CAIRO — To a certain generation of Thomas County residents, the onset of the holiday season once meant making a trip to Wheeler’s Christmas Tree Farm. This year, Grady County residents will have the chance to relive that experience.
The spirit of the old Wheeler’s farm is alive in Della Lovett’s new business. She’s even giving it the same name.
“We want it to be an event for people to come pick out their Christmas tree,” said Lovett, who grew up at the old location on Summerhill Road. “We want it to become a tradition for families.”
The new Wheeler’s Christmas Tree Farm, the only such business in Grady County, is located at 662 Hall Road in Cairo.
Starting with 965 potted trees that were planted into the ground in January 2017, the second iteration of Wheeler’s now has thousands of trees, adding about an acre every year to keep up with expected demand.
The facility just held its grand opening Friday, and Lovett already had big plans for the type of business she wants to run.
“We’re going to do things a little different from your traditional Christmas tree farm,” she said.
For one, Wheeler’s is going to offer trees for rent.
Rental customers will select a potted Christmas tree of their choice and pay a weekly fee according to its size. The trees are then returned at the end of the holiday season.
“It’s for people who want a live Christmas tree and they don’t like the idea of cutting one down and killing it,” Lovett said.
The practice is already huge in Europe and is gaining popularity in the western United States. Lovett wants to see how well it does in south Georgia.
Of course, customers are still free to choose and cut their trees on their own, if that’s their preference.
“When you arrive, I’ll hand you a measuring stick and a saw,” Lovett said.
Though it isn’t something Lovett promotes as a selling point, the trees grown at Wheeler’s are 100 percent organic. She doesn’t use any manufactured chemicals, and all the fertilizer is provided by the alpacas she raises.
The trees are trimmed by hand by Lovett herself, not by machine or by what she describes as a “cookie-cutter mold.” Instead, Lovett takes pride in letting each tree develop naturally.
“They grow on their own,” she said. “We just let them go.”
More than anything else, Lovett wants to create an environment that evokes the Christmastime of old. She even has a vintage 1948 Dodge Ram that she plans on using to deliver trees for customers who don’t have vehicles large enough to haul them on their own, and Father Christmas — not Santa Claus — will be on hand to greet children as they arrive.
Wheeler’s is a business, but Lovett is careful not to act like Scrooge. Meeting with Father Christmas will be free, and photographers are welcome to come out and take pictures of the site and the Dodge truck if they want.
“I’m not going to nickel and dime Christmas,” Lovett said.
In the long term, Lovett envisions the farm having a playground, a picnic area and even a Christmas-themed artisan market so families can spend the day when they come to get their trees.
“I want it to be a happy place where people come with their families and make memories,” she said.
Lovett, whose last name was Wheeler before she got married, is the youngest child of an older couple of parents who were already preparing to retire by the time she was in middle school. Her dad Kenneth still wanted to have something to do and figured that the family farm could be converted into land suitable for growing Christmas trees.
Running a Christmas tree farm in the’ 70s and ‘80s was a much simpler process, Lovett said. Today, trees can be genetically modified to grow into different colors, and they grow faster, too.
That wasn’t the case when Lovett was growing up.
“Back then you either had pine trees or a cedar tree,” she said.
The first batch of trees were ready to sell by Lovett’s senior year of high school, but the official opening of Wheeler’s Christmas Tree Farm in the winter of 1980 couldn’t have come at a tougher time for her family.
That year, Lovett’s dad developed a brain tumor, and he ended up being bedridden for the entire season and died two weeks before Christmas.
“It was a very emotional time,” Lovett said. “It was a very stressful time because we were opening and we had to open because the trees needed to be sold.”
Lovett and her mother Dorothy continued to operate the farm for the next few years, despite the fact Lovett left to go to college at Valdosta State. Lovett came home on weekends to help out.
After several years, Lovett’s mother’s health took a turn of its own, and the family was no longer capable of keeping the farm operable.
With her own kids now grown and out of the house, Lovett wanted to get back in the business of selling Christmas trees, and she convinced her husband to give it a try.
By a stroke of luck, Lovett managed to get in touch with the man who mentored her parents on how to grow Christmas trees decades ago.
“He gave me guidance and brushed me up on current technology and newer trends,” Lovett said. “He filled in the gaps for some things for me.”
Lovett said she doesn’t need more work on her plate — the alpacas she raises provide enough trouble on their own — but selling trees was something that always brought her joy.
“After my dad died, that’s what made my home a happy place again,” she said.