Although the Christmas tree has long been one of the most visible symbols of the holiday in this country, that wasn't always the case. In fact, prior to 1840, the Christmas tree was rarely seen in …
Although the Christmas tree has long been one of the most visible symbols of the holiday in this country, that wasn't always the case. In fact, prior to 1840, the Christmas tree was rarely seen in American homes.
German immigrants were the first to display Christmas trees in America, with community Christmas trees dating back to 1747 in some German settlements in Pennsylvania. It wasn't until nearly a century later, however, that trees began to appear in private homes. The influx of German immigrants into the Jeffersonville area of Sullivan County in the 1840s was likely responsible for the initial popularity of trees here.
Those early German immigrants no doubt trekked through the forest to cut their own Christmas trees each year, but by 1850 the tradition of displaying a tree in the home had become commonplace enough in America that trees had become commercially available in many areas. By the early 1900s, the buying and selling of Christmas trees had become big business in the U.S.
And the man who gained notoriety throughout the country in the 1930s as “the Christmas tree king” spent his summers in Kenoza Lake for many years.
His name was Fred Vahlsing.
“In Kenoza Lake He's summer Resident, But in New York He's Xmas Tree King,” the Liberty Register announced in a frontpage headline in its December 24, 1936 edition. “For 20 years, Vahlsing has been dealing in Yule trees until now he stands at the top of the trade in New York, and ships to Philadelphia, Puerto Rico and South America,” the Register reported.
“He is 45, of German ancestry, brusque, square-jawed. A kin of Kris Kringle himself. King Vahlsing has no whiskers, but he has a wife, three daughters and a son in Forest Hills from where he usually comes to his rather large place here, now closed until next summer.”
The Register referred to Vahlsing as one of Kenoza Lake's “best known summer residents.”
In a December 25, 1938 article in its Sunday Magazine, the Indianapolis Star called Vahlsing “the J.P. Morgan of the business. The man who goes to the source of supply and buys trees by the trainload.”
“Vahlsing deals in vegetables throughout the year,” the Star reported. “But on July 15 he begins thinking of Christmas trees…On July 15, Vahlsing's purchasing agent starts for Nova Scotia…It will take nearly a month to buy the 100,000 trees Vahlsing will want in the freight yards the following December 18.”
“Once this business has been negotiated, the matter of Christmas trees is shelved until October 15, when the agent again goes to Nova Scotia to hire cutting crews.”
Time magazine featured Vahlsing and his business in a 1936 article about Christmas trees, as did the Lima (Ohio) Sunday News and the Washington (DC) Evening Star. And in a column called “The Gleaner” by Orrin T. Pierson in its December 14, 1936 edition, the Middletown Times Herald called Vahlsing “chief among New York City speculators” in Christmas trees.
While planting and raising Christmas trees saved many struggling American farmers from Maine to Oregon during the Great Depression, bringing in cash for them at a time of the year when there was little other revenue, for wholesalers like Vahlsing it was definitely a speculative business. Unsold trees that had a very specific value prior to Christmas, were worth less than nothing on December 26, since they had to be hauled away and disposed of at some cost.
Some years the “speculators” made out well. In 1928, for example, there was a shortage of trees, and the value of a bundle jumped from the usual $2 to $6. In 1937, however, more than 100,000 trees were still left on railroad sidings in New York City the afternoon before Christmas. Railroad men, faced with the possibility of having to cart the trees to the dump, solved the problem by looking the other way as “an army of poor people swept into the yard and carried off trees to brighten dark tenements.”
As the Indianapolis Star noted, “they will brighten rich and poor homes alike, and add the warmth that only the Christmas tree can add. These little evergreens have become the symbol of peace in a troubled world, which is to say the symbol of Christmas itself.”
John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.