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Christmas tree farm is a 40-year labour of love (7 photos)

The story of Hotchkiss Tree Farm in Prince Township

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

Isn’t it exciting to think about a Christmas tree?

Sometime in November or December, many folks are making plans to put up a Christmas tree in their home in celebration of the holiday season. Will it be an artificial or a farm-fresh tree? How big and what kind will it be? These are choices that many people will make very soon. 

Some have had the pleasure of going to a real Christmas Tree Farm where they embark on the adventure of choosing just the right tree that will suit their home and family perfectly.

For four decades, Fred Hotchkiss and his wife Audrey have lovingly laboured to grow the ideal Christmas tree. Children and adults alike who have visited their property, assuredly have had a wonderful experience at this authentic Christmas tree farm.

Hotchkiss Tree Farm came into existence back in 1979 and is located at 4056 Second Line in Prince Township, approximately twenty minutes West of Sault Ste. Marie. For many visitors, this parcel of land holds many happy memories.

At the turn of the century, the original landowners were Fred’s grandparents, Alonzo and Grace Hotchkiss. The couple originally came from Millersburg, Michigan and Kingsville, Ontario and moved to Prince Township where they became homesteaders. The property was eventually passed down to Fred’s parents, Bruce and Helen Hotchkiss, who then left the family property to be divided among their three children.

It is understandable that the Hotchkiss Tree Farm was born out of a labour of love and pride in family ownership. The location is picturesque, dwarfed by the massive rock of the Canadian Shield and surrounded by the many varieties of beautiful trees.

It holds a strong physical and emotional connection not just for the owners but for those who have chosen to make tagging and cutting a Christmas tree their annual tradition.

When Fred was a younger man, he gave much thought as to how his parcel of land could be utilized. He originally thought about having animals on the property but did not want to deal with the issues of tending to them. Realizing that the soil on the property was abundantly sandy, Fred’s idea of a Christmas tree farm was born.

First, the land had to be cleared of any existing debris and vegetation. Approximately 10 acres were ploughed for the trees to be planted.

Then the property was staked for the placement of the trees approximately 6 feet apart which would allow for a healthy Christmas tree to grow. Trails were made to welcome people, toboggans, snow machines, and trailers to navigate in and around snow-covered trees.

When it came time to plant, thousands of seedlings were purchased and shipped from a tree farm in Pontypool, Ontario.

Varieties of trees acquired included, Blue Spruce, Norway Spruce, Scotch Pine, and Balsam Fir. Planting the varieties of evergreens began and Fred and Audrey were grateful for the many family members who also helped with the planting of their soon-to-be forest. Pines would take about five years to mature and the Blue Spruce would take anywhere from 8-10 years.

At approximately 3-4 years of age, the trees were ready to be pruned.

Fred would begin the pruning process when new growth started to come onto the tree and did this all by himself. The arduous task of pruning the entire tree farm still takes him approximately a month and a half to two months during the hottest months of the summer. Fighting bugs, bees, wasps, hornets and the odd bear, should make all tree buyers appreciate owning a farm-fresh tree. 

Swinging pruning knives that are approximately sixteen inches long is a skill that Fred has perfected over the years while carefully sheering each tree. This process must be done each year.

Over the years Fred has primarily been a one-man-operation however he also gives much credit to his brothers-in-law and especially his equally hard-working wife, Audrey. The tree farm has always been given great help from Mother Nature too, as she has always taken care of all of the farm’s watering and fertilizing needs.

Many people enjoy the process of picking out their trees as there are all sizes and types to choose from.

There is a box outside the garage that contains tagging ribbons for families to come any time of the year to tag their desired tree. When it comes time for cutting, the exercise is to try and remember in which area their perfect Christmas tree is located.

The process has often been a great tradition for many families over the years especially for those who would like to cut their own Christmas tree. Seeing adults and children weaving in and out of the trees, in search of their best choice has always been a pleasure for the farm owners. Of course, it’s not just about the trees, it’s about the people and sometimes their dogs that come along for the yearly tradition.

Fred and Audrey recall nearly all their returning customers.

They recalled a little girl whose parents had brought her, year after year, to choose a Christmas tree. One day the owners received a call from the grown girl’s mother who said that her daughter was getting married and that she would like to have her wedding pictures taken at the tree farm. 

Her daughter had requested that her photos be taken at Hotchkiss Tree Farm because of the fond memories she held since childhood and of course the beauty that surrounds the farm.

So on her special day, a limousine pulled into the yard with the beautiful bride and her bridal party. There they spent the afternoon capturing memories among the snow-covered evergreens. It was a day that would never be forgotten by the Hotchkiss couple and a scene akin to a Hallmark Movie.

Over the years, many different organizations, including Girl Guides, Boy Scouts and area photographers have requested the use of the landscaped setting. Fred and Audrey have also generously donated their trees to different community events and have even had a few floats in the Sault Ste. Marie Santa Claus Parade.

And so, some might think owning a tree farm is a rather straightforward undertaking but as Fred and Audrey Hotchkiss can attest, it comes with multiple layers.

It is a big investment of time, sweat and physical labour but it also comes with the pleasure of seeing families arrive with their children and happy faces who enjoy a day out in the fresh air. Whether to initially tag the perfect tree or to cut their own Christmas tree while creating some family memories, visiting this Christmas Tree Farm has always been lauded as a fun experience.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at www.ssmpl.ca and look for more Remember This? columns here