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The u-cut family

Three generations welcome visitors to Wheeler Tree Farm
by: christopher onstott Jason Wheeler takes a saw to the base of a Douglas fir Christmas tree to even it out for a customer. Wheeler is the grandson of Wheeler Tree Farm founder, David Wheeler.

Don Wheeler thinks it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. And that means it is time to buy a Christmas tree, preferably from a local grower.

It just so happens that the U.S. Senate agrees, unanimously passing Senate Resolution 341, proposed by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, designating the first week of December as National Christmas Tree Week.

Wheeler, owner of Wheeler Tree Farm in Oregon City, echoes the Senate's resolution, advising people to enjoy 'a family experience, by going out together and being outside in the woods.' And by that he means don't just drive to a giant, impersonal parking lot somewhere and pick out a tree, but get the whole family outdoors and 'play in the dirt.'

'If you are going to spend money on a Christmas tree, you might as well get more value by coming out here' to visit a working farm and cut down your own tree, said Jason Wheeler, 27, Don Wheeler's son.

'We give visitors a saw and they go out and get a tree and come back to the gift shop, where there is a warm pot-bellied stove and food,' said Don Wheeler. 'They can then go next door to see the full-size nativity scene, complete with two sheep and a donkey.

'At times, the gift shop is completely full. People just hang out with friends and family.'

Longtime Oregon City resident Larry Griggs and his family have been coming to the Wheeler Tree Farm to cut their own trees since the mid-1970s, and now they bring their grown children and their four grandchildren along.

'It has become a tradition for us - it is special because we do this as a family. We pick the Saturday months in advance, and it is off limits for anything else,' he said.

Three generations of Wheelers still work at the tree farm during the holiday season. Don Wheeler's father, David Wheeler, bought the property in 1963, and planted the first Christmas trees there in 1965.

David Wheeler, who is now 85, uses his forestry training from Montana State University to teach youngsters from visiting preschools all about tree planting.

'I take them out and tell them about trees and seeds and what a tree needs to grow - it is a little forestry school,' David Wheeler said. 'I also take them to the 'hugging tree,' which is a big tree that they can hug. Some of the trees here are 45 years old, and we estimate one to be about 250 years old.'

All the visiting pre-schools get to take a free Christmas tree back to their buildings, Jason Wheeler added.

The nativity scene is a big draw, Don Wheeler said, noting that years ago his parents purchased the life-sized figures, dressed them in traditional garb and set them up next door to the gift shop. People can just pop in and look at the display, or they can sit on hay bales and listen to a 20-minute tape with music, narrative and the Biblical story of the nativity.

A special place

The Wheeler Tree Farm is a true family business, Don Wheeler said. Just after Thanksgiving, his brother Dave, his daughter, Carolyn, and her son, Caleb, all worked to put up signs, hang lights, decorate the tree in the gift shop, put out ornaments and wreaths and stack all of the boxes of cookies needed. Don Wheeler's sister, Denise, is the tree farm bookkeeper. His wife, Roxanne, and his daughter, Jamie, make the wreaths sold in the gift shop.

'My mom died in the fall of 2000, and I believe that she instilled in our family that the u-cut tree farm was really a service to the community to provide a warm and welcoming place to come at this special holiday,' Don Wheeler added.

The Wheelers have Oregon City High School connections: David Wheeler's elder son, David Jr., graduated from there in 1970; Don Wheeler graduated in 1972; and Jason, who is a professional mountaineer and rock-climbing guide, graduated in 2002.

David Wheeler said his tree u-cut farm was one of the first of its kind, when he planted the first two acres in 1965. He started out raising cows, he said, but gradually began to plant more acreage with trees, crowding the cows out.

His grandson Jason heard a slightly different version.

'Grandma got tired of chasing the cows and told him he had to grow something that didn't move,' he said.

Now the Wheelers have 12 acres of Christmas trees, mostly Douglas firs, grand firs and nobles. There is also a 10-acre orchard of hazelnut trees that last year yielded about 10,000 pounds of nuts that were sold to the Blue Diamond Co.

The family makes some money doing this work, said Don Wheeler, but 'the joy that we receive in providing this wonderful experience has always been worth more than the money. This time of the year is when our family members work our day jobs as teachers, construction workers and such, and then we spend our evenings and weekends helping our customers.'

He said that his son, Jason, and daughter Jamie are looking at taking over the duties of what David Wheeler does throughout the year with replanting and trimming the trees and harvesting the filberts.

'I am very proud that my kids share in the passion and hard work that it takes to keep this place special for so many people at Christmas time,' he said.