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Examiner
  • VIDEO: Christmas trees in the caves

  • A Christmas tree might appear simply as pine needles, a trunk and a symbol of the holiday season that comes around once each year. But for seven years, hundreds of thousands of trees have traveled more than 500 miles on semi-trucks from Merrillan, Wis., to Independence. They are stored in a cave at the Commercial...
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  • A Christmas tree might appear simply as pine needles, a trunk and a symbol of the holiday season that comes around once each year.
    But for seven years, hundreds of thousands of trees have traveled more than 500 miles on semi-trucks from Merrillan, Wis., to Independence. They are stored in a cave at the Commercial Distribution Center near Missouri 291 until they are distributed to tree lots across the region.   
    Three men have worked 10-hour days, seven days a week since Nov. 18, loading and delivering the trees. 
    Tim Pearson, 23; Randy Evans, 54; and Floyd “Alex” Alexander, who will turn 74 on Dec. 21; each has a story to tell about what working in the tree business means to them.
    The journey
    Northern Christmas Trees and Nursery started as a family-owned-and-operated wholesale Christmas tree company in 1955. Each year, it produces 150,000 Christmas trees on more than 6,600 acres, Evans said.
    Most of the trees stored in the cave came from Wisconsin, though Evans said a few also came from Canada. Those who operate tree lots come from across the region for their trees, from as far west as Topeka, Kan., to as far north as St. Joseph. Evans, who has worked at the nursery for 12 years, said the purpose of storing trees in the cave and distributing them is to help lots that order small quantities of trees.
    “In today’s environment, you can’t necessarily stop a semi-truck for 25 trees. It’s not cost effective,” Evans said. “This is almost like a business incubator where we cater to the smaller businesses. Most people are having a fairly good year. The weather’s been decent this year, so they can take advantage of me carrying an inventory down here, if they run out.”   
    Northern Christmas Trees and Nursery first located inside the Commercial Distribution Center about seven years ago. In his first year, the space had no lights, Evans said. Instead, a single flood light that operated off a car battery, plus several sodium lights along the cave’s walls, provided the only light.
    During his one month in Independence, Evans said everyone he works with is extremely hospitable. He often works with Boy Scout troops, Optimist clubs, service volunteers, private entrepreneurs and nurseries. 
    “We’re down here to supply trees to people. We’re down here to service our customers and make sure they get what they want and when they want it,” Evans said.
    Several years ago, Northern Christmas Trees sent several loads of trees to Washington, D.C., and Canada at the last minute, Evans said. Sometimes, he gets a little jumpy toward the end if he has trees remaining.
    “Next week on Wednesday, if you came back down here, you’d never know that we were here – never,” Evans said.
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    The location
    On Wednesday, the temperature was at about 40 degrees inside the cave. The season’s first significant snowfall occurred on Tuesday, and Evans said he could see the vapor from his breath in the cave that day.
    Despite chilly temperatures, keeping the trees inside the cave serves as a protection from the weather, especially wind, Evans said. 
    “Missouri and Kansas, in my opinion, tend to be very windy,” he said with a laugh. “You never know what the weather’s going to be. We had snow and sleet (Tuesday), and these trees are nice. They were unharmed by anything. Trees upstairs in the lots have people shaking the snow off of them (Wednesday) morning.”
    Evans said he believes that cold weather is simply a state of mind, though he wears long underwear, two pairs of socks, three shirts and a heavy jacket in the cave. 
    “You just have to allow yourself to accept it,” he said. “You don’t have to like it, but once you accept it, it’s fine.”
    Initially, Evans would get sinus infections each year that he worked in the cave. Then, he learned to get a flu shot and carry sinus medication.
    How does Evans feel at the end of the day?
    “Exhausted. Absolutely exhausted,” he said. “For a month, I don’t do anything down here. I just go home to my hotel. I call my wife, we talk for awhile, I eat supper and then I go to bed.”
    More than needles and a trunk 
    Alex has hauled Christmas trees for about 35 years. When he started, lots only offered about three different types of Christmas trees. Today, Northern Christmas Trees alone offers seven different types in heights that range from two feet to 15 feet.
    When Evans needs advice on anything in the tree business, he turns to Alex.
    “Alex has seen everything,” Evans said. “I joke with my wife that when I grow up, I want to be just like Alex.”
    Evans left Wisconsin on Nov. 18 and worked from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
    “It’s hard,” Evans said. “It’s hard on my wife. I have a lot of invitations from people down here to come on over for Thanksgiving. You get used to it, though.”
    After he graduated from college in May with a degree in field biology, Pearson went to work at Northern Christmas Trees and Nursery. He had met the nursery’s owner at a career fair, but Pearson said he was still surprised at the amount of care that goes into Christmas trees.
    Page 3 of 3 - “It was nothing like I had imagined,” he said. “It really intrigued me. There’s a lot of opportunity at Northern, and I really enjoy it.”
    Because he was born in Kansas City and still has relatives in the area, Pearson asked if he could make the journey and help out with the trees in Independence this year. He said one word when he was asked if he would come back next year.
    “Absolutely.”
     
     
     
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