By Wade Coggeshall
LIZTON — The sign on the front of the gift shop at Nelson's Christmas Tree Farm - the one that read "closed forever" - didn't exactly bode well for a merry holiday season.
Jack and Pam Nelson, the farm's owners, acknowledge it wasn't an easy decision. But after 29 years, and losing $50,000 worth of inventory in this summer's drought, they knew it was the right one.
"That was like, 'OK God, I get the message. It's time'," said Jack. "But it was time. It was getting tougher as we were getting older."
Jack worked as a forester for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources for 34 years, retiring in 2005. Many foresters supplemented their incomes with Christmas tree farms. Jack got an opportunity to work on one forester's farm in northern Indiana during the 1970s.
"That's where I learned the business," he said.
Jack bought this property to start his own Christmas tree farm in 1984. He never intended to live there, but Pam, who resided near Speedway at the time, fell in love with the area.
"It's much better than living in the city," she said. "I like the privacy."
The farm ultimately helped put their children through college and Jack and Pam to acquire things they otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford.
"We've been blessed," Pam said. "We had a nice location, a nice piece of property, and we're fortunate to have a lot of good people that helped us along the way."
That has included friends who helped on the farm, neighbors who endured the extra traffic around Christmas, and school-aged children who worked on the farm and eventually adopted the Nelsons as grandparents.
And of course there were the customers, many of whom were quite emotional when they learned the farm was closing after this year.
"We had become part of their family," Pam said.
Added Jack, "They became part of ours, once a year."
Larry and Merrily Nilles, along with grandchildren Zakk and Dana Nilles, were regulars there for at least 10 years. It was tradition for Grandpa to cut down the tree. Zakk got the honor for the first time this year, before they learned the farm was closing.
"We are going to miss this wonderful place," Merrily said. "We can only hope that this simple tradition has been etched into our grandchildren's hearts and makes their top 10 list of things to do at Christmas - besides shop."
Jenn Prevatt Hopkins noted on the Flyer's Facebook page that her husband always insisted on walking to the end of the farm's property line in search of the perfect tree - regardless of weather. They always seemed to find their tree at the front of the farm, where they started.
"Kind of a joke in the family now," Hopkins wrote.
Others reminisced about drinking hot cocoa in the farm's gift shop, visiting with Santa, and partaking of the candy cane tree. Pets were a common sight at the farm too. There was a Great Dane that weighed well over 200 pounds and stood almost as tall as Pam. There was the Blue Healer that Pam fed a hot dog the first time it visited, and which insisted on receiving the same on each subsequent sojourn.
Jack marvels at how Christmas tree shopping is one of those few activities that brings out the whole family. After almost 30 years, they had three generations visiting their farm.
"Anytime you can get everybody together, that's something," he said.
Traits like that are what made their business worthwhile to the Nelsons. Because the work wasn't easy.
"It's not just the time when you're selling trees and not even that month before of preparation," Pam said. "It would start in March."
That included mowing, shearing, planting, and spraying trees over 20-plus acres. During the holiday season, it wasn't uncommon for the Nelsons and their employees to work more than 12 hours on some days. Then there were the 10 years when they also made and sold wreaths on the wholesale level.
"That first year we did wreaths, I lost 27 pounds in six weeks," Pam said. "We were both averaging about six hours of sleep per night at the most."
When the farm first opened, Jack sold trees from the back of his pickup. There was no baler or shaker.
"I did have a few saws," Jack said. "So I'd sit in my truck, someone would drive up, I'd hand them a saw, they'd go out and cut down a tree. Then if they wanted the needles shook, I'd just take it out on the county road (and knock it against the asphalt)."
He built the gift shop himself in 1991, using lumber he bought cheap from a friend whose house was damaged by straight-line winds.
"We were pretty economical at the time," Pam said.
They've also always been charitable. When FedEx and the National Christmas Tree Growers Association started the Trees for Troops program, the Nelsons immediately donated some of their inventory for veterans hospitals and military personnel serving overseas to enjoy. Often they included ornaments and handmade Christmas cards.
"Sometimes we'd get letters back, some with photos of the troops around the tree," Jack said. "For us that was very rewarding, to know those trees were appreciated."
Jack is planting a mini-arboretum on one side of the farm. The rest will revert to corn and soybeans. Remaining Christmas trees will go to family, friends, and neighbors. The Nelsons are turning their gift shop into a playhouse for their grandchildren.
They were prepared emotionally for their last Christmas as a tree farm, but there were still many tears.
"We got hugged I don't know how many times," Pam said. "It was wonderful to get that and be thanked for all the memories. People said this wasn't just a place to get a Christmas tree. It was an experience and a tradition."
Jack started the farm because it was his passion, though in the last few years it began to feel more like work. But it was this Christmas when he truly realized the impact his farm had on many people's lives.
"I'm glad to be out of the business. I have no regrets with my decision," Jack said. "But I come away from this feeling humbled. We made a difference for a lot of people."