O Christmas Tree
MILANO–It is the end of an era on a small Christmas
Bill and Linda Wiederhold and their grandchildren have been a part of many Christmas memories for numerous families across Central Texas for 23 years and now it is all coming to a bittersweet end.
The Wiederhold’s “Santa’s Forest” will be open for the last time this holiday season after more than two decades.
Dealing with the heat in the summer months while having to trim the trees has taken its toll on the 68-year-old Wiederhold. That is one of the main reasons he is getting out of the tree business.
SPECIAL TIME– As special as the Christmas spirit itself, families still trudge through fields to find the perfect tree, head to retail stores or to “cut-your-own” tree farms like Santa’s Forest.
The 3.5-acre farm at its most productive point, around a decade ago, had about 1,800 trees and during the prime season, Wiederhold would sell 400 to 500 Virginia pines in one year.
Trees don’t shape themselves, he would have to climb a ladder and trim the trees with a hedge cutter.
“It would take me three weeks to do that in the summer when there were 1,800 trees,” Wiederhold said.
Average sales are around 250 per season now.
GETTING STARTED– Wiederhold retired in 1990 from the United States Department of Agriculture as a soil conservationist. He is a 1964 graduate of Texas A&M University.
He started growing the trees over 25 years ago after his sister, Barbara Wenzel of Rockdale, couldn’t find the tree she wanted while on a “tree trip” to the Round Rock and Austin area.
So Wiederhold began growing trees in the corner of his property off Holdiness Lane in Milano, and when they were ready, sold out of Barbara’s Cleaners (now Triad Engineering and Rockdale Insurance Agency) in Rockdale for about three years. They sometimes sell 400 trees in a season.
He then moved to the current spot of Santa’s Forest two blocks south of the Missouri-Pacific Railroad. Wiederhold’s products are Virginia pines, a hardy breed and perfect for the acidic, redclay soils in Milano’s Buttermilk Flats area.
People “choose and cut” their own trees and take it home. He said the trees also have a soft and smooth needle and are droughttolerate. Proof is in his non-irrigated field, which has withstood recent dry summers. Trees in his inventory range from three to 12-feet.
Trees are usually cut when they are three to six years old. Wiederhold has to buy saplings in orders of 500 and he’s planted 400 each year, so he knew that in three years he’d have that many more ready.
He has never sold out of trees and since he plants so many new ones each year, Wiederhold has all sizes, tall and small, available for customers.
Wiederhold used to sit out in his truck and had some table and chairs, but when it would be wet and cold weather it would make things quite difficult. He finally put in a small storage building and that with the table and chairs have served as the business’s “office.”
OPEN HOUSE– Two weekends before Thanksgiving, he sends out a postcard about an “open house weekend” to everyone who has bought a tree in the last three years. The average turnout is about 120 on that weekend where families will come out and pick that favorite tree, tag it, pay for it and come back in about two weeks, or whenever they get ready, to come cut it down and take it home.
Over half of trees sold are on that “open house” weekend now.
Some have been sold as far away as Dallas, Houston, Corpus Christi and San Antonio.
“They are usually relatives of someone from around here who has bought a tree,” Wiederhold said. His sales are mainly Central Texas families.
One year it rained two inches the night before the “open house” weekend and they still had 100 customers that next day.
THREE GENERATIONS– Wiederhold is a family man and has always included most of his nine grandchildren in their Christmas tree business.
It has always been about family for the Wiederholds, whether spending time with them while running the business, or helping others make their tree purchase a special, memorable time.
“I’ll miss the environment and
Absolute smiling faces,” granddaughter Jessica Reese said.
“I’ll miss the Christmas spirit,” another granddaughter Mandy Coldiron said.
The two grew up helping their grandparents, from counting the money to getting big enough to drive the tractor.
Wiederhold said grandson Robert Reese who lived with he and his wife while in school has been his biggest helper.
“He’s done it all.”
They are now into a third generation of helpers and 19-monthold Braxton Reese will be “helping” his great grandfather this season.
GREAT MEMORIES– One of the main things the Wiederholds will miss are all the children that come out and run around the lot while looking for that “perfect tree” with their families.
“I’ve enjoyed the children that come and run out here,” Wiederhold said.
His wife Linda echoed that thought.
“We are on our third generation,” she said. “We will really miss all the kids, out there running around. We’ll miss that so much.”
There have been many customers stop at their small farm and few who were memorable.
“There was one family who had a large number of children,” Wiederhold said. “I started to notice that the group got smaller and smaller. They had gone through and placed a child at each tree they liked and would then narrow down the perfect tree that way.”
A few have even lost their places in the make-shift pine tree forest.
“There was an elderly lady who had been looking for about an hour to find her ‘perfect tree’ and finally came to tell Wiederhold she had found one and when they went to cut it down (the family does that for those who can’t) she couldn’t find the one she had chosen.
“I stayed with her from that point on until she found another one she liked,” he said.
KEEP COMIN There are families who have been going to Santa’s Forest for 15 to 20 years.
“We visit, talk about the kids,” Wiederhold says of those familiar faces that come back year after year.
Chris Wornell of Lexington has been bringing his sons to Santa’s Forest for 10 years.
“He’s got the best look ing trees,” Wornell said of why he comes back each year. “There are tree farms in Giddings and Elgin, but he’s always got big trees.”
His son Sean Roberts remembers visiting the farm since he was five.
“Not too many people who leave here disappointed,” Wiederhold said. “We produce real trees for real people.”
FREE TIME– Even with more “extra time” now, Wiederhold says he will still stay busy. He and his brother own a livestock operation in Dime Box and Wiederhold is always running out there to check on things.
LAST SEASON– Santa’s Forest will be open this season from Nov. 26 through Dec. 19. Customers are welcome from 1-5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.