Written by Derek Halsey | Photos by Todd Bush
According to High Country Christmas tree farmer and winery owner
Jack Wiseman, if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.
Wiseman found a way to come home again. When you grow up in Appalachia—specifically, North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, in Wiseman’s case—sometimes you have to leave town to make it in the world.
During the Great Migration of the first half of the 20th century, many young men and women of the mountains did just that, either moving north to find work, or going into the military. Wiseman left his beloved mountains as a teenager after being drafted. Following his stint in the military, he returned home, only to leave again to go on another sojourn out west.
Eventually, however, Wiseman was able to return to Avery County and create two wonderful businesses that use the land he grew up on in a positive way. He was a pioneer in the now-flourishing industry of growing and selling Christmas trees in the High Country, and he also owns a winery that is the end result of his nearly life-long passion for making wine and brandy.
Currently, North Carolina produces over 20 percent of the Christmas trees sold in the United States, second only to Oregon. A half century ago, Wiseman planted 5,000 seedlings in Avery County with the specific intention of selling them as Christmas trees—a business called Christmas Green that still thrives today. Nowadays, if you drive through many parts of Western North Carolina, you’ll spot steep mountainsides filled with Fraser fir trees.
Wiseman also created Linville Falls Winery, located in a beautiful setting just a couple of miles from the world famous Linville Gorge and namesake Linville Falls.
All of this success, however, comes at the long end of an interesting journey.
Mountain Born, Mountain Raised
“I grew up on the North Toe River as a young boy, about four or five miles over the hill from here,” says Wiseman, while sitting in the tasting room of his winery. “I went to school in Crossnore. The biggest business in Crossnore at that time was Dr. Sloop and his wife Mary Martin Sloop.”
Beginning in the 1920s, Dr. Mary Martin Sloop, a physician and educator, and her husband, Dr. Eustace Sloop, a surgeon, not only established a medical practice in Avery County, they also created the now-famous Crossnore School. By the 1930s, the Crossnore School featured 20 buildings, including dormitories for school kids who could not travel long distances. Before the Crossnore School, many 19th century mountain kids had little to no education, and even the teachers in the one-room schoolhouses that did exist were not particularly educated themselves.
The Crossnore School, funded by the sale of used clothing and by organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, became a destination for orphans and abandoned children. In the 1950s, Dr. Sloop wrote her autobiography, Miracle in the Hills. She would die in early 1961.
“Because it was a charitable school,” explains Wiseman, “the Sloops collected potatoes and apples and canned goods and old clothes from the Belk family and other people in Charlotte. Because of that, it was the biggest business in Crossnore. They were the people that God sent here to doctor and feed the mountain people, who were pretty poverty-ridden back in the 1920s. The Sloops rode horses here and started a practice over in Plumtree, but there was already a doctor there named Dr. Burleson, whose family lived in Plumtree. The Sloops weren’t welcomed there because there was too much competition.”
Wiseman’s life would change forever a few years before he attended Crossnore School, however, when his mother left for the West Coast without him.
“My parents were separated, and my mother raised me until I was eight,” says Wiseman. “Then, my mother went to California, and my grandparents raised me from eight years old on. I met my dad once. My parents were never together. My mother went out to California to make a living. She starved out here in Avery County. Out there, she was the governess for one of the relatives of the Marx Brothers in San Francisco. She would send money back for me to get my teeth fixed and so forth. My grandparents were farmers, and I was raised on that farm, where I hoed corn and put up hay and fed the horses. No tractors, all horses, and I didn’t even know what a chainsaw was.”
To this day, when Wiseman talks about his mother leaving town without him, you can see in his eyes that the reality of it still affects him deeply, even over 70 years later.
“It was pretty tough to lose your mama. It doesn’t go away. I had no idea she was leaving. She needed to go. She needed to go to make a living and probably for other reasons. I was eight years old so I knew what was going on, but I didn’t know why. I was very comfortable in my grandparents’ home because I had been in and out of there from the time I was born. They were the stable people in the family. That was where the milk and the butter and the cornbread was.”
Early on, Wiseman was mischievous in school and was quickly heading in the wrong direction. As he recalls it now, “They had too many rules for me. I didn’t like all of the rules, so I revolted. I went fishing and did things that kids without good supervision would do.” An opportunity arose, however, that set him on the path to learning about being responsible and working as a team member. The experience would help him turn his life around.
