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An evergreen state of mind

A longtime passion for growing the perfect Christmas tree has gotten Eric and Gloria Sundback from West Virginia to the White House for a record fourth time. It never gets old.

October 08, 2009|Faye Fiore

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA. — Still growing somewhere here on Eric and Gloria Sundback's 100-acre tree farm is the two-story fir that will stand resplendent in the Blue Room of the White House this Christmas.

This is because the Sundbacks -- he's 82, she's 83 -- have just turned out a grand champion Christmas tree for a record fourth time, a feat they once mistakenly assumed they were too old to pull off.

Now the Sundbacks will once again watch a tree they nurtured from seed, fed and pruned, cast as the glittery showstopper at almost nightly holiday parties, then immortalized in the Obamas' first official White House Christmas photo.

In tree-growing circles, this is akin to getting your kid crowned Miss America, but the Sundbacks have already produced triplets with tiaras -- one for the Carters and two for the Reagans, which means they practically know their way around the executive mansion and are about to shake the hand of their third first lady.

"At the White House, they treat you like a king and queen," Eric said, rolling his gold Yukon past the even rows of next year's Christmas tree crop. Gloria, his wife of 58 years, was in the back seat, shooing a stink bug out the window.

They have been growing Christmas trees for 40 years. Growing isn't the half of it -- they selectively breed them in a quest to produce the perfect tree, which, contrary to popular belief, does not just spring up in the forest. "No tree knows it wants to be a Christmas tree," Eric likes to say.

A tree left to its own devices will shoot up toward the sun, arms flailing like a go-go dancer. A tree with the "natural" elegance that doesn't droop even after three weeks screwed into a metal stand in the living room takes years of hard work in the fields. That's where husband and wife toiled side by side for decades and, both agree, "nobody ever got mad."

There is big money in Christmas trees; Americans spent $1.1 billion on about 30 million of them last year. The Sundbacks have always prided themselves on producing the best of the crop.

Looking back, it was probably destiny. Eric grew up on a Pennsylvania farm where his father planted trees for no other reason than to remind him of his native Sweden. By the time Eric was 10, he was selling them off his sled for 10 cents a foot.

The couple met in college. He became a landscape architect, she a chemist. They married, had two children and in the late '50s moved to Maryland, where the fresh trees were, let's just say, disappointing.

One year on a lark, they trucked down some trees they had planted on his father's farm and sold them from a lot not far from the White House. It was more fun than they expected; nobody gets grumpy at Christmas. That was the late 1960s. They bought some cheap land here on West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle and started planting. Gloria kept meticulous records of every tree's age, row number and parentage in blue, plastic-bound notebooks -- one copy for the desk, one for the field. They sold the Pennsylvania trees until the West Virginia batch was ready, which took about six years. "It's not like corn; you don't get a crop the first year," Gloria says.

Word got around, and soon they were selling Christmas trees to Washington luminaries -- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. Barbara Bush requested their trees for the vice presidential manse and had the Sundbacks over for coffee and cookies. A couple of times there were calls from Camp David.

By 1980, Eric had given up the landscape business, and the Sundbacks became full-time tree farmers with their first White House winner. At its peak, their business grew to 160 acres of trees and four retail lots. They made a good team: She planted; he drove the tractor.

"I can bend over better, but he can drive the tractor straighter," Gloria said, pulling on her khaki sun hat. Eric has one to match.

She is a thin woman with cropped silver hair and a smile that takes over her whole face. He is bald and a little bit round, with a white beard he lets grow at the holidays, creating a striking resemblance to you-know-who.

They have just returned with 2,000 pounds of cones from their annual hunt for seeds in the Rockies. They take the truck -- one sleeps in the back while the other drives -- looking for qualities that make a good Christmas tree: color, texture, sturdy branches.

"There are good trees, and there are lousy trees. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out," Eric says. The hard part is recognizing a tree that, despite a raggedy appearance in the wild, could flourish in West Virginia's rich soil and the Sundbacks' capable hands.

The other hard part is gathering the seeds, which can be accomplished one of two ways: Squirrels can crack 10 pine cones in a minute, and Gloria is particularly good at distracting them with corn, then swiping the booty.

Failing that, "You've got to climb the damn thing," Eric said.

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