Larry Baker and Dennis Kelly are grizzled Vietnam veterans who have a soft spot for botany. Visit them at their Santa’s Treeland lot across the street from Super 1 Foods in Kalispell and they’ll tell you anything you want to know about Northwest Montana conifers. They care about Christmas trees. Truly.
Baker and Kelly are quick to tell you that the Christmas tree business isn’t designed for big profit. They’re retired and it gives them something to do. But most importantly, it gives money to the local Jaycees’ Coats for Kids program and the Evergreen Volunteer Fire Department. Baker and Kelly split their modest profits with those two organizations.
While the two men appreciate the importance of giving toys to kids around the holiday season, they believe the first priority is keeping the little ones warm.
“I’d rather see a kid clothed,” Kelly said. “They’re getting toys and not getting clothes.”
Jaycees is a nonprofit organization that orchestrates the Coats for Kids program every winter. Last Saturday was Jaycees’ big clothes shopping day, where volunteers took about 120 kids to stores such as Wal-Mart and Herberger’s and purchased them warm clothes, everything from shoes to coats. The money comes from a variety of sources, mostly community donations and also Santa’s Treeland.
Tiffany DeVera, co-chairman of Coats for Kids, said even though the big shopping day is over, Jaycees is still working hard to provide more kids with coats through December. People can donate coats or money. Those interested in helping out should call 752-1522 or send donations to P.O. Box 427 Kalispell, MT 59903.
DeVera said Jaycees helped over 300 children last year and has helped roughly 2,600 families to date. The program started 22 years ago.
“We’re still helping kids until the end of December,” DeVera said.
Baker and Kelly hang out at Santa’s Treeland seven days a week in the winter. They chat about the old days, tell hunting and fishing stories and occasionally bicker. But once a customer comes, they’re on it. There’s not a single tree on that lot that they can’t talk about for at least a minute, giving details about smell, aging properties and anything else a customer may want to know. Baker’s son also runs a satellite lot at the Pin & Cue in Whitefish.
On a recent chilly December morning, Baker rattled off attributes of Douglas firs, plantation pines, spruces and Norwegian firs before stopping to admire a medium-sized balsam. He smelled its branches.
“You can walk away for an hour and come back and it’s summertime,” Baker said. “It’s got a great smell.”
Last year Baker and Kelly sold 400 of their 750 trees. They purchase most of their trees from a local plantation and harvest the rest themselves. They emphasize that all of the trees are local. This year, they supplied the lot with 650 trees and hope to sell most of them, if not all. Prices range from $10 to $100, though the majority cost between $25 and $50.
“If they can’t afford it, I go down,” Baker said.
Baker has been in the Christmas tree business for 25 years. Kelly, his hunting and fishing buddy, didn’t join until a little under a decade ago. Since then they’ve been out there every winter. They have helpers, so they can occasionally leave, but for the most part they’re always there. When there aren’t any customers, they pass the time in a 1969 Winnebago that Baker bought for $900. Baker’s quite proud of it, just as he is with his trees.
“I can answer any question anyone has about trees,” Baker said.
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