Oh! Christmas Tree

by Henry Swain

Part of the enjoyment of the Christmas holiday season is the decoration of the Christmas tree. Many of the trees we decorate come from Brown County. It may surprise some to know that the scrub cedar we see dotting abandoned farm fields and slopes is our only native evergreen. Southern Indiana is between the northern and southern pine belts.

Many species of evergreen grow well here but the climate is such that they do not naturally reseed themselves. Out of the Great Depression came many new government programs to help stimulate the economy. The Soil Conservation Service was born from the devastation of the dust storms, which drove many farmers from Texas and Oklahoma to California.

The newly form SCS initiated a program of planting tree seedlings to stop soil erosion. Brown County was ripe for such a program because of the gully erosion on abandoned worn-out farmland. Farmers lost their land because they could not pay the taxes during those hard economic times.

State and Federal governmental agencies began buying up these farms to become part of the Hoosier National Forest. Not only did the State buy land for the Forestry Service, it also bought Brown County land for a game preserve, which later was to become Brown County State Park. These programs explain why about half of Brown County land is in parkland—National Forests or in State Forest ownership.

My older brother Edwin was Assistant State Forester at the time, stationed at Morgan-Monroe State forest near Martinsville. He helped initiate some of these early programs in Brown County as well as supervising the erection of the fire towers in the Lilly Woods, the State Park, and other towers in counties to the south.

The SCS and State Forestry programs began by planting evergreen trees on and in the eroded gullies on the newly acquired land. Farmers who managed to keep their farms began to plant acreage in evergreen trees to sell as Christmas trees.

People began buying cabins and land with the idea of retirement They often planted trees on their land as an investment—planning the harvesting of the trees to coincide with their retirement schedule, as a way to recover part of the investment in their land.

Many of the more mature stands of evergreen trees we now have are leftovers from some of those original Christmas tree plantations. They are about 70 years old but would probably be much larger had they been in the natural environment of either the northern or southern pine belts. The climate and soils of the natural pine belts are simply better at growing evergreens. There is a method in the way Nature distributes its bounty.

A few Brown County families still find the planting, pruning, shaping, and selling of Christmas trees to be a rewarding enterprise.

Some people like to criticize government programs as a waste of taxpayers’ money. I think those early government programs salvaged Brown County, helped preserve it, and set it on a course for a bright future.

If you buy your Christmas tree locally this year it is most likely a Brown County tree. You could not have done it 70 years ago. When you climb the ladder to put the ornament on the top spike of the tree, think a moment of the history that brought you your tree.

Merry Christmas!