Linda and Duane Espe didn’t intend to start a family tradition when they planted trees on a piece of acreage that wouldn’t grow any crops. But, seven years later when family friends began asking if they could come out and cut a Christmas tree, that’s exactly what happened.
Now, 34 years into it, a tradition that bonds not only their own but countless other families is alive and well at Espe’s Christmas Tree Farm, located east of Wannaska on the corner of County Roads 4 and 9 near Hayes Lake State Park.
For a mere $30, you’ll get the use of a snowmobile, sleigh and handsaw (or ATV and trailer when there’s no snow) and as much time as you need to find the perfect tree amongst the 8,000 they have growing. When the search is over and you bumble back in to the cozy A-frame lodge to settle-up and warm-up, Linda will have fresh-baked cookies, hot chocolate, Russian tea and coffee ready for everyone – which is all included in the price of the tree.
It’s a bargain of an experience, especially considering how important traditions are for the identity of a family. For decades to come, children take pride and comfort in the family routines and holiday memories that have been built over scores of years.
For the Espe’s, the early years were something of a happy accident, but seeing the interest grow, the family soon made it intentional. “Finally, we decided we better get to know a little more about Christmas trees,” Duane said. “So, I visited a farm down near Grand Rapids for about three years during the time that they were shearing.” Duane, a retired barber who, to this day, still cuts hair a few mornings a week, would then branch further into the business of shearing, though the tools were a little different. “They taught me a lot about how to shear the trees, when to shear them, and how much to take off.”
After the quick education, the Espe’s started planting several different varieties of trees, but now their mainstays are spruce and Norway pines. “Those seem to do the best,” Duane said.
The work of a Christmas tree business is done largely outside of the Christmas season. As soon as the snow melts, the 300-400 trees stumps from the previous holiday sales need to be cut down flush with the ground to allow the mowers to pass.
“And then we start shearing the 15th of June, when the trees have grown out enough so that we can stay in the new growth,” Duane said. With thousands of trees to attend to, the shearing takes all summer. They also plant about 750 new trees each spring, which is done by hand now that they’re planting in between the stumps. Once the mowing begins, it is an all-summer job as well. Both Linda and Duane work diligently to keep the 60 acres of Christmas trees free from brush and tall grass so that it’s nicely kept when the snows arrive.
Just as it has for their many returning customers, the love of the tree has been passed down through the generations. The Espe’s have always involved their kids, Brenda, Kirby and Perry, and now the grandchildren are in the mix as well. “We’re hoping that when we can’t do it anymore that they’ll have been there enough that they’ll want to take over for us,” Linda said. “It seems to be working that way,” Duane added. “They’ve been out helping us a lot this year.”
The tree farm was even host to their granddaughter Jessica’s wedding to Shane Omdahl this past summer. “It was a beautiful wedding,” Linda said. “Duane and I worked overtime this summer to get it just right…we usually mow with a big brush mower but we used a lawn mower this year to make it really nice.”
Linda and Duane probably wouldn’t call themselves magic-makers, but indeed they do create a magical experience for many. Faith and Paul Stynsberg of Roseau have been making the 25-mile trip every year since the very beginning of the tree farm. On the day after Thanksgiving for the last 30-some years, they’ve trekked out into the country and cut down a tree. “We had three children and sometimes it would take quite a while because we couldn’t all agree on what was the perfect tree,” Faith laughed. “But we’d always find one that everyone liked.
“The highlight, of course, is that they have cocoa, Russian tea and cookies when you get in,” she added.
Over the years, they’ve had their share of adventures getting their tree, including the car breaking down two different times, and one year, the tree fell off the top of the car while they were driving home. “We still used it,” Faith said, “but we put the part that got damaged in the back against the wall.”
It’s the stuff of memories. Faith insists that they will always get a live tree. “Every year our quote is that it’s the best tree we’ve ever had,” she said. “And it’s true.”
From the 400 fresh cookies Linda bakes each day they’re open (which starts the Friday after Thanksgiving and continues each weekend until Christmas, 9am-dark), to her own Russian tea recipe, to the use of the ATV’s and snowmobiles Duane inevitably ends up tinkering on, to the perfectly sheared spruce and Norway pines the families will go home with, Espe’s Christmas Tree Farm is a gem of a tradition.
“I always say when this quits being fun, we’ll quit doing it,” Linda said. “Our enjoyment comes from watching the families making good memories. Some of them drive for quite a ways just to do this, so we want to show them a good time.”