Tree town

Each year they return to the north end of Eastern Market. Campers and mobile homes park around one of the market’s huge awnings. Hundreds of evergreens sprout up near each vehicle as though they were growing through the asphalt and concrete; a couple thousand more may be stacked neatly in piles nearby.

Typically deserted during most of the week, the area starts to draw a stream of cars and shoppers at all hours of the day and night, and the air is filled by the fresh smell of pine.

For more than 50 years, Russ Tolan has been a part of this annual migration into the heart of Detroit. Christmas tree farmers have been doing business there for nearly as long as the market has been in existence, and a trip down to Eastern Market to pick up a Christmas tree has been an annual holiday ritual for thousands of families across metro Detroit.

A tall, stocky, white-haired man from Ossineke, Tolan is joined annually in this temporary village by nearly a dozen other migrants from northern Michigan who arrive around Thanksgiving with their trucks loaded with Douglas, balsam and Fraser firs, a variety of spruces, as well as scotch pines and white pines.

The tree business is generally a family affair, with the men doing most of the selling during the holiday season, while their wives, daughters and sisters continue to take care of their farms and children up north. For most, this is their primary livelihood and means of support.

While living in Eastern Market, the farmers sleep, eat, shower, read, drink a little beer, watch TV and “shoot the shit” when they are not working or selling trees.

There are probably few places in the state where a person could find nearly a dozen Christmas tree vendors all together, open 24-7.

“I’ve seen guys come in here in the middle of the night after they’ve gotten out of the bar wanting to buy a tree,” said Tolan, who was outfitted in a dark flannel shirt, a jacket, leather boots and gloves. Some are too loaded to have a clue about what they’re buying, said Tolan. “And sometimes we won’t sell them anything either. We just tell them to come back the next day.”

Tolan, who started by buying trees from other farmers, opened his own tree farm in 1950. He’s also been an ironworker, helped build the Mackinac Bridge, and established a lumber mill and a dairy farm on the property he has lived on, south of Alpena, since he was 2 years old.

Now, he lives a good part of each December in a Swinger motor home that features a full kitchen, bath, toilet and television. “I’m just here to sell trees,” he said. “I really enjoy it, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

Next door to Tolan is Chet Szuber, who splits life between suburban Berkley, northern Michigan and Florida. Szuber, 64, was the recipient of his daughter’s heart in a transplant case that garnered world attention six years ago. He has been selling trees in Eastern Market since 1959.

“I credit it with keeping me alive,” said Szuber of the Christmas tree farming. “When you’re sick you can sit in a chair and become depressed with your health … but I made it a point to keep my mind on this and to keep it diverted away from my disease.”

Wearing a tan-colored Carhartt jacket, Szuber lives with his son and a couple of workers in a large camper surrounded by dozens of Christmas trees. Szuber may have the most elaborate outpost of the tree farmers in Eastern Market, and he’s the only seller who takes credit cards and checks. The majority of Szuber’s customers are repeat buyers, he said, and some have been coming down to his lot in Eastern Market for decades. Earlier this month, Szuber sold a tree to Mayor Dennis Archer and his wife Trudy, and he has seen his share of other celebrities come tree hunting in Eastern Market.

Sitting on a bench in the front of the camper, looking out at the market and beyond, Szuber liked what he saw. A new baseball stadium, casinos, condominiums and apartment complexes are practically within view of his temporary “winter” home.

“A lot of people may find it hard to believe but this may be the safest place in the city,” said Szuber. “But we had a guy come in the back of our place one night and grab a couple of trees and put them in his shopping cart. … We caught him down the street and he tried to tell us he bought them somewhere else, but I knew they were mine because we have all our trees tagged.”

The Christmas tree business has changed in recent years too, said Szuber. The Fraser fir, along with the Douglas and balsam fir, have taken over the market. “They’ve got firm branches, good color, excellent needle retention and a straight trunk,” he noted. The Scotch pines, and their long needles that constantly fall off, are just not as popular as a decade or so ago, Szuber said.

This is Keith Murray’s first year in Eastern Market. The Murray family of Moorestown — which is north of Lake City, which is north of Cadillac, which also is someplace up north — had been selling trees for years on Mack Avenue in Grosse Pointe Woods. A dispute over the renting of that lot brought Murray, his brother and their crew to Eastern Market.

“We’ve never been here before,” said Murray, sipping on a Bud in front of an assortment of empty Mountain Dew cans on the “kitchen” table inside his 24-foot Starcraft trailer. “I was a little disappointed the first week, but things have picked up and you have to remember that Thanksgiving came a week early this year.”

Growing trees is by no means an easy or one-month-of-the-year job for any of the farmers, according to Murray.

“We plant trees in the spring,” he explained, “which is followed by a lot of spraying and trimming from June through August. Then they have to be cut, stacked and then loaded onto the trucks.”

When night falls, Clarence Roznowski curls up on a bunk to watch TV with his mixed poodle, Gizmo, in a trailer at the south end of the makeshift Christmas tree village. Roznowski, 48, proclaims his 1975 Pace Arrow “has all the comforts of home.”

He and his family grow trees in Pozen, not far from Alpena. Roznowski’s brother is parked next door in a similar camper; both are warmed by propane heaters.

Work is almost nonstop while living in Eastern Market, Roznowski said. But the time in Detroit also can be lonely, especially when his brother and wife are not there.

“I really enjoy doing this because it makes people happy,” he said, turning back to the TV. “But there’s just not much you can pick up with them rabbit ears.”

Michael McBride is a freelance writer who lives a short distance from Eastern Market. Send comments to [email protected]
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