At The Rocks Estate Christmas Tree Farm in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, it’s as though a rural Downton Abbey has merged with Kris Kringle’s village.
By Annie Graves
Dec 01 2015
Estate manager Nigel Manley has groomed these hills for almost 30 years.Photo Credit : Matt Kalinowski
A wintry morning sun begins its climb on this early December day. All around, ridges streaked with snow remind us that we’re in the heart of the White Mountains, with New Hampshire’s highest peaks dominating the horizon. As pale light strikes the dark, perfectly pointed evergreens striping the hillsides below, with views of the Presidential Range beyond, there’s nothing in the quiet scene to hint at the liveliness to come. A landscape draped in dreams. Sixty acres of Christmas trees spread across the fields at The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. The promise of new snow hangs in the air. It’s the ideal spot for a movie-version Christmas-tree farm. At 4 Christmas Tree Lane, no less …
The Rocks Estate feels like a world apart anyway. Maybe because it dates back to the Gilded Age, when wealthy entrepreneurs like John Jacob Glessner, who co-founded International Harvester, could assemble a couple thousand acres of property and build an estate so that his young son, George, who suffered from hay fever, could escape the Chicago summers with his family. In fact, the low pollen count and high-altitude air around Bethlehem were so celebrated at the time that it quickly became a turn-of-the-century resort destination.
So possibly it’s something in the air that accounts for the robust vigor of these trees, raying out in precise rows of spruce, balsam, and Frasier and Canaan fir, here at the beloved Rocks Estate Christmas Tree Farm. Certainly the setting is extraordinary: an estate set in the midst of a Christmas grove. Fields of trees are offset by the beautiful European-style stone barn, a child’s playhouse, and the snowy outline of formal gardens, plus a gift shop (one of two) housed in the shingled 1903 Tool Building, where you can find tree ornaments, pet toys, and local crafts. Although the two original mansions no longer stand, 22 other buildings still dot the estate. A rural Downton Abbey meets Kris Kringle’s tree farm.
More probably, though, the trees’ good health can be traced to their guardian, estate manager Nigel Manley, a genial Brit from gritty Birmingham who has kept things growing at The Rocks since 1986. “I was originally hired to rake leaves and split wood,” he grins. “No one knew I had an agricultural degree.”
Lucky for him, when John Glessner’s heirs left the now-1,400-acre estate to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests in 1978, one of the stipulations was that the farm must always produce a crop—which up till that point the Society had accomplished by leasing the land to a farmer. But a year after Nigel came onboard, the farmer left, and the Society suddenly found itself scrambling for ideas.
“I learned everything on the job—I knew nothing about Christmas-tree farms! We were planting 7,000 trees a year and we were out in the middle of nowhere. Who would come?” Nigel asks, still sounding bewildered. “We sold 12 trees that first year.”
He surveys the undulating acres of fields that today grow 50,000 trees, and shakes his head. “I can remember selling 100 trees and being so excited, thinking to myself, Where can we go from here? We can do 400 trees in a day now. It takes us all summer, with seven people working every day, to prune them.”
Flakes drift down as we walk the snow-covered road, past trees stacked and bundled like giant smudge sticks, waiting to be picked up. A snow-globe vista, as the falling flakes begin settling on the trees. The fields are crawling with candy colors—bright parkas and snow pants—and families are spreading out through crowds of fir and spruce, trying to decide which tree will hold their ornaments, shelter their gifts. On the weekends before Christmas, there might be 1,200 people combing these hills for the perfect match.
Here and there, a standing tree grabs the eye, already trimmed with glittery gold bows or ribbons, popping like the crowd extrovert. “Some customers like to decorate their tree in the field weeks before, to mark it and keep anyone else from taking it,” Nigel explains. As families wield the saws provided, trucks are circling, ready to pick up the cut trees. Most often, they’ll be loading a seven-foot balsam fir, the tree farm’s equivalent of a #1 bestseller. “That’s the Christmas smell,” Nigel says. “That’s the New England scent.”
It is also, of course, the provoker of memories, this wild smell of the green outdoors that we bring into our homes at the darkest time of year. A scent that conjures indelible moments: of unwrapping a family ornament; of stringing cranberries and popcorn (one impossible to pierce, the other guaranteed to crumble); of lying under the tree and looking up through its branches at lights like tiny stars. And of the mysteriousness of wrapped presents, never as magical once they’re unwrapped.
All of this, too, awaits in the field. “It’s impossible not to get swept up into the joy of the season when you’re here,” Nigel says, for he and The Rocks’ welcoming crew are also busy crafting memories. There are horse-drawn wagon rides, roasting pits for s’mores, and 2,000 one-of-a-kind wreaths decorated by the staff’s five “Merry Wreath Makers.” The local kindergarteners plant trees that they nurture until they cut their own as sixth-graders. Yearly The Rocks joins forces with FedEx in the “Trees for Troops” program, providing free Christmas trees to American bases. At local inns, visitors can even choose holiday packages that include a Christmas tree and wreath from The Rocks.
Yes, Virginia, it is a long way from those first 12 trees, sold almost 30 years ago. But some things stay true. Out in the fields, on this cold December day, you can still see your breath hanging like a cloud. And although The Rocks sells 4,000 to 5,000 trees a year now, it still feels like a family farm, and everyone’s in a supremely good mood, which is one reason, Nigel says, why generations of families keep coming back.
In the crisp, clean cold, a steaming cup of cocoa warms the hands and mingles with the scent of fresh balsam. And a thousand Christmases are about to unfold around perfect trees cut from a hillside in Bethlehem.
More information at: therocks.org/harvest.php