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Growing trees, growing cheer

A light snow is falling on a recent Saturday, as several families walk down the rows of trees at the Christmas Forest.

“We might set a record today,” says John Hurlbert, as he hands out handsaws and helps customers tie down their selected tree to the top of their car.

Hurlbert, 75, has been running the tree farm on Adelia Drive for 14 years. He farmed the land and worked for the post office in Bemidji before opening the business.

He said the job fits him well, as he likes to work outside.

“The work is all outside, it’s fresh air,” Hurlbert said. “I definitely didn’t want to sit around in a rocking chair.”

Growing up

Hurlbert grew up just down the street from where the tree farm now stands. But that doesn’t mean he always stayed in place.

A graduate of Bemidji High School, Hurlbert was in the Navy in the early stages of the Vietnam War as a navigator on a bomber. He came back to the Bemidji area and married his wife Dorothy and had three kids.

Hurlbert farmed the land in the 1970s, raising beef cattle and cutting hay, while working for the postal service in Bemidji. In the last few years in that job, Hurlbert was a rural letter carrier.

He estimates that he has delivered mail to almost every house in Bemidji and outside of town in the delivery area.

“That was one of the best jobs in the postal service,” he said. “You’re more or less your own boss.”

 Before retiring from that job in 1994, Hurlbert planted his first trees, the first of which were sold in 1999. In the interim, he became a truck driver, crisscrossing the country. He estimates he saw almost all of the lower 48 states in that job.

“I’m pretty well traveled… and there really isn’t a better place to live than right here as far as I’m concerned,” Hurlbert said.

‘Enjoying himself’

Greg Claypool has been coming to the Christmas Forest for almost each of the past five years.  

On a recent Saturday he stopped by with his family to pick out this year’s tree.

“We see (Hurlbert) once a year,” Claypool said as Hurlbert tied down a tree onto another customer’s car. “He’s always friendly.”

Hurlbert said he’s become friends with some of his customers, and added that it’s fun to see their kids grow up over the years as they visit the farm.

As customers peruse the various pines, firs and spruces, Hurlbert dispenses his knowledge of how the trees differ. He also knows that early July is the best time to shear a pine tree so it grows full and looks good in a customer’s living room.

Hurlbert learned a lot from the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association, of which he is a member.

“I had to do a lot of learning,” he said.

Hurlbert’s daughter, Sue Sauve, has been helping out on weekends ever since the tree farm opened.

“I do really like it,” she said. “It’s also really good bonding time with my dad too, seeing him enjoy himself.”

Hurlbert said he has no plans to quit this job.

“I’m 75 now, I’m not going to go on forever,” Hurlbert said. “I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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