cones -- imported from Italy -- come from a supplier in Milbridge, where they also buy their wreath frames and spools of ribbon. ``Ninety percent of the state of Maine covered with trees,'' quips her husband, ``and we buy pine cones from Italy!''

Local or imported, however, the venture is clearly successful. After one weekend's sales, he notes, ``I took a washtub full of money down to the bank.'' But that's not what interests him. ``I have plenty of money anyway,'' says Ralph, who will leave after Christmas for several months in Florida. ``I just do it for the fun.

``Basically what I like is other people's appreciation for my effort,'' he says. That, and the fact that most of the people he sells to are his friends. ``I like these people,'' he says, adding that whether or not they buy a tree ``I'm pleased to see them anyway.''

And not all of them buy a ready-made tree. As you leave Ralph's, you can ask the mechanic down in the village about another kind of Yankee ingenuity. Every Christmas, he says, his grandmother would go out in the woods and cut down the first two balsams she found. She'd strip all branches off one. Then she'd drill holes in the trunk of the other and stick the branches in. Every year, he says, she'd have the best-looking tree in town.

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