Holiday traditions are worth their weight in gold

Growing up in Weaverville and living in Waynesville, I’m very comfortable with small town Christmases. I wouldn’t know how to do Christmas in a big city, although I love the thought of trying. Traditions are a big part of anyone’s holiday, but in small-town America where visions of Norman Rockwell permeate the psyche, traditions seem paramount.

Christmas tree farm experience

fr treeexperiencePeople can buy a real Christmas tree just about anywhere these days — from the big box stores to the side of the road.

The art of picking the perfect Christmas tree

fr treepickingSome like them tall and thin. Others like them shorter and thick.

A real tree takes real work

fr treegrowingThe Christmas tree business is not a get-rich-quick kind of industry. Once a seedling is planted, it takes about eight years of growth before the tree can fulfill its Christmas destiny.

Christmas tree industry growing strong

coverWith more than 25 million real Christmas trees sold in the United States every year, growing Christmas trees is a thriving industry for farmers in North Carolina.

SEE ALSO:
• A real tree takes real work
• The art of picking the perfect Christmas tree
• Christmas tree farm experience

“I think real trees are holding their own,” said Tom Sawyer, owner of Tom Sawyer Christmas Tree Farm in Cashiers. “There’s been more of a resurgence of people lately who want the real deal.”

Family-run Christmas tree farm stakes out its roots

tg tomsawyerWhen Myra Sawyer looks around the Sawyer Family Farmstead, she couldn’t image living anywhere else in the world.

Over the top and proud of it: Hazelwood neighbors light up a neighborhood to celebrate the season

Want to see, for free, one of the best examples of folk art to be found in Western North Carolina? Then head to the humble Hazelwood community in Haywood County and view what some of the residents living there have created using simple Christmas lights and inexpensive or homemade decorations.

This is truly art from the heart.

Thousands, literally thousands, if not actually millions, of lights festoon the trees and decorate the small former mill houses and the trailers that line Hyatt Street. Here, after dusk — in a blatant, unapologetic display of keeping-up-with-the-neighbors — one finds lit candy canes, Santas, reindeer, stars and more. Much more, starting sometime late in October until whenever the residents decide it’s time to take them down.

There are so many decorations per house that most of the people who participate in this volunteer neighborhood extravaganza are forced to buy or build individual sheds just to store their Christmas supplies.

There is a story bandied about Haywood County that the extravagant Christmas lights display on Hyatt Street started with a neighborhood competition gone mad. That, however, is not true. Though there was, indeed, at one time community Christmas lights competitions in this region, including here in Hazelwood.

The Christmas lights gala on Hyatt Street started simply enough, and this is how: more than two decades ago, some of Ronald and Cecile Fish’s then-neighbors decided to move to Pennsylvania. They gave Ronald and Cecile Fish two strings of Christmas lights rather than pack them.

From a single acorn grows a mighty oak.

Ronald Fish put up those two strings of Christmas lights, and something deep inside him grew three sizes that day. The next year, he put up more lights. Then more, and more each year, and Ronald Fish soon found the strength of 10 men, plus two, and hung lights from the house, the trees, the fence; he built more decorations, added reindeer and Santas and American flags and more, much more. Ronald Fish couldn’t stop and to this day he is still adding lights to his collection.

“I counted them one time, some years ago, and it was something over 100 strings — that’s 10,000 to 20,000 lights,” he said.

There’s a lot more than that in the Fish yard now, too many to count.

Down the street a few houses away, Ronnie Cook one Christmas season noticed the Fish yard aglow. Cook was struck by a wonderful, awful, idea: he would have more lights than his good friend Fish. He began stringing lights on trees, on his house, down the sidewalk, up the shed; he couldn’t stop and to this day he, like Fish, is still adding to his Christmas lights collection.

Across the street from Ronald Fish and a mere two houses or so from Cook, Juan and Rosy Camacho grew envious, too, of their neighbors’ yards and houses. Their mouths hung open a moment or two, until they knew what to do and so they ceased crying, “Boo Hoo.”

The Camachos started visiting box stores, thrift stores and more. They bought cases, perhaps even truckloads, of Christmas lights, and decorated their home and yard, too.

“It’s a competition thing,” Rosy Comacho freely admitted.

Other residents joined in. Though a few houses here on Hyatt Street are determinedly undecorated and dark. Perhaps in protest, or perhaps in sheer surrender to the virtuosity displayed by those who are decorating for the season.

The electric bills for these Hazelwood residents who do participate in this Christmas light festooning are insane. Cook’s jumps about $150 a month, the Camachos’ bill goes up at least $50 (they just started in the game about six years ago). And Ronald and Cecile Fish admit to their bill doubling, though they demurely shy away from saying what that electric cost is before the doubling.

