Kokomo — For more than six decades, Dallas Thomas Jr.’s spending money has come from being green.
A friend sold Christmas trees, so the 14-year-old entrepreneur in need of Christmas cash sold trees, too.
“My parents didn’t have money to give me, so I had to earn it,” said Thomas, who operates three Christmas-tree locations in central Indiana. “I was always looking for something to sell, even garden seeds.”
He started small, but his business grew over time.
“I sold a dozen and went back for more,” he said. “After a while, he couldn’t let me have any more because it would hurt his supply. When I was 16, I got my driver’s license and went to Michigan and brought my own trees back to sell. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Having sold Christmas trees for 62 years, Thomas is celebrating 50 years in the Kokomo Maple Crest lot, at the corner of Washington Street and Lincoln Road.
He also sets up in the Marion Five-Point Mall lot and has an Elwood retail operation.
Holding a faded, yellowish black-and-white 1958 photograph, Thomas reminisced about his Christmases at Maple Crest.
“Back then, there was not much here in this lot,” said Thomas, looking at the photo of himself and an oxen hauling Christmas trees in the area of the present-day Rural King store.
Well past just earning extra Christmas cash, he now sells trees, grave blankets and other Christmas decorations.
The Elwood man has also been known to offer stories about his Christmas career and advice on how to select the perfect tree from the five varieties on his lot.
A tree-buying tip from Thomas at no charge: Bend the tree’s needle. If the needle snaps, the tree is too dry. A bent needle should have a rubbery feel to it.
A good season
In today’s economy, Thomas said a Christmas tree is a good value purchase.
In 2009, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, the average price for a farm-grown tree was $40.92.
“Way back then, I was told you could buy a decent tree for what a person made from working two hours at Chrysler,” he said. “Back in 1949, a high-priced tree was $3. I’ve watched [tree] prices climb from there to $10. Once they got past $10, [the prices] haven’t looked back. The same thing is true today: You can buy a tree on what a person makes working at Chrysler for two hours.”
He employs up to 20 people during the holidays.
Being a seasonal business and one that’s hard for suppliers to keep track of sellers, Brian Ostlund, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association, recently applauded Thomas’ longevity in the business.
“I would suspect that longevity is very unusual in any business, and it has to be highly unusual for a Christmas-tree salesman,” said Ostlund.
“It’s easier for us to track buyers than sellers,” he said. “Sixty-two years, and 50 years in the same place? That’s a long time, especially in retail like this.”
Staying in business
Sitting in the small shed that serves as his office on the Maple Crest lot, Thomas recently spoke of his other love — crappie fishing — while an employee discussed if he could remain on the job long enough to surpass Thomas’ longevity streak.
“This business will quit on me, before I quit on it,” said Thomas. “I might be down and not ready to do it again, but right about August, I get the [Christmas] fever.”
That fever is shared by Devon Comer, a 22-year-old who’s working his second year for Thomas.
“I could do this for sure,” he said. “I’ve been a [house] framer, and I love working outside. I really like being around customers. The weather doesn’t bother me. I think I could do this.”
Having done this for 62 year, Thomas knows too well there’s a big difference in thinking and knowing if you want to be a life-long Christmas tree salesman.
But it’s a good business to be in, Thomas said.
Regardless of the economic climate, people are going to buy Christmas trees, he says. It’s only when, where and from whom.
“People have been coming here for years,” said Thomas, who for the past 25 years has supplied Baylor University in Waco, Texas, with a 50-foot Christmas tree.
“People tell me I sold their great-grandparent a Christmas tree. People remember where they got it. They remember that and they come here. The way I look at it is you have three groups of people when it comes to buying a Christmas tree; they buy a real one, an artificial one or they have no tree at all.
“And I know this for sure: I love selling trees and we want to sell them now. They aren’t much good to anyone on Dec. 26.
“On the 26th, you can’t put them away for next Christmas, and even with ketchup, they don’t make a good salad or side dish.”