W.Va. Christmas tree farm refills tall order for White House

The Washington Post's Carol Morello discusses the plans for this year's White House Christmas tree.
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA. -- Morning dew glistened on the fields at Eric and Gloria Sundback's farm Tuesday when a Chevy Suburban pulled up the gravel drive. Two men alit and unloaded a handmade, foldable measuring stick that could stretch two stories high.

A special mission had taken them 75 miles from the White House to the West Virginia panhandle. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Stephen Rochon, chief usher at the White House and natty in a blue blazer with gold buttons, along with Dale Haney, superintendent of the White House grounds, wearing khakis and a brown jacket, were on a quest:

Find the perfect Christmas tree.

At least 24 other trees will fill rooms private and public in the White House this holiday season. But for the Official White House Christmas Tree, bound for glory in photographs with the first family posing before its boughs, the specifications were exacting.

Michelle Obama wanted a full tree, with sturdy branches to hold lots of ornaments. It had to be 18 1/2 feet tall, no more, to fit in the Blue Room. But narrow enough for guests to walk around it at receptions, admiring it from all angles. In short, a showstopper.

This is the fourth time in 30 years that White House officials have trekked to a Sundback farm on a tree-hunting expedition. Other growers have won twice before, but none rival the Sundbacks, who used to run well-known Christmas tree lots in the District and Bethesda. The Reagans had two Sundback trees, and the Carters had one.

The return to the holiday spotlight is something of a surprise for the Sundbacks, who are in their 80s and semi-retired.

"It's absolutely an honor," said Eric Sundback, 82, a big man who grew a beard to protect his pale skin from the sun and who bears such a striking resemblance to Santa that he'll spend the rest of the year asking children whether they've been good.

The Sundbacks had assumed that their champion tree-growing days were past. Although they are still in business, two former employees, Bryan Holler and Dan Taylor, took over their retail lots a few years ago.

Then Holler noticed a particularly shapely tree growing on the Sundbacks' 100-acre spread. He predicted it would be a prizewinner. Sure enough, the 8-foot fir won a Christmas tree contest this past summer at the Maryland State Fair, giving the Sundbacks a shot at the national competition, where another of their 8-footers bested 14 rivals.

And so sometime near Thanksgiving, a contractor they will hire (once he passes an FBI security check) will guide the chosen tree onto a flatbed with a pulley and rope so that it doesn't smash when felled.

The Sundbacks will meet up with the tree at the White House gate, where it will be lowered onto a green wagon adorned with red ribbons and pulled by Belgian horses from a farm in Oxon Hill.

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