VERMILLION, S.D. | Longtime ("63 years!") Vermillion resident and University of South Dakota alum Mitchel Morse sells Christmas trees from his roadside fruit-and-vegetable stand just outside town. Just like his father and his grandfather before him, going back to the 1940s.
Back in the old days, the family was a leading purveyor of Christmas trees in Vermillion.
"Back in the '50s and stuff, almost every classroom in the Vermillion public schools and a lot of the downtown merchants all had a Christmas tree in their front window," he said.
Many of these classrooms and stores displayed Douglas firs sold to them by Morse's grandfather and father.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Morse doesn't grow the trees himself. Christmas trees grow best under specific conditions, and he's not sure if the area has what it takes.
"It takes a certain type of soil," he said. "Mine all come out of Wisconsin."
There's a problem with buying a Christmas tree from the parking lot of a big box-style retailer, Morse said -- they've been sitting out since early November, and they're drier and burnt by the sun.
Morse has his trees trucked in around Thanksgiving (not much earlier) to ensure freshness.
"I don't have something that's going to dry out in 10 days," he said.
Morse's price range on trees ranges from $20 all the way to $250 for a "beautiful, 9-to-10 foot tree."
"I sell trees for all ranges of people," he said. "My primary goal -- I want to satisfy all my customers."
Customers have faith in Morse's ability to select a tree.
"I've got my certain customers that, they don't even come and look at them, they just call me up and say 'Mitchel, we need a 6-foot tree, we need a 7-foot tree.' And they rely on me to deliver them the perfect Christmas tree," he said.
One of these customers is USD's president, Jim Abbott and his late wife, Colette.
"I said, 'I'll pick you out one, Colette, it'll be nice -- and if you don't like it, why you can let me know,'" he said. "She just knew that I could do the best one."
Morse has witnessed some changes in the Christmas tree industry over the years, with one fad giving way to another.
"We used to, what they call 'flock' trees, it's where you sprayed them white," he said. "It's kind of a lost art."
But a far more lasting -- and damaging -- trend has taken hold of the Christmas tree market in the last 20 years or so. Artificial trees have taken a massive bite out of the market.
In the old days, Morse said he sold perhaps 2,000 Christmas trees in a good year, compared to about 100 or 150 today.
"Years ago, we would get probably a semi-load of Christmas trees," he said. "And now we're down to just a partial semi-load."
But while artificial trees can mimic the look of a natural tree to some extent, there is one aspect of natural trees that their plastic counterparts will never be able to reproduce.
"The smell," Morse said. "The beautiful smell."
Full-service Christmas trees
For Vermillion buyers, Morse doesn't just sell a Christmas tree and let the buyer figure the rest out. His trees come with free delivery -- and if you bring him a tree stand, he'll set the tree up in it before it's delivered.
But what's a customer to do on Dec. 26, when the tree is no longer needed?
"I charge $5 to pick them up after Christmas," he said.
Like Santa Claus, Morse has some helpers when he delivers the trees.
"My sons have helped deliver, my daughters have helped deliver," he said.
But, oddly enough, some people don't take advantage of the free delivery Morse offers.
"Pretty much now, they just come and pick them up," he said.