Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Beisel's Christmas Tree Hill - 60 Years of Growing on the Family Farm

A Tribute to Dana Beisel (1946~2013) - The Soul of Beisel's Christmas Tree Hill

People ask Dana Beisel all the time: You work in this heat? What needs to be done on a tree farm in the summer? Dana won't come right out and say it, but his grin says "plenty." (VISIT "Beisel's Christmas Tree Hill" for Directions and Contact Information.)
Douglas-fir - Lehigh Gap in the distance from western field

Hours of planting, spraying, and fertilizing are put in each spring. Of course there’s also the mowing of grass between acres and acres of thousands of trees. That is only the beginning.

What some customers do not realize, each tree is pruned and shaped in the high heat of summer. This work begins at the end of June when the new growth completes. Each tree also needs a keen eye and handling to select the true leader or tip of the tree. Sometimes last year’s leader has broken off and a side branch needs to be trained to be the leader with a metal wire tree limb straightener. On Beisel’s Christmas Tree Hill, this process of pruning usually takes until September.

Dana and his brother Bill split the labor: Bill does all the mowing and Dana prunes with the hired crew. Trees not big enough to be sold this year will be saved for “winter pruning” after the regular sales season.
Looking south toward Bake Oven Knob - Fraser-fir trees - How trees would look if untrimmed on the Right.  To the Left one with a pruned top.
The family business was established in 1950 with Dana and Bill’s father Ralph Beisel, who was a landscaping engineer for the state highway department. He was a graduate of the University of Maine and applied his horticultural expertise into the hilly farm. He used terraces to claim more arable land.

Bill remembers the first species of tree they planted: a Scotch pine. The first crop was harvested in 1958. Dana worked with his father even though he also worked his fulltime job in social services at Palmerton Hospital. And though Bill’s job took him away to relocate to New Jersey he still found time on weekends and in the Christmas season to come home. Bill pitched in fulltime after Ralph died in 1993.

Dana Beisel looks over his Eastern Field of recently pruned Douglas-fir.
Ralph truly was an innovator in promoting the image of Christmas Tree Hill. He created and installed a ‘tram-way’: a cable and rope system of safely delivering trees down a 150 foot embankment. Some families will only select trees from this side of the farm so their children can enjoy seeing their tree glide through the air. The Beisels and many of their dedicated employees look forward to the sales season and all the happy holiday memories they’ve seen over the years.

But tree farming takes vigilance, an ever present eye for the many pests and blights that can effect the trees. Aphids, Cryptomeria scale, and elongated hemlock scale are just a few of the scourges farmers need to be prepared to handle.

The utility of a pickup - Tree top straighteners in box, pruners, hand shears, etc.
That is why the Penn State Co-Op Extension is such a valuable resource to farmers of all kinds all over the state. They serve as a network to assist in the latest trends in treating Rhabdocline needlecast, spider mites or white pine weevil. Meetings and web-postings also help local tree farmers deal with emerging issues. One recent issue is whether Carbon’s current climate can continue to support growing the colder climate-loving Douglas-fir trees.

Though competitors, some local tree farmers also share logistical and technical assistance with each other. Dana consults a few of his neighboring farmers on topics of rainfall and how the trees are taking the heat or when it’s best to center-bud prune. Assistance and moral support goes on and on.

Blue Spruce looking south from East Notch
Concolor Fir among Queen Anne's Lace - Looking north from West Notch
Above: The former Jonathan Gombert Farm as it looks today from the main retail field at Beisel's.  Below: The Gombert's in 1909.
The Mahoning Valley, one of the richest farm areas in Carbon County, has a long tradition of farming and agricultural production. Wos-Wit Pennsylvania Dutch foods and a tomato cannery both operated and packaged their produce here. Christmas Tree Hill is located in a steeply banked notch facing south into the Mahoning Valley, where it overlooks the old Jonathan Gombert Homestead and Maple Tree Tennis Club.

Ralph's humor remains - Sign he posted at the top of West Notch, a steep climb to the top of the Tram-way.  Not even the fittest of customers can whistle a tune after climbing to the top. 
Gombert was a Civil War veteran who lost his arm at the battle of Antietam. He also served a term as county sheriff in 1900. The Maple Tree Inn was owned by C.A. Rex and managed by Nathan T. Rex of Mahoning Valley. The Rex’s also were known for their extensive orchard that abutted to the Beisel property. Wos-Wit and the cannery were just west of Christmas Tree Hill.

More of Ralph Beisel's humor - The Christmas Tree Grower's Vision of Sugar Plums...$$$
Today, the Beisel’s plant Douglas-fir, Concolor-fir, Fraser-fir, and Blue Spruce. The majority of their fields are designated as ‘retail fields’, meaning customers begin arriving on “Black Friday” in November and stroll the grounds and select their own tree. The Beisels also cut a nice selection of trees ready for pickup for those not wishing to cut their own.

Many families travel from as far away as New York City, Philadelphia and New Jersey. They come and make a grand day of choosing their tree some bringing a picnic lunch, taking pictures and sometimes frolicking in the snow.

