A Christmas story rooted in York

Christmas trees from the Strathmeyer family have become a tradition throughout South-Central Pennsylvania and beyond for more than 80 years.

Gerry Strathmeyer remembers a bitterly cold day several years ago, a day the Christmas trees on his lot seemed frozen to the ground. As he was pricing trees, he noticed a woman, standing by herself. He stopped and asked if she needed help.

She handed Gerry a green ribbon.

“This is from my son,” the woman said.

Her little boy was so excited after they chose their tree that he made the ribbon to give to Mr. Strathmeyer. But, not long after the family brought their tree home, the woman told him, her young son passed way.

“She made a point of coming out in that cold weather because she wanted to make sure she delivered it for her son,” Gerry remembers.

He put that ribbon on his hat as a reminder – and wears it to this day. It was the first of many Make-A-Wish ribbons kids would send him over the years through a partnership Gerry and his family developed with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“It helps me keep things in perspective,” Gerry says, “it’s not about the money; it’s more about the giving.”

Today, Strathmeyer Christmas Trees is rooted in the traditions of homes throughout South-Central Pennsylvania and beyond, and there’s plenty of stories behind the family that’s been selling Christmas trees for more than 80 years.

The heart of this York County dynasty is its oldest living member: 90-year-old Henny Strathmeyer, quite a story in her own right.

Henny met her future husband at her cousin’s wedding. Fred was in the wedding party; she was a guest.

A month or so later, Fred asked if she wanted to see “South Pacific” on Broadway.

“Mary Martin was in the show then; you couldn’t get tickets for that show,” Henny says. “He had tickets — I said, ‘Yes.’”

When the couple married, Henny left her home in Brooklyn and quickly found herself in a family business selling Christmas Trees in York County, Pennsylvania.

Fred’s grandfather, Charles H. Strathmeyer, started the business gathering wild jack pines and red cedars by horse and wagon to sell at his grocery store.

In the early 1930s, Fred’s father, Charles W., founded a nursery in northern York County and seeded what would become the area’s first cultured pine trees.

The family store was lost during the Depression, but the tree business took root at 620 Madison Avenue; the York home where Fred was raised.

“They would bring trees to the house,” Henny says, “and people would buy their Christmas tree right in the yard.”

A real tree is important in our family, and we want a real tree to be important in other families, too.

Robin Gross Strathmeyer Christmas Trees Sales

Working from home was something Fred and Henny started long before it became fashionable. “The office was in our house,” says Gerry, one of the couple’s five children.

“I remember Dad coming home, taking his work shoes off, reading the paper a little bit,” he says. “Then, after dinner, we’d do homework, and he’d go up the steps to work in his office.”

“During the day, I would take orders and send out bills,” says Henny.

Fred passed away in 2008, but his innate business sense enabled the tree business and the full-service nursery, now known as Ground Roots, to flourish. His dedication to the industry prompted him to help develop the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association, as well as the National Christmas Tree Association.

Find some of the earliest Strathmeyer Christmas tree customers, and they might tell you about the warm holiday greetings from that “woman in the red coat.”

“My mother made a coat for me out of a beautiful red, Hudson Bay blanket,” Henny says. “I wore it every Christmas when I sold trees.”

It got to the point where people didn’t recognize Henny unless she had her coat on. And when trees were donated and delivered to elementary schools, she caused quite a stir.

“When I showed up at the schools in my red coat,” she recalls, “the kids would call me Mrs. Santa Claus.”

Gradually, Fred and Henny’s children — Fred Jr., Gerrit (Gerry), Robin, Tim, and Brian — began helping.

“We worked during the summers in the nursery, pulling weeds or whatever was needed,” Gerry says. “At Christmastime, we would help out with the trees as much as we could between school and athletics.”

After college, they all eventually joined the business.

“It was all-hands-on-deck,” he says. “But, as the business grew, it became obvious that each of us needed to be in charge of certain things.”

Robin, for example, originally started her career as a teacher. She later shifted into managing sales in the computer industry and moved to California. After returning to the area, her father asked her to come back into the family business. Her core contribution since has been in the sales arena.

Through trial and error, they found ways to expand their customer base. Balled & Burlap material, for example, gave the nursery a packaging convenience feature.

Gerry attributes that willingness to try new things to their father.

“He always let you make mistakes, as long as it wasn’t going to be harmful. He knew you would learn the lesson; and remember it,” he says.

Like his father, his aunt, and his uncles, 30-year-old Gerrit — Gerry’s son — began helping as a teenager. After college, he also decided to join the family business. Today, he’s carrying the business forward as the fifth generation.

“I’m the middleman between sales and production,” he says. “Although I learned very quickly: When you’re family, you jump in wherever something needs to get done.”

Gerrit has his heart set on helping younger families start their own traditions with Strathmeyer, but he knows there’s room in every story for something new.

“People are looking for an experience,” he says. “I could see us developing different ways to provide more than just choosing your tree and taking it home. Picking out the tree should be part of a holiday event.”

Like the generations before them, the Strathmeyers believe in giving back to the community, and one way is by being a participating grower for Trees for Troops.

“This year, our trees will be on a base in Texas,” Gerry says. “For a couple of years, our trees ended up overseas.”

Church groups and community organizations sell Strathmeyer trees as holiday fundraisers. As the holidays approach, another batch of letters will reach Make-A-Wish families-in-need with the promise of a tree for Christmas.

“We always love to see how excited the kids are when they come to pick out their tree,” Gerry says. “It’s what makes being a family business so special. We get to have a small part in everyone’s Christmas story.”

Robin echoes her brother’s sentiment. Ultimately, she says, the Strathmeyers’ goal this time of year is to help create a tradition for families.

“A real tree is important in our family,” Robin says, “and we want a real tree to be important in other families, too.”

Story paid for by Strathmeyer Christmas Trees

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