24: The Tree Lot
Hightower Broadway Street runs for about four miles north of downtown San Antonio before it splits and heads off in two directions. You can stay on Broadway or you can veer to the right onto Austin Highway. If you’re clever you might guess that Austin Highway heads towards Austin. It used to do that but now it just dead-ends into Interstate 35. That’s the highway you now take if you want to get to Austin. Or Dallas. Or Des Moines. Or Duluth.
But before all that – while you’re still in San Antonio on the stretch of pavement called Austin Highway – you’ll pass by a small strip of land. For most of the year it’s just an empty lot. But about a month before Christmas it’s transformed into a Christmas tree lot.
That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the twenty-fourth episode of The Works; a podcast about the world we build around us.
I’m Brantley Hightower.
Brantley Most of the time Kevin Kiser sells houses for a living as president Randolph Brooks Federal Credit Union Realty. But in December he also sells trees that people can put in their houses. He’s been working as a volunteer at the Christmas Tree Lot on Austin Highway for many years. So many years, in fact, he’s lost count.
Kevin Fifty-seven minus twelve… forty-five years or so. I’ve been coming to this lot since my father joined the Optimist Club in 1972 when we moved to San Antonio so I have forty-five years of experience on this particular lot. On this lot right here. That’s a long time… but I love it.
Brantley Forty-five years is a long time. But the tree lot has been there even longer. The Alamo Heights Optimist Club first started selling trees on the side of Austin Highway during the Eisenhower administration.
Kevin Whoever set it up back in 1954 was very forward thinking because of the arrangements of the poles we haven’t done too many modifications to it over the years so I’m not sure exactly who set it up but they did a heck of a job.
Brantley The Christmas tree lot sits in the shadow of a large oak tree that has watched as thousands of its evergreen brothers have been sold beneath it. The poles Kevin mentioned are aligned in neat parallel rows. The trees that are for sale lean up against metal cables that are strung between the poles. The trees are arranged by height and by variety.
Kevin The best trees are the Nobles and the new Nordmann firs which are hybrid trees. You want one that’s from the west coast – there seems to be less drought on the west coast so when the trees come they’re fresher. They have more staying power to last longer without dropping needles off of them. I kind of like the new Nordmann firs. They’re basically an engineered tree they have a little bit thicker branches and a little bit thicker needles and they seem to stay moist a little bit longer.
Brantley And if there’s one thing you want your Christmas tree to be, it’s moist.
All of the trees for sale at the Tree Lot were grown on a tree farm some 1,700 miles away.
Kevin Noble Mountain basically owns a whole mountain in Salem, Oregon. So it’s always full of trees and that’s their main industry. They’re not a mom-and-pop shop. They’re the big guys in the industry.
Brantley In fact, with over 4,000 acres of combined farms, Noble Mountain Tree Farm is one of the world's largest wholesale Christmas tree suppliers. But regardless of the scale of the farm where it originates, the sale of single tree to a single family remains an intimate, one-on-one experience.
Kevin So we just help them select the tree and pull them off the line and display them for them so they can look and make sure the whole tree is all there and doesn’t have any branches that are burned or broken off. And then we bring them over to our cutting area and we’ll chop the bottom off the tree. Take about an inch cut off the bottom of it so that the tree can water itself. It’s pinesap and the pinesap will seal the tree so you have to have a fresh cut on it. And then we have a shaker to put the tree in to shake all the loose needles off of it to keep as many as you can off your carpets.
Brantley In case you were wondering a tree shaker does exactly what you think it does.
Kevin And then we can either net it or simply tie it to the top of your car depending on how far you’re going.
Brantley The tree lot is open seven days a week until Christmas Day or until all the trees are sold – whichever comes first.
Kevin Our weekends are the busiest. On Saturdays and Sundays when it’s truly busy and everybody’s shopping for trees it’s really kind of magical down here.
And it’s generational. Since the lot’s been here since 1954 we’ve got people who came down here when they were kids – their parents brought them down here when they were kids and now they bring their kids down here to shop for Christmas trees on this lot.
Brantley It’s generational for Kevin, too.
Kevin My father will be here in a little while to sit with me and visit. He’s 88 years old and here still makes time to come down to the tree lot. He doesn’t carry trees around as much as he used to but he’s great company.
Brantley After Christmas is over and all the trees have been sold, Kevin and the rest of the Alamo Heights Optimist Club will clean up the lot. They’ll take down the poles and cables and put it all back into storage. When all that’s done they’ll write checks to various youth organizations around town. 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of trees go to charity.
Of course by then there will be no sign of the Christmas tree lot on the side of Austin Highway. By then it will just be another empty lot – at least until next Christmas.
Brantley Thanks today to Kevin Kiser and the Alamo Heights Optimist Club. The music today was by Dan Lerch and Wooden Shjips.
The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at Hi dot Works.
Until next time, Happy holidays! I’m Brantley Hightower.