Yes, it is beautiful here in this notch between two facing hills, in the distance a grand view of both the Lehigh Gap and the Bake Oven Knob. But looks can be deceiving. The next time you're in the joy of the holiday season, snug in the comfy warmth of your home, hanging your ornaments in relaxing family moments, take a moment to think about the years of summer toil that go into each tree that make it the perfect tree that it is.

1978 Jeep Ralph used for spraying.
5' and 8' Blue "lightning rods" for shearing high branches.  "Sage" sickle bar and harness (back left)  for pruning sides of Douglas-fir.  Beneke rotary trimmers (back right).
Dana, Nick Newton and Matt Rebovich take a water break from the heat.
Nick, known as "Legacy II" - His father Tom planted with the Beisels back in the 1970s.
Looking up North Slope - A Field of Douglas-fir
Matt is known as "Legacy I" - His grandfather Dave Werner worked on the farm in the 1960s.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mahlon S. Kemmerer Carriage House Open House - July 17, 2010

Back Row: Keith Bellhorn, Member of the Board of the MCMCC, Jeff & Adrian Wilcox, Phase II contractor, George Colaviti, Phase I Contractor, Jack Sterling, Bill Allison, Board Members of the MCMCC and John Drury, Board President of the MCMCC. 
Front Row: Carol Walbert & Edith Lukasevich of the Kemmerer Memorial Park Association.

This past Saturday, the public got its first glimpse at a rehabilitated eyesore on Packer Hill in Jim Thorpe. Ask John Drury, and he will tell you a treasure was saved. Drury, founder of the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center, spearheaded the effort to raise the $120,000 to save the Mahlon S. Kemmerer Carriage House. The bulk of which was provided through the generosity of Jay and Peter Kemmerer and the Kemmerer Family Foundation.  Also donating was Ted Leisenring, John Leisenring's great grandson. 

Drury also served as project manager by building an alliance of many local groups and seeing that the crumbling structure was preserved.  The key fundraiser for the Carriage House has been the MCMCC's "Victorian Ball" held each November.

The property has a history of revitalization. In 1872 the people of Mauch Chunk, particularly the ladies in their fine Victorian garb, demanded something be done with the dusty coal chutes that descended the 200 feet from the Switchback Railroad and on down to the tracks and river. Piles and piles of accumulated coal dust from the millions of tons of anthracite which were sized and distributed here.  When passersby passed beneath the chutes along Lehigh Street, particularly in the rain, dirty sooty rain water would drip and stain their clothes.  The chutes and the piles of dust had to go.

John Leisenring, manager of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company for many years, felt responsible. And being the owner of the property next door, he too had a vested interest in this hillside in front of Packer Hill, also known as Front Hill. And as his reward for his deft handling of the 1862 Flood Crisis, the LCNC gave the lands to Mr. Leisenring as a token of their gratitude.

By February of 1879, the unveiling of the transformation was complete, a Swiss-styled mansion was given to his daughter Annie, who had wed Mahlon S. Kemmerer. Kemmerer worked his way through the ranks of the Mauch Chunk industrialists into ownership of the Carbon County Iron Company of Parryville. The couple, with their new estate, were part of the established families of Mauch Chunk.

The Kemmerers would later re-locate to Wyoming and the mansion and property fell into disrepair, being dismantled in October of 1927. A playground association was formed and a basketball court marks the location of the once grand mansion. All that remains of the Kemmerer estate is the carriage house.

From the 1970s and into the 1990s, the grounds of Kemmerer Memorial Park had fallen into disuse and disrepair.  But luckily the Association stood ready and determined to save it.  About ten years ago, when Leisenring's grandson got the ball rolling with a $75,000 bequest.  Then, the borough of Jim Thorpe took ownership in order to qualify for a major state grant.

And now with the stabilization of the Carriage House, many feel the final gem has been set into the crown of a beautiful park, waiting to be used by the community.  Much of the early effort goes to long time park association members like Edie Lukasevich, Ben Walbert and in particular, Bob Handwerk, owner of the Harry Packer Mansion.  Bob has spent considerable time and effort picking up trash and trimming the brush and grass for the past 15 or so years.

But what is next for this house now that it has been saved? Precisely the reason Mr. Drury held this wine and cheese open house. It is for the Association and the community leaders to find an economically sustainable use for the structure: Perhaps a cultural center or a bed and breakfast. Or perhaps it could be a small apartment for a caretaker to oversee the maintenance of Kemmerer Park while the remaining space could be used by civic groups as a community hall, or some combination of these.

John Drury and the park association hope to find an answer for this recently polished gem, to make it a vital piece of Jim Thorpe’s current resurrection toward its former days of grandeur.

