America's First Christmas Tree (?) and Other Surprises
Christmas trees are ubiquitous at this time of the year, and rightly so. Christmas carols begin filling the air the day after Thanksgiving. Some might even argue for the day after Halloween. On Madison Hill in Wooster, Ohio, there is a tomb. Outside its door each Christmas stands a lighted tree as a tribute to August Imgard, the man credited with introducing the Christmas tree to America. August, a nineteen-year-old German immigrant, missed the tradition of his youth in Bavaria. The heart that is not happy, seeks to fill a void.
The year was 1847. He came here to join other family members and he especially wanted his nephew, Albert, and his niece, Mary, to experience the joys of the season, as he knew it from his homeland. He chopped down a spruce tree from the woods and got the village tinsmith to make him a star. His young relatives and he then fashioned some paper decorations and on December 24th, 1847, America had its first Christmas tree. The emptiness was banished; happiness was restored.
Before long the entire village had heard about and seen the wonderful symbol August had installed, and the following year the custom took hold throughout the town. The tinsmith was happily busy making shiny metal stars and before long the idea spread far and wide beyond the borders of Wooster. So goes one version of the history of the first American Christmas tree.
For a long time August was given the credit. The Guinness Book of Records exists because the words first, as well as tallest, and smallest and other superlatives inspire bragging rights and competition. A December 1998 issue of The Lutheran Witness states that " the first mention of a Christmas tree in America comes to us from Fort Dearborn (now Chicago), circa 1804." There's a forty-three year disparity!
A report from Rochester, N. Y. mentions a Rev. John Muehlhauser having a decorated tree in his church in 1840, purportedly as a one-time fundraiser. Tales abound that Hessian soldiers introduced the tradition around the time of the Revolutionary War. But Guinness and record holders would insist on documentation, and for these there is little and mostly unreliable.
Enter one Harriet Martineau, famous Englishwoman, who in one of her books, "Retrospect of Western Travel", describes her visit with Harvard professor, Charles Follen. She tells of her Christmas visit to Cambridge, MA. in 1832. In her writing she sketches a delightful picture of the Follen's Christmas tree adorned with dolls, glittering ornaments and dozens of tiny wax candles. Miss Martineau goes on to predict it would become a New England holiday tradition. What further confirms "this" first is a biography written by Charles's wife stating that each year they set up a Christmas tree for their son after the custom from their land, Switzerland. Sorry, August, but you've been pre-empted by fifteen years.
Still, I'm fairly certain there is someone else in the wings waiting to capture the title. It may only be a matter of time and documentation.
When it comes to Christmas trees, we are blessed. Balsam firs, Scotch and white pines, evergreens of all shapes and sizes can be found for sale in abundance. In fact, an estimated 50 million trees are sold in the U.S. every year.
But this wasn't always the case. During those early years in the nineteenth century, when holiday trees first became a part of our American way of life, if one wished to display a tree, someone had to go cut one down. What follows is the true story of America's First Christmas tree salesman.
Mark Carr was a Catskill, N.Y. farmer. In 1861 he had suffered from a poor crop year and needed seed money for planting the following spring. Carr once told an interviewer, "I felt terrible. Funds were difficult to obtain and there was not one person I could turn to for help. Those were sad days for our family. Had I not had my idea, I doubt if I would now own our farm."
Carr's idea was to sell Christmas trees. He had read in the newspapers about the growing popularity of the holiday tree, introduced by immigrants from Europe. There were trees on Carr's property. The farmer thought he might be able to make some money if he chopped some down and transported them to New York City where there was a ready market for evergreens. He decided to risk all the money he had and go into the Christmas tree business. At the time it was a gamble. A big one! But history records that Carr's decision was a wise one.
It was not a simple task. First the trees had to be chopped down -- three dozen of them. Then the branches had to be tied together to make transporting them easier. He and his two sons dragged the trees over trails they'd blazed to the family farm. The trees were then loaded aboard a wagon for the trip to the big city. Two farm horses (some reports say it was oxen) pulled the load. The Carrs and their trees were due in New York on the Saturday before Christmas.
It was a rough journey over tight and bumpy roads through the Catskill Mountains. A number of times they had to chop their way along narrow trails. Their cargo was a hefty one, often too wide for the openings in the road. At Newburgh, the halfway point on their trip, they left the mountain trails and were able to travel the remaining forty miles along clear roads carved in the wilderness decades earlier.
Once they arrived at the ferry station outside the city, the farmer discovered he didn't have enough money to transport his sons across the Hudson. The freight charges were higher than he expected. He only had so much money. It was sad news. He had to leave his sons at the ferry station until he returned from New York. He had no other choice.
From the other side of the Hudson it was only a short distance to Washington market. At the time it was New York's most popular food and vegetable market. "For a silver dollar", Carr recalled, "I rented a stand at the corner of Greenwich and Vesey Streets. I was a mighty nervous man. I had thirty-six trees to sell."
Up until then, Christmas greenery for decoration had been sold in the market district, but never Christmas trees. Would there be customers for them? As things turned out, there were. In fact, Carr could have brought along twice as many trees and sold them all.
Exactly what the farmer charged for his trees isn't known, but one newspaper reported he charged "exorbitant prices". The following year even more. Carr's sons reportedly were still selling Christmas trees in New York at the turn of the century.
Belated congratulations to a true native Catskill entrepreneur.
Thanks to Bob Norris, a tree farmer and Executive Director of the Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York, for permission to use much of the above material.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours, Bob, and to all of my readers.
From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on December 19, 2007
© 2007 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.