“When I got into high school over in Cranberry, I was a pretty good athlete,” says Wiseman. “Eventually, they got a new coach at Crossnore School, and he came over to my little community and asked if I would come over and live in the dormitory at Crossnore School and play sports there. That way, I could live there full-time and have food and medicine. It was just like going to college. But, I had to clean my act up. I started making my bed and cleaning my room. My job was to sweep the gymnasium two times a week for my room and board. I loved that because I was right there playing basketball anyway.”
The realities of the bigger world soon knocked on Wiseman’s door when he was drafted into the armed services after finishing high school. The Korean War was in full tilt then and he found himself being shipped out. “I went in as an infantryman, but I also had medical training while in basic training in Camp Pickett in Virginia, so I was transferred as a medic. The war was just kind of a dream. If you went a little bit crazy over there, you just didn’t get any worse. You tried to stay at that level. I still remember several of those guys, but I have never contacted them.”
After Wiseman came back from the Korean War, he went to Blanton Business College in Asheville for a few months and then had a desire to go west. He ended up in San Francisco, where he was finally reunited with his mother.
“She was the main reason I went there,” he says. “I worked in the shipyards there. I was a sheet metal worker. During the weekends, I would go up to Napa Valley. The guys that I worked with got acquainted with some people up in Napa that were making brandy. So I made them a small moonshine still that they used to make brandy. The winemakers were there and I was there, and I loved wine and I loved to make it. I had been making moonshine all of my young life, and wine and brandy and other good stuff.”
Wiseman came back home to North Carolina in the 1960s to take care of his grandparents and to be with a girl he’d met. For a year or two, he moved to Charlotte to build and run a janitorial business. In 1962 he also got married, to Jo Anne Aldridge, with whom he would go on to have two sons and a daughter (not to mention six grandchildren).
Yes, you can go down to the local Christmas tree lot in the big city and buy one after work. But wouldn’t it be cool to take a romantic or adventurous weekend drive up into the North Carolina mountains?
Dawn of the Fraser Fir Industry
It was another side job back in California, however, that put an idea into his head on how to make a living back in the High Country. The concept of “one thing leads to another” sent Wiseman’s life into a new era: Sometimes you have to create opportunity where there was none before.
“For a couple of years in the Bay Area and in Napa, I helped a friend sell Christmas trees that he had cut up in Oregon and had brought back to California,” recalls Wiseman. “My people back here in North Carolina were mostly in agriculture. So, when I came back in 1960, I started talking about planting Christmas trees. In 1962, I planted 5,000 Fraser firs. I did it on my own land. I bought a 25-acre farm for $7,000 with a house on it. The 5,000 seedlings probably only took up two acres or so. I got the seedlings from the Beutell Family over in Sylva.”
Sylva is located in the Great Smoky Mountains section of Western North Carolina. What is interesting is that the Fraser fir trees that were previously grown in the area were sold as landscaping fauna, and maybe were trimmed to make Christmas boughs and wreaths on the side. They were not sold as whole Christmas trees.
A report from the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension, “How Fraser Fir Made It Off the Mountain and into Christmas,” details how in the 1950s, brothers Tommy and Russell Beutell approached people about cutting down their Fraser firs and selling them as Christmas trees. Tommy Beutell, quoted in the article, noted, “They were shocked by our request. They thought the idea of cutting down a tree, which produced an annual income versus a one-time income, was foolish.”
The Beutells and others (among them, Sam Cartner, whose Newland-based Cartner Christmas Tree Farm was detailed in the November/December 2012 issue of Capital at Play) moved forward with growing Fraser fir trees as Christmas trees in the region. Sensing an opportunity, Wiseman also began to do the same in Avery County.
“The Beutells were growing Fraser fir transplants near Cherokee, and I found out about it and I bought five thousand from them,” continues Wiseman. “The next year, I bought five thousand more, and the third year, we bought more than five thousand. The first trees were looking even better by then, but it was kind of like rolling the dice as it takes years for them to grow. In about ten years, we had 50,000 trees. It takes about six or seven years before the trees are ready to sell. But we never, ever had trees that we could not sell.”
Wiseman didn’t just plant trees and wait for people to find him and buy them. He became a member of the National Christmas Tree Association and traveled extensively, networked, and got the word out.
“I would go to Seattle; I would go to Maine; I’d go to St. Louis; I went all over the United States. I went to Texas and California, to every trade show to tell people what I had to offer. They would look at you a little bit crazy and say, ‘What did you say was the name of the tree?’ I’d say, ‘It is the Fraser fir.’ ‘Well, I’ve never heard of that.’ It took a long time.
