Seeds of Change for Christmas Tree Lot

Monday, December 25, 2006

Every December for the past four decades, Eric and Gloria Sundback have sold their farm-grown Christmas trees from a vacant lot in Chevy Chase, just past the high-end retail center at Friendship Heights.

White-bearded and nimble at 79, Eric Sundback is often described by customers as a Father Christmas character, and the tree business has become a local tradition with a loyal following. Repeat customers praise the freshness of the trees, which come from the Sundbacks' farm near Shepherdstown, W.Va., about 75 miles northwest of the District. The Sundbacks' trees have won national awards and they've graced the interior of the White House three times -- twice in the Reagan administration and once under Jimmy Carter.

Now the founding couple is passing the torch. Long known simply as Sundback's, the Christmas tree retail operation will be renamed Dan & Bryan's, for the two veteran employees who will take over next year.

"We were 40 when we started this game and we've been doing this for 40 years," said Gloria Sundback, 80. "There's a time when you've got to slow down a little bit."

Growing Christmas trees started out as a hobby for the couple, done on weekends and vacations as they worked other jobs and raised two children. But in the mid-1970s, with the kids off to college, the Sundbacks decided to make it a full-time venture.

With degrees in horticulture and landscape architecture, they set out to enhance the quality of their crop. They began driving through the Rocky Mountains, spotting superior trees and plucking cones for the seeds. Over the years they've logged more than 50,000 miles from New Mexico to British Columbia, they say. At this point they're working on the second and third generations of their carefully bred Douglas and Fraser firs, which they prune by hand. The qualities they look for: good color, strong branches, healthy needles and nice texture.

"Only about 20 percent of trees want to be Christmas trees," Eric Sundback said, surveying the lot at Wisconsin Avenue and Davidson Drive. The Sundbacks also have a lot on Massachusetts Avenue, near Klingle Place.

Next year, the operation will be run by Dan Taylor and Bryan Holler. The West Virginia natives have worked for the Sundbacks for 20 years and have their own farm nearby, courtesy of seedlings from their employers.

"We were offered either a 401(k) plan or the seedlings and we chose the seedlings," Holler joked.

For longtime customers anxious about their tradition, the Sundbacks say not much will change. Fresh trees will still be trucked in from the farm. The Sundbacks will still be around as "consultants." And the business will remain where it is: The Sundbacks own the land and, despite its prime location, they have no plans to sell.

-- Chris Kirkham

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