Another Victorian Festival and Ball is scheduled for November 6th and 7th, 2010. For more information you can contact John Drury at (570) 325-4436.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Viewing the Packers

Rearview of the Packer Mansion from the same terrace as the 1888 picture.
The Harry Packer Mansion as seen from Kemmerer Park, Jim Thorpe PA.
The Harry Packer mansion is alive and well thanks to the efforts of the Handwerk family.  Murder Mystery Weekends, Winetasting, Libations Lounge and of course the Bed and Breakfast facilities are currently managed by Taylor and Kristen Handwerk.  The Libations Lounge is open on weekends and any time you see the "Open" flag out front.  You don't have to be a guest to select from the wine list and enjoy a relaxing time and the cool mountain breezes on the ivy-covered veranda.  (Check out the Handwerk's website at: The Harry Packer Mansion)

I am grateful to them for their hospitality as I research this curious picture passed down from the James Exel estate.  James was the butler Harry Packer met after eating a fine dinner in a London Hotel.  In less than a year, Harry was dead.  Having no biological children of his own, his wife Mary Augusta, Gussie, went on to adopt Hazel who was born November 11, 1885. 

The black and white picture below was said to be taken at Hazel's 3rd Birthday party.  It looks like it was taken behind the mansion, however the leaves look too full to be November.  What also strikes me about the photo, is the proximity of Exel to Gussie, as they raise their glasses toward Hazel.

Perhaps the photo marks the some other milestone, maybe a send off to one of the staff.  James did leave from his employ when he married in 1890, setting up house one door up the street.  James was also adept at playing the zither as you can see it propped next to Hazel.
Harry died due to complications of Bright's Disease on February 1st 1884.  James' wife Fredia dies in the spring of 1910.  Mary Augusta died on a world-tour, in Peking China in the spring of 1911.  James dies in March of 1917.  

(You can find a more detailed timeline at the following blogpost: The Lady and the Butler at Cultured Carbon County.blogspot.com

November 1888? - Joanne Connor 34 year old Irish servant, Hazel, Maria Hester, 60, "Chamber Maid", Exel, and "Gussie."
James Exel's passport application while accompanying Gussie
and Hazel on a trip abroad in 1889.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Lady and the Butler...Interwined Timeline and Pictures of Mary Augusta Packer and James Exel

Ahh, Victorian times, the rich and powerful and the mysteries they leave behind.  I do not want to say there is more to the facts than what is written here, but if ever there was a ready-made forbidden, perhaps unrequited loved novel packaged and ready to go, well here it is...Enjoy the pics too...Many of these photos can be viewed at the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center, West Broadway, Jim Thorpe.  The original zither is also on display there.  Most of the pictures and artifacts come from the collection of Keith Bellhorn, great grandson of James Exel.   

• 1845 – July 1 – Mary Augusta born –Father Mauch Chunk pioneer Alexander Lockhart

• 1854 – February 22 – James Exel is born in Ziethen-Ratzburg region of Austria (Northeast of present day Hamburg, Germany)

• 1872 – August 29 – Harry E. Packer marries Mary Augusta.

• 1881 – English Census – James Exel one of 7 servants working among 21 boarders at the two homes of John N. H. Hesterman (German immigrant), a retired merchant on Thrale Hall Mitchum Road, Streatham Parish, London, England. Among the boarders, ship broker John White, born in Uraguay.

• 1883 – January 25 – State of New York passport application for Mary Augusta Packer to travel abroad.

o –June 27 – James Exel arrives.

• 1884 – February 1 – Harry E. Packer dies.

• 1885 – November 11 - Hazel Packer born in New York. (This is verified in the following records: 1900 U.S. Census; Passenger list New York – September 1907 – “22 yrs, born about 1885”; March 1924 Passenger list of the ship Arcadian, numerous private family trees on Ancestry.com; One source has her even younger in 1920 U.S. Census from Philadelphia, “34 yrs, born about 1886”.)

• 1888 – October – James Exel becomes naturalized citizen of U.S.
• 1889 – January 30th – Passport application #24295 – James applies to go abroad for up to 1 year.

o January 30th – Passport application #24297 – Mrs. H. E. Packer, 1 child, 2 servants apply to go abroad for about one year. Lists servants as James Exel & Joanna O’Connor. Lists Hazel’s birth place as New York, November 11, 1884.

• 1890 – James builds yellow frame home just north of Packer property on Front Hill. Marries Fredericka ‘Fredia’ Miller (b. March 22, 1866 to German immigrant parents).

• 1895 – James leases the Hotel Wahnetah. The busy summer season not enough to offset the slow winter. He gives up the enterprise after one year.

• 1896 – May – Letter of reference for James from Mary.  Mary Augusta also gives him this gold watch.

• 1900 – James, “Fredia,” and Celia are listed in Buffalo Ward, Erie, New York census records.
• 1907 – December 20 – ‘Widow of H. E. Packer’ applies with the title of “Lady” for a passport for one year.

• 1910 – May 12 - Fredia dies of cancer. Census records Celia 19, Dorothy 5, Dora Miller, Fredia’s sister, age 27 also resides under James.

• 1911 – Spring – Mary Augusta Packer dies in Peking, China during a world tour.  One source says she went there on missionary work.
     - A forest fire closes the Hotel Wahnetah.
• 1917 – March 5 - James dies of ‘dropsy’ (edema).
     -Another forest fire closes the Hotel Wahnetah forever.