“At first we took our sales down to Charlotte, and it caught on quickly. The first year, we had our own retail lot. On the second year, we sold most of them to various city clubs, and we did that for a while. We’d also sell to other retail guys, who would set up shop here and there on the corners. Then we branched out to Atlanta and Raleigh to the farmer’s markets there. We kept expanding, and it didn’t take too many years before people realized the Fraser fir was a beautiful Christmas tree. We sold our first trees for five dollars’ retail.”
Once the industry grew and became established, the concept of “choose and cut” began to flourish. Yes, you can go down to the local Christmas tree lot in the big city and buy one after work. But wouldn’t it be cool to take a romantic or adventurous weekend drive up into the North Carolina mountains, the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River, where the trees are still growing in the ground on a mountainside farm and you can pick out your own?
On the business side of things, Wiseman’s tree company really took off when they hooked up with a national retail corporation that was based two counties over, in nearby Wilkesboro, at the time called Lowe’s Hardware.
“What helped our numbers so much was when we began to sell to Lowe’s Home Improvement 34 years ago,” says Wiseman. “They had never bought any real Christmas trees until 34 years ago. They were good people to deal with and kind of local, based right here in the High Country. Now they ship Christmas trees all over the United States. Every year we sell them in the 200,000 tree range, and Lowe’s sells well over a million total trees a year. They outgrew us.”
If you are really going to like what you are doing and you have a passion for it, then you are in the right profession. But if it is not something that you wake up to and you really want to get into it every morning, then you are probably in the wrong business.
Having a Grape Time, Wish You Were Here
Wiseman’s Linville Falls Winery location also grows and sells Christmas trees under the Red Barn Tree Farm name.
“This little farm is 40 acres and is in a trust for my grandchildren,” notes Wiseman, proudly. “It just happens to be in a great location for a vineyard and a winery and a tree farm. For the last fifteen years, we have also been a ‘choose and cut’ operation here. This is the only ‘choose and cut’ farm out of all the farms we own. While the kids are out there picking a Christmas tree, the parents are sitting in here having a glass of wine.”
Wiseman had the idea for creating a winery and vineyard for years, going back to his younger brandy-making days. Most of the grapes that he uses to make wine are grown on his own land, with three Riesling grape farms alone. Unlike the desert environment in Napa Valley, Wiseman’s grapes are grown a little bit over 3,000 feet high. Linville Falls Winery has a good array of wines, from the unique Trillium blend to various reds and whites. Wiseman’s latest wine is called Elevation, using only grapes that have been grown at around 3,200 feet. And you can find his famous blueberry wine at the winery as well.
“I’ve been making wine for over 60 years,” he says. “The Riesling grape loves to grow in a cool climate at high elevation where it ripens slowly, with cool evenings and low humidity. And the grape loves the side of a mountain. Well, we’ve got plenty of that! So, we stick them up on some steep hills and we have great minerals in the ground here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We are selling a lot of wine and it makes me feel happy. It is a dream come true.”
Wiseman has set up his interests as a family business and, according to him, all indications are that the grandkids are showing a desire to learn and be involved in the business, and to keep it going.
As for what he has learned over the years from his business experiences and life lessons, Wiseman keeps it simple.
“I just hired a young man that just graduated from nearby Appalachian State University. [He] studied fermentation science there and he is a very smart boy, yet I spend half of my time during the day explaining how things happen. We talk about what he needs to concentrate on outside of the classroom because most of what he has learned up to this point was found in books. Now, it is hands-on application, and you almost have to train people from ground zero. You have to combine being very smart with numbers and chemicals with common sense. I just try to paint the picture, because if you are really going to like what you are doing and you have a passion for it, then you are in the right profession. But if it is not something that you wake up to and you really want to get into it every morning, then you are probably in the wrong business. It has to be a passion, and I didn’t have that passion until I was way past 30 years old.”
Ultimately, Wiseman appreciates the journey he has been on, meandering though it was at times.
“God has been good to me. To be able to keep moving forward is something that I was just born with. Now, I try to make sure that three families are well taken care of financially. I can say that with most everything that I have attempted to do, God has allowed that to be successful. I attribute all of the reasons why they have been successful to the fact that I am a very Godly person.
“When I look out into that vineyard and look at those mountains, I don’t just see vines. I see God’s creation. I try and keep a clean mind and always know who is in charge.”
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