January 18, 2022

Creston Christmas tree: 1 in a 1,000

Union County couple donates tree for Creston Depot

“It is the best, the prettiest tree on the place,” explains Gordon Bills as he watches a trio of his neighbors carefully haul a newly-cut Colorado Blue Spruce from his back yard.

“That’s why we donated it,” adds his wife, Barbara Bills.

One of those neighbors with the Bills Tuesday is Jason Hyde, a conservation officer at Green Valley State Park. He and Caleb Hoakison have come to the Bills’ home to collect this year’s Christmas tree to place outside the Creston Depot as part of the community’s holiday celebrations. Hyde squats and studies the rings of the sawed-off trunk with the eyes of one who knows how to gauge the age of trees. “I’d guess it’s about 18 years old.”

Gordon agrees, and then adds, “Or maybe 20.”

Married in 1952, the Bills first planted evergreens to sell as Christmas trees about 25 years later. “With a spade, I planted about 1,000 trees a year,” Gordon recalls. “I planted each one of them by hand.” During this time, he explains, area residents brought their families, and even the family dogs, to the tree farm, chose a tree, and cut it to take home. “Every once-in-a-while, I’d take my saw and cut them a tree,but mostly they cut their own. I never pre-cut a tree; I never stacked them.” The best part was watching family members interact, he recalls with a smile.” It was fun watching the kids have snowball fights with their parents. We all had fun.”

For years, encouraged by a friend in Illinois, Bills plants new seedlings “from here clear to the pond,”as well as alongside the remnants of trees cut the previous winter. Hundreds of seedlings. Each year.

“It was a lot of work,” Gordon, 87, concedes, “to shear and shape trees each year. I’d take my electric shears, a generator and a 100-foot electric cord out, and shape each one every year until it sold.”

“We mowed around a lot of trees,” recalls Barbara with a smile at her husband, perhaps emphasizing the”we” just a little. “It takes at least seven years for a tree to become big enough.”

And the trees keep growing, although the Bills no longer market them. As the couple watches the volunteers prepare their tree for transport to town, Gordon murmurs quietly, “I hope it doesn’t break. I didn’t realize it was that big just by standing there.”

Hoakison brings his tractor to the former tree farm to help get this tree to town, “Unofficially, I’d say it’s about 17 feet tall,” he calculates, looking the tree up-and-down. “We’ll see how it fits on the flatbed.” Gordon also wonders about the fit; he perches on his riding lawn mower at a prime inspection spot: a bit of a ridge at the end of the driveway where he can observe the proceedings and remain in a place of safety. “Tell them to watch for the power lines,” he advises as he watches Hoakison and his tractor crawl slowly and gingerly across the lawn, past the house and down the driveway.

On this day, the sun shines brightly and the temperatures hover in the upper 50s. As Brad Van Gelder parks his flatbed on the road, Hyde and Hoakison wrap wide yellow straps around the tree’s trunk,and then weave the straps through the tines. Hyde guides Hoakison to lift, tilt and lower the fork, as well as move it closer to, and then further from, the flatbed. Finally, with a lot of shoving, pulling and tugging, the men roll the tree onto the flatbed and tie it tightly. Then they begin the slow trek into town.

This year’s holiday tree grows through the evolution of ideas from community people engaged in “Market on Maple”and “Farm-to-Fork” activities, both supported by the Union County Development Association. In mid-September, “We are just messaging back and forth when Terri [Van Gelder] reports that she’s received requests to do something over the holidays,” recalls Mindy Stalker, Talent Development Director for UCDA. “And Merry Marketplace is born.”

During a Merry Marketplace committee meeting, the seed is planted. “The idea of an oversized tree to celebrate the season, and to locate it in Uptown Creston in time for MerryMarketplace on Saturday was mentioned and, as most of the committee’s ideas, it soon turned into an action item,” Stalker explains, adding that the Merry Marketplace Committee includes a partnership with the UCDA as part of the City’s Uptown revitalization efforts. She continues, “These events are great opportunities to activate our Uptown District, and encourage our community to dream of all its possibilities.”

But where to find a tree large enough for their purposes? Hyde, a DNR park ranger, speaks with his wife, Karlie, and they agree chances are slim he will find a giant tree in all the easy places he might look. “There aren’t a lot of really picturesque trees around here; mostly we have a lot of Eastern Red Cedars,” he muses. Then Amy Longstaff offers this passing comment: “My grandpa and grandma have a tree farm – or at least they did.”

And the dream takes root.

While Longstaff poses the idea to her grandparents of donating a Christmas tree, Terri Van Gelder and Meredith Wulf propose the idea to City Hall. On Nov. 16, the council agrees to allow the tree to be placed between the Creston Depot and Adams Street.

On Tuesday, Hyde, Hoakison and Brad Van Gelder remain with the tree from the time it leaves the Bills’ farm in rural Creston to its arrival at the Depot. “Look at what our wives got us into,” says Van Gelder with a big grin when they finally appear with the tree on his flatbed. Already in the parking lot is the tree stand, custom made by Don Wulf, who uses a tractor rim for the trunk and half of a 6-ft utility cable spool for a base. Meredith Wulf stands by with a couple of tubs of dirt to pack the trunk in place.

Working carefully with Creston Street Superintendent T.J. Parsons, care is taken not to put too much weight on the bricks around the Depot; a crowd of onlookers grows as the City shares its boom truck to cautiously lift the tree from Van Gelder’s flatbed and swing it into place.

“Will there be a tree-lighting ceremony?” a woman asks aloud. “I watch a lot of Hallmark movies, and there’s always a tree-lighting ceremony.”

Yes, Virginia. Organizers and other volunteers plan a Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony following tonight’s 7 p.m. parade at the Creston Depot.