Retirement ends 36-year Christmas tree tradition

Vendor finds it is hard to say goodbye

December 18, 2006|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

In the end, it was not the national discount chains or the competition from the posh garden centers that prompted Ron Schmidt to retire.

It was not the help. The workers were great. The customers kept coming, year after year, bringing children and grandchildren.

Schmidt said he knew it was time to close his busy roadside Christmas tree lot the way a ballplayer knows when to hang up his cleats.

"I just knew it was time to quit," said Schmidt, who has sold trees at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium for 36 years.

And yesterday he did.

With fewer than 50 trees remaining on the lot he has rented on a busy stretch of York Road, Schmidt closed the business that for many Baltimore County families has been part of a holiday tradition. By conservative estimates, the 64-year-old Upperco man sold more than 2,000 trees this year and more than 70,000 balsams and firs during his tenure.

"I just know we have sold a lot," said Schmidt, warming up in a trailer with his partner and wife of 42 years, Linda.

From Thanksgiving until mid-December, the portable trailer has been Schmidt's part-time home. He slept on a cot there four to five nights a week so he could keep watch over his evergreen inventory.

The season began every Thanksgiving Day, when the shipments of trees he had chosen in the summer from farms in Pennsylvania and Canada arrived in Timonium. With two dozen northern Baltimore County high school students, he unloaded the trees over three days, and began selling them the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

About 15 employees stayed on full-time through December. Some of them were children of former workers.

Schmidt started as a street vendor in 1965, selling flowers from buckets on Wilkens Avenue. He expanded to trees in 1970, selling them at Our Lady of Victory parish in Arbutus.

Back then, he bought the Scotch pines for $2.10 and sold them for $4.23.

"We thought we were millionaires," said Schmidt, laughing.

In 1976, the couple opened another lot at the fairgrounds. They intended to sell the trees for $11, the same price as those on the parish lot. But for three days, Schmidt said, "We did not sell a single tree."

He asked the customers, who said they were suspicious of the $11 price tag, since most of the other lots were selling their trees for $19. When Schmidt increased his price to $17, they quickly sold out, going home weeks before Christmas.

In 1995, the couple closed the Arbutus operation and made the fairgrounds their only location. This year's trees sold for $20 to $80, with the average tree going for about $45.

"This is our favorite place to come," said Joanne Stover, a school secretary from Cockeysville and mother of three, as she paid for her tree Saturday. "We have been coming since the kids were young. I guess about 20 years. We always laugh at each other. The trees are great. The help is good."

Schmidt thanked her for coming.

"It is such a happy business," he said. "People come with their families. They take pictures. ... Oh, and I have got some stories."

There was the woman who spotted Schmidt's sign from a bus stop when he had just started in the business. She rushed over and asked for four bottles. "I said, `Four bottles of what?' She said, `The scotch that is $4.23.'"

When he told her what might have seemed obvious -- that he was selling Scotch pine trees -- Schmidt said she was mad she had missed her bus.

Over the years, Schmidt said they have seen people haul their Christmas trees in the snow in convertibles with the top down and put them in sailboats on trailers. Once, Schmidt said, a Maryland Transit Administration bus stopped. The bus driver picked out his tree, while the passengers waited on the bus, Schmidt said, laughing.

Johnny Unitas once stopped at the Christmas tree lot, Schmidt said. He told the quarterback that he was disappointed Unitas had not retired with the Colts. "I told him, `You broke my heart. You never knew when to give up.'"

Schmidt said he does not think that the Hall of Famer understood what he was trying to say. "What I meant was that you have got to know when to stop," Schmidt said.

For Schmidt, the time came this year. He and his wife wanted to spend more time with their only grandson, who is 5.

"He said, `Pop, what are the people going to do? Where are they going to get their trees?'" Schmidt recalled. When he told the boy that one of their workers was buying the business, Schmidt said, "He asked, `What are we going to do?"

Schmidt said he told his grandson that they would go to cut down a tree. And because he will not be working on Thanksgiving, he said, "I told him, `We are going to do something I never got to do with your mommy. We are going to eat Thanksgiving dinner as a family.'"

A bear of a man, Schmidt would make a good Santa Claus. His hair is gray, and his cheeks stay red from working outdoors. He frequently calls out, "Merry Christmas."

A Lutheran, Schmidt said every year he posts a sign on his lot: "Keep Christ in Christmas."

Schmidt will not say how much he made in the Christmas tree business. But he said he was able to retire from his year-round job only two years ago as manager of maintenance at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville.

By Saturday afternoon, Schmidt was down to about 130 trees. In a way, he was sad to see them go.

"I am just a street vendor," said Schmidt, getting teary-eyed. "I did not think it would be so hard to say goodbye."

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