One November afternoon in 1960, when Ray Robinson was in first grade, his father surprised him at his school bus stop outside of Bigfork. He was there to enlist him into the family business.
“He loaded me up into the truck with him and said, ‘you’re going into the woods to cut Christmas trees,’” Ray recalled.
Ray, now 69, still vividly remembers that first field trip to the forest, which served as his induction into a family legacy still in its infancy. His father drove him down past Swan River school toward Echo Lake, turned right at a crossroad and headed onto a 3,000-acre stretch of Montana State Trust Land.
“It’s been logged since then, but I could go back to the very spot we got out of the car,” Ray said. “My dad took his double bit axe, cut two little trees, maybe thigh tall, and said ‘there’s the truck, take these there and when you get back, I’ll have two more.’”
That was the start of Ray’s involvement in the Robinson Family Christmas tree business, which over the last 70 years has evolved into a multi-state operation, providing thousands of homes with the iconic holiday décor. All of Robinson’s close family members have been involved in the business at some point during the holiday months. Three of Ray’s brothers operate a half-dozen tree lots in Utah, trucking evergreens south from Montana forests every year.
“It’s tradition,” Ray said. “My brothers and I, we kind of feel like we’re a dying breed, like the old-school cowboys. Not many people do this individually anymore.”
In 1952, Ray’s father Ralph, a Golden Gloves boxer, ran away from his family home in South Dakota to his uncle’s house in Detroit. While attending school there, he entered a boxing match that promised $100 to anyone who lasted three rounds with the local champion.
Fifteen seconds into the second round, Ralph knocked out the champ.
“They didn’t have $100 to pay my father,” Ray said. “But my great-uncle was a desk sergeant with the Detroit Police Department and told them they were going to give my father something. And what they had was 400 Christmas trees.”
So, Ralph started selling trees. Over the next few years, he sold trees around the region, including in Milwaukee and Rapid City. It was in this business that he learned that many Christmas trees came from Montana, specifically the town of Eureka, which had been dubbed the “Christmas Tree Capital of the Nation.” Since his business was holiday trees, Ralph figured he should go to the source; he headed west and settled in Bigfork. Ralph would cut the trees and then he’d send them south with his brothers to sell. One year, the truck broke down in Utah and they sold the entire load in Ogden. They’ve been selling there ever since.
But Ray’s favorite part of the tree business isn’t selling them, it’s harvesting them. In early November 2022, during the first snowstorm of the year, Ray revved the two-stroke engine of his chainsaw at a tree farm just off Montana Highway 207, preparing the trees for harvest.
“These are my favorite days,” he said over the squeal of the carburetor, in between chopping down fir trees. “I love harvesting. Most of the time when the weather is nice, you can bring out a picnic lunch and just sit in the forest between truckloads.”
The tree farm is one of the oldest in the area, and Ray bought it a few years ago to augment his supply. The farm had around 12,000 trees when he acquired it, mostly white and alpine firs. Each year, Ray harvests around 500 trees, carefully selecting them based on size and quality.
“Our philosophy has always been, ‘if you wouldn’t put it in your house, who’s gonna put it in theirs?’” he said.
In addition to his tree lot in Kalispell, Ray supplies Christmas trees for retailers in Polson, Great Falls, Havre and North Dakota. Ray used to run the tree lot in Havre, but an accident 16 years ago left him with a broken pelvis, forcing him to stop making the long trek over the Continental Divide. Now, the Havre Shriners make the journey to the Flathead to pick up hundreds of trees.
Augmenting the tree farm harvest are some tree loads cut from public land, as well as a plantation load of Fraser firs that Ray buys from Wisconsin — a variety that doesn’t grow as well out West.
“Mom always said, ‘God loves poor people, he made a lot of us,’ so we always try to have a tree priced for everybody,” Ray said. “We’ll sell lots of $10 or $15 trees, what people in smaller homes or apartments can afford and have space for.”
“The other thing is we’re one of a few companies in the U.S. that offer a guarantee with our tree,” Ray added. “If you buy a tree from us and the needles start shedding, you bring it back and we’ll give you another tree.”
Ray’s wife, Diana, is the salesperson of the family.
“Selling is the most fun. Kids get to be part of the selection and we give them candy canes,” she said. “I love that each year they’ll come back wondering where the candy canes are.”
Coming from her own family tree business, Diana knew what she was getting into when marrying Ray nearly four decades ago.
“It’s just the routine,” she said. “Every year people are looking for the perfect tree.”
Diana says each family has their own idea of ‘perfect’ — Douglas fir, white fir, Scotch fir, full and bushy, tall and skinny, tabletop sized.
The family has the business of selling trees down to a science.
Each customer is met at the gate with a smile, and then the Robinsons step back and let the visitors do their own thing — they’ll ask for help if they want it.
“The funny thing is that 90% of people will come back to the first tree they look at,” Ray said. “They’ll go through the whole damn lot and come back to the first one that caught their eye. We’ll even have people leave to look elsewhere and come back to the lot with a sheepish look and take that first one.”
Ray’s father passed away after 44 years of selling Christmas trees. Since that first outing in first grade, Ray has been involved with Christmas trees for 62 years now.
“I’m lucky enough to still be doing this,” Ray said. “If I didn’t enjoy doing this every year, I wouldn’t have kept it up for so long. My wife always says it’s time to stop but I love it. I’m going to keep it up ‘til they bury me.”
As for Ray’s own household, the Robinson family Christmas tree doesn’t make an appearance until Dec. 23 — they’re too busy until then.
“I’ll look and see what’s left on the farm at that point,” he said. “I can always go out and find a Charlie Brown tree that’s perfect for us.”