Picking the right Christmas tree can be the biggest choice of the season. Ken Ottman tries to make it easy. “We try to make it so people can walk up and down the aisles and find a tree.”
For those whose eyes are bigger than their ceiling, Ottman offers a measuring stick. “If they’ve got an eight foot ceiling they can find a tree that’s not ten feet.” You learn a lot of tricks of the trade when your family has been in the Christmas tree business for more than 70 years. “My dad started the business in 1946 and we’ve been selling trees continuously in the Milwaukee area.” Some folks even shop for trees on Christmas eve.
Ottman’s customers have made getting one of his trees part of their Christmas tradition. “We have grandchildren of my father’s original customers that are coming and bringing their little kids, so after 70 years we’ve got generational loyalty. And that’s just real rewarding.”
While the customers head home to hang lights, Ottman heads back to the trailer to make more wreaths. But don’t feel sorry for him. “This is the fun part of the year. The growing of trees is nothing but hard work.”
The real work in Christmas tree farming comes in July. That’s when Ken, his brother Steve, his sister Leslie and their families all gather in Door County to shear the trees. Shearing is what makes a proper Christmas tree. They need to cut the leader and all the shaggy new growth, or else the tree would grow too fast and leave space between the branches. “That’s not what the consumer wants these days. They want tighter, more full tree.”
Each species of pine tree has a narrow window to be sheared. So Ottman’s family is sweating in the sun, swinging sharp knives and wearing a catcher’s leg guard, just in case.
The Door County land has been in Ottman’s family since the late 1800s. “My great grandfather initially bought the land here.” His grandparents grew cherries here. Ken’s mother grew up in Door County, but married a painter named Herbert from Milwaukee. Before Christmas nobody wanted their house painted because the odor was so bad that my dad was basically without work in December.”
So Herbert Ottman started selling Christmas trees, and eventually bought the Door County farm. “They began planting trees here in hopes that they would be able to supply trees for his retail sales.”
At one point Ken Ottman says there were 15,000 trees here, and Herbert sheared them all by hand, on his own. “My dad was the one who had the fire for growing Christmas trees. My mom was a supportive participant.”
Ottman and his siblings grew up in the Christmas tree business. “From the day I could use a jackknife and open up a Christmas tree, I worked in the Christmas tree business.”
It impacted his decision to become a forester and buy two more tree farms. His brother owns two farms and his sister runs the Door County farm as a “choose and cut.” “I don’t know if it’s a life’s passion or a curse, but it’s what we do.”
No matter how hot it gets in July, the chill of December is just a few months away and Ken can’t imagine not being a part of his customers’ merry Christmas. “They will have to drag me out of a Christmas tree lot by my heels. I love this. I love this.”
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