Tree bazaar a tradition at Stadium


December 09, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

The search for the truly old-fashioned, gorgeously perfumed Christmas tree has taken hundreds of people to the far right field side of Memorial Stadium.

Each December since 1962, the American Legion has sold thousands of trees between Sections 26 and 31. In a good year, the all-volunteer effort raises as much as $50,000 for the Medical Eye Bank of Maryland, the charity benefited by the Christmas tree sale.

"It's amazing. People say they want the old-fashioned Christmas tree," says George Hill, co-chairman of the sale and a Middle River resident who rises early each cold December morning to open the plywood stand and turn on the string of outside electric lights by 8 a.m., seven days a week. The stand closes at 10 p.m.

The volunteers started with more than 3,000 trees.

"I don't see my wife for a month while this thing's going on," says Hill.

Baltimoreans have coined any evergreen bought from the Legionnaires at 33rd Street and Ednor Road as a Stadium Tree.

At holiday gatherings, small talk inevitably turns to Christmas trees -- their size, price and relative shedding and drooping qualities. The sentence, "It's a Stadium Tree," translates that the decorated seven-footer was bought at the old homestand of the Orioles and Colts. The phrase also implies the salesman was probably a grandfather who served at Omaha Beach.

Baltimoreans also know that this place offers good trees without designer price tags.

The cheapest is $15, the most expensive $25. The volunteers make an effort to bring in as many Maryland-grown trees -- Scotch and white pine -- as possible. A load of freshly cut $H Norway spruce grown in Garrett County has snow mixed in the boughs.

"We had some $30, nine-foot balsams, but they were the first to sell. I think people with big houses who live up this way just lie in wait for us to get them in," says Wil Baughan, of Perry Hall, the other co-chairman of the sale. Like so many of the American Legion volunteers, he served in World War II.

"Most of us who work the day shifts are in the geriatric crowd. The youngest man here today is 68 and the oldest is 77," Baughan said one chilly afternoon this week.

Baltimoreans have a great love affair for the old-fashioned balsam tree the Legionnaires import from Nova Scotia. The men received a shipment of about 500 balsams Thursday. By Sunday, all the largest ones -- 9 to 12 feet tall -- had been sold. About 50 of the smaller balsams remain.

"People like their smell. They're the sweetest," said Baughan.

Balsam tree fanciers tout this variety because the short needles hold a greater quantity of ornaments than some of the more dense, bushy trees. Balsams have more space between the branches for the decorations to be seen better. The branching system also permits garlands -- strung popcorn, cranberries or glass ornaments -- to arch gracefully about the tree.

Detractors of balsam trees say that a dry one will shed quickly and the branches often snap off. They can also appear scraggly, like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree out of the comic strip "Peanuts."

"I've had people come in here and spend three hours to select a tree," Baughan said. "Sometimes they climb down on the ground and look at a tree from the underside, to the sky. One woman comes in here every year, selects a big tree, then has us cut off every branch down to the stump. She uses the limbs for cut greens."

In these times of frenzied commercialism, the Stadium tree sale somehow manages to sidestep the worst of the Christmas madness. Probably that's because of the personalities of the old gentlemen who run the sale and their insistence that this be a local effort.

The holly they sell in neatly wrapped plastic bags is grown on the property of Eloise Wilson in Abingdon, Harford County. She cuts healthy green branches full of berries and delivers them in a station wagon to the Stadium sale.

The Christmas wreaths, swags and garland come from an old Waverly-area wholesale florist, Bob Neuman and his daughter Robin, who are on Cecil Avenue.

"We try to do everything ourselves. We even drive to Philadelphia and buy our Christmas tree stands at a warehouse," Hill says. "The ladies in the auxiliary make all our red bows. I shouldn't forget that."

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