One wouldn’t, after all, want to appear to brag over one’s neighbors.

Tom Sawyer’s Tree Farm: A slice of Christmas with your choose-and-cut experience

Christmas tree farming is nothing new in Western North Carolina thanks to the perfect climate, perfect soil and preponderance of mountainsides — terrain that leaves farmers with few options for cultivating crops suited to slopes. Tree farms run the gamut, from a dirt farmer plunking down a half-acre of trees on the hill behind his house to massive wholesale tree dealers with thousands of acres in production.

Tom and Myra Sawyer of the Glenville community in southern Jackson County, however, have taken the traditional WNC Christmas tree farm and turned that concept on its ear. The Sawyers transformed their chose-and-cut tree farm into a little slice of the North Pole, complete with a visiting Santa and a cadre of elves.

In doing so, the couple has tapped into the growing agri-tourism niche. Plus they’ve provided scores of their Glenville and Cashiers neighbors with sorely needed seasonal employment. Up to 50 people work on the farm this time of year — not counting those employed through their wreath-making shop, year-round tree farm operation and the four retail Christmas tree lots they operate in Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. It also doesn’t take into account the large number of family members Tom and Myra Sawyer also provide jobs for. Or the burgeoning wedding-destination sideline they’ve recently started.

Tom Sawyer, in a quiet way in a remote section of the region, is putting a whole lot of folks to work.

 

Elves abound in Glenville

Tom Sawyer’s Christmas Tree Farm & Elf Village is simply not like anything else you find in the region. There are Christmas trees for the choosing, a Christmas-themed shop, rides on horse-drawn wagons, an elf village and a whole lot of “elves.” Thousands of people make the curvy, challenging drive here each season, Sawyer said, from as far away as Atlanta and Upstate South Carolina.

The story, as Tom Sawyer relates it, is that Santa Claus sometime in the 1940s crashed his sleigh in Glenville. The elves opted to stay in this location, hence the elf village that resulted. (It wasn’t clear how this many elves — scores of them, in fact — could have squeezed onto that small sleigh with Santa, but facts shouldn’t stand in the way of a good story.)

There is a small elf chapel, an elf outhouse, an elf naughty-time out-hut and much, much more. Once Sawyer, a former certified public accountant from Florida who started growing trees here in 1982, gets an idea you’d better watch out. Because what he conceptualizes he makes happen.

The youngest child of older parents, Sawyer said that in many ways he grew up more as a little adult than an actual kid.

“I guess I’m now reliving my childhood somehow that I never had,” Sawyer said, gesturing toward the elf village.

From the looks of it, the entire community is doing the same. Take Debra Adams, dressed in her elf costume greeting people as they arrive at the farm. Adams’ two nieces also work at Sawyer’s Christmas extravaganza, one doing face painting, the other storytelling.

Adams is a professional photographer who made the move here from Mississippi to be with her sister and nieces.

“I came up, and decided to move the business here,” Adams said. “In the meantime, this is really helping pay for Christmas. (The Sawyers) have really helped with jobs in this area during these slow periods.”

That makes Sawyer very happy.

“We’ve been able to put a lot of people to work,” Sawyer said. “It’s pretty amazing. Especially in this recession, it brings tears to your eyes the people who call and need jobs  — there’s just no economy here this time of year.”

Until recently, Sawyer kept a herd of reindeer on the farm. For a variety of natural reasons, he said, the herd dwindled out. Sawyer wants to restart the reindeer portion of his business, but a state quarantine on importing the animal has prevented that from happening to date.

Reindeer didn’t just attract additional visitors. A few years ago, Sawyer took a cell call from his daughter, who reported a really huge animal was hanging out on the 80-acre farm. It turned out that one of the reintroduced elk from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had made its way from Cataloochee Valley in Haywood County all the way to Glenville. Apparently missing the camaraderie of fellow hoofed beasts during its wanderings, it took up residence with Sawyer’s reindeer.

Rangers came, and with some difficulty, captured the elk and took it back home.

Visitors, particularly the youngest ones but adults, too, seem to enjoy this not-like-any-other Christmas tree farm.

“It’s very nice,” said Michael Atkins, who was at the Sawyers’ farm on Saturday picking out a Christmas tree with his wife, Suitlana. The couple live on Big Ridge in Glenville for eight months of the year, and the rest of the time they stay in sunny Florida.

 

Getting there

Tom Sawyer’s Christmas Tree Farm and & Elf Village is open through Dec. 24, and is located at 240 Chimney Pond Road in Glenville, off N.C. 107 on the way to Cashiers from Sylva. There are ample signs in the community to help you locate the farm once you get to the area, or call 828.743.5456 or 800.662.7008.

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