Fulfilling a holiday dream at a Maryland Christmas tree farm
By Emily Wax
Thursday, Dec. 9, 2011
After nine years of living abroad as a foreign correspondent, I moved back to the States and recently found myself craving a genuine ol'-fashioned American road trip. In my dream scenario, there was an authentic destination, not too far away, that would smell like a cinnamon bun and feel a lot like "Little House on the Prairie," but with indoor plumbing and a Starbucks nearby.
That's when a close friend e-mailed me about her warm childhood memories of a destination that sounded like a classic American winter wonderland: a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm in central Maryland, where you can sip hot cider by a fireplace and gaze out over a skyline poked with 250 acres of fir, pine and spruce trees, the fresh smell of evergreens filling the wintry air.
I called the land line number she gave me for Clemsonville Christmas Tree Farm and felt as if I were somehow dialing back in time. After a number of rings, a friendly older voice answered. It was farmer Michael Ryan, 78, who insisted on mailing me -- as in an actual envelope -- a history of the farm, which dates back three centuries.
As soon as I read his carefully assembled history, I knew that I had to check the place out. I drove north up 270 toward Frederick, past a landscape dotted with massive signboards from Home Depot and Wal-Mart, all selling artificial trees, most made in China. That trend in PVC pine needles is, for me, at the heart of the appeal of Ryan's farm, which is part of a fresh-cut tree industry that has suffered since pre-lit artificial trees began appearing in living rooms across America.
Ryan is painfully aware of the competition, which ranges from $10 trees sold at CVS to as much as $524 for a "snow-flocked" number from Martha Stewart. So over the years, he has expanded his tree farm in Union Bridge, Md., into an experience rivaling the vision of Santa's workshop in a 7-year-old's dreams, with meticulous detail that keeps generations of families returning every year.
When I arrive, Ryan is already outdoors, looking a bit like, well, Santa, with his Irish cheeks rosy from the cold and a red plaid lumber jacket on his tall frame. I follow him around as he explains that his farm was once home to the World's Largest Wreath, as listed in Guinness World Records. But now it's home to the "world's largest real 50-foot wreath around a limestone tree centerpiece," he says, showing off the display -- a wreath encircling a Christmas-tree shaped formation of boulders, surrounded by gifts in red wrapping -- at the entrance to the grounds.
Topping the rolling hill, like frosting on a cupcake, is the farm's historic 1776 mansion, built to look like a replica of Mount Vernon, complete with the pot-bellied stoves I'd imagined, along with old-fashioned twin salons and tables draped in lace.
Ryan's originally from the Bronx, "two miles from Yankee Stadium," he says, and I can detect a hint of an accent. He went to Catholic University and then became a manufacturer's rep selling supplies to schools from Baltimore to Arlington. But he yearned to live in the country. He found this house -- built by farmer and merchant John Clemson -- and fell in love with its two-story wraparound porch, spacious red barn and acres of rolling farmland. It was a dairy farm, but Ryan saw a market for Christmas trees.
"It was everything I didn't really have in New York," he said in his country kitchen, which has a cranky baby-blue 1967 KitchenAid dishwasher that we city folk would call "vintage." He offers tours of the house to those families who ask and usually has apple pie waiting.
The heart of the journey, of course, is grabbing family and friends and trudging into the forest, borrowing one of Ryan's saws and cutting down your own tree. Ryan offers one of the lowest prices in town at $20 a tree, even for those up to 14 feet tall. And for every tree cut down, he says, he plants three new ones.
Still, the star attraction is the barn's replication of a sleeping Santa. According to Ryan, "Santa got stuck in a snowstorm 50 years ago, and we had to put him up." A life-size Santa doll is nestled in the bed. His underwear -- boxers festooned with different varieties of Christmas trees -- are still drying out over the headboard, where a recording of snoring sounds plays on an ancient-looking tape recorder.
"It's like going back in time," says Jim Lucey, a retired Secret Service agent who's now chief of security at the National Gallery of Art and has been visiting the farm for 36 years. His wife, Noreen, their three children, six grandchildren and nearly 40 neighbors and friends regularly caravan to Ryan's farm for a weekend CYOT -- cut your own tree -- outing.
"Every year, we strap our trees to the top of the car," Lucey says with a chuckle. "People have brought trees down to Atlanta and back to New York. Everyone gets back to the house and says that was great, but that's the last time they're going up there. Then of course, next year they can't wait to go back."
That goes for me, too. Maybe next time, I'll bring a group of former foreign correspondent friends. We could use a jaunt into the countryside, a freshly cut Christmas tree and a slice of Ryan's wholesome love of the holidays.
Not to mention his apple pie.
Where to go and what to know in Union Bridge, Md.
Union Bridge, Md., is about 63 miles from Washington. Take I-270 north to Frederick, then U.S. Route 40 west to U.S. Route 15 north to Liberty Road (MD-26) east through Libertytown. Turn left on Route 31 to Clemsonville Road.
Hill House Bed and Breakfast, 12 W. Third St., Frederick. 301-682-4111. www.hillhousefrederick.com.
Four guest rooms in a three-story Victorian townhouse built around 1870 and renovated in 1996. Rates from $125.
The Buttersburg Inn, 9 N. Main St., Union Bridge. 410-775-9939. www.thebuttersburginn.com.
Homestyle eatery with a menu that includes entrees such as fried rabbit, as well as standards such as homemade fresh lump crab cakes and roast turkey and stuffing. Main dishes $8 to $24.