33 years selling Christmas trees
By Bob Arnold
More than 30 years ago, Gary Keller saw a sales notice for a house and land off Highway 51 in Beauregard just north of Wesson when he was shopping at Ashley’s 51. Keller, who was moving into the area to work at a Hazlehurst saw mill after working at ones in Vicksburg and Baton Rouge, bought the 10-acre property for the house, but found it covered with trees the former owner sold for Christmas.
“I never intended to sell Christmas trees, but people started showing up during the holiday season, returning to buy trees,” Keller says. “They were good people. They brought their kids with them. I enjoyed chatting with them. Bad people don’t shop for Christmas trees. I couldn’t say no to them, and sold them the trees they wanted.”
Thirty-three years later, Keller continues to sell Christmas trees to area residents and people who travel from other places in Mississippi and Louisiana to purchase them. “They are returning customers and the grown kids of old customers,” he says. “Mayor Shaw from Wesson and his family come every year.”
Keller is again selling the trees for $5 a foot – the price he has maintained for many years now. “It’s not about the money,” says Keller. “It’s more like a hobby than a business. I like doing the work, which is pretty light, and meeting customers.”
Retired from his most recent job as a lab technician at Whitfield Hospital, Keller’s hobby is now his full-time work. He acquires seedlings that a North Carolina supplier starts from small twigs that have fallen from bigger trees, plants them in January on two acres of his property, mows and maintains it to prevent weeds from snuffing out the life of his young trees, trims the growing trees to shape them in the early summer and just before Thanksgiving and then sell his trees between Thanksgiving and Christmas day. Keller’s tree service includes cutting down the trees his customers select. His wife Deborah helps as required.
This year, Keller expects to sell 100-plus trees, and late-buying offshore oil workers and their families will keep him busy right up to the very end of his selling season.
Keller grows 31 rows with about 1,000 trees ranging from the new ones about a foot high started from the twigs to 20-foot trees that organizations, such as churches and businesses, purchase. The trees, he says, grow about one-foot each year. Typically, customers select six-foot trees, although smaller four-foot trees for tabletops are popular, too. Keller, however, recalls a time when it was not uncommon for customers to purchase 15-foot trees.
A former lumber inspector in the mills where he worked, Keller has grown a variety of trees on his property, but has zeroed in on Carolina Blue Sapphires, Eastern Red Cedars, which are native to Mississippi, and Leyland Cypresses.
"They are pretty trees," he says. "The sapphires have a lemon citrus smell. The cedars, of course, have their unique smell. The cypresses are a favorite of people with allergies because they have no smell. The trees I grow do not need a lot of work. They resist drought, insects and disease. I once grew Virginia Pine trees, but they require insecticides and pesticides, and people now prefer trees that are organically grown. They also dried out, and I would have to apply green paint to them to look good.”
Good people and the joy Keller finds in caring for his trees are keeping him going for yet another season.