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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

A Christmas Tree Story

Image by Jim Skibo

For decades, families in southern Wisconsin have enjoyed Christmas trees and wreaths produced on a farm in Langlade County. Many of those families know their decorations come from a different family—one of four generations held together by boughs, traditions, and laughter.

When you step into Becky and Jim Stanton’s garage, just east of Antigo, it feels like a family party. Yes, people are clipping boughs, making wreaths and garland, but they are also enjoying each other’s company. In the mid 1960s, Becky’s mother, Emilee Heistad, started it all on their family farm just outside of White Lake in eastern Langlade County. Emiliee’s daughter, Nancy Ramer, says that it all started when their mother started pulling balsam seedlings out of the swamp and planting them on some rocky ground not in cultivation.

She initially planted 300 to 500 trees, with her infant son, Tim, on her back or in a nearby basket. According to Tim, his mother would point at a trees through the years and say, “That is the same age as you.”

They have never planted another tree, yet they have been selling 200 or so trees per year since the 1970s. This is possible because if you cut a balsam fir properly, leaving a row of branches on the stump, it will continue to grow and produce another tree. Until 1990, they had a buyer come in and harvest the trees each year. When they lost the buyer, Nancy had a suggestion. “Mom, I think I could sell your trees.”

Nancy, her sister Becky, and their mom loaded up a trailer with trees in 1990 and headed to Kenosha, where Nancy and her husband lived for much of their lives. Almost three decades later, they are still doing this yearly trek along with Becky’s husband Jim, and Nancy’s husband, Tony. They have developed strong bonds to their customers over the years and they all describe it as going to a family reunion with their “Christmas family.”

Most of the customers at the lot in Kenosha return each year. Becky tells how this experience is more than just selling trees. Customers usually stay for a while to tell them about the joys and sorrows of the previous year. They hear about a daughter’s wedding, a new grandchild, or about a Christmas family member who has passed away.

They considered quitting the business a couple of times, but their Christmas family keeps them going. Jim Stanton cuts and prunes the trees. While making garland roping, with a hand-cranked machine, he tells me that they do not do it for the profit because if you counted their labor they probably would not break even.

One memorable customer came from Chicago for a tree during their early years. He bought a tree but returned the next day for another because he gave the first tree to a neighbor who was going through some hard times. Moved by the neighborly act, Tony Ramer offered the man the tree at half price. The gesture so moved the man that the following year he returned the kind gesture by giving them money to buy two trees for needy families. He has continued the practice through the years.

Their business involves not just their Kenosha Christmas Family but also their own extended family. Becky Stanton started making wreaths from boughs off the farm, which she now sells along with the trees. For a couple months of the year, their garage is the center of family activity. Becky makes the wreaths but the extended family, now in its 4th generation, helps with clipping boughs, painting pinecones and other prepping. Although everyone has a job, including the grandchildren, there is plenty of time for visiting and enjoying each other’s company.

Until they passed away, Becky’s parents showed up every day to help. She thinks of them often when making the wreaths and especially words from her father. He told her to remember that “you are bringing joy to someone with every wreath you make.”

Top photo: The balsam fir trees, planted in the 1960’s, still producing 200 or so Christmas trees per year.

Image by Jim Skibo

Credit Image by Jim Skibo
Becky Stanton making a wreath and enjoying a family story.

James M. Skibo is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is the author of five books, including two written for the general audience, Ants for Breakfast, and Bear Cave Hill. In 2021 James moved to the Madison area and is now the State Archeologist.
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