Roddie Helsel has become a holiday institution in the Lakeway Area.
For 39 years, the Lake City, Michigan native has brought trees from his home state to Morristown to sell to every person who wants a natural and traditional Christmas tree instead of its synthetic doppelganger from his yearly location next to As Is Furniture Store on West Morris Boulevard.
Helsel said customers have traveled from throughout East Tennessee to purchase trees from his location.
“I’ve had people from Newport, and even people from Knoxville buy trees from me,” said Helsel, who grew up about three hours from Detroit. “I’ve even had people on the other side of the mountain come (to Morristown) to get trees.”
Lake City is known as the “Christmas Tree Capital,” because millions of trees are harvested from the area. Helsel found Morristown to his liking after a frustrating experience selling Christmas trees in larger metropolitan areas.
“I was going to Atlanta to the farmers’ markets. You never ended up in the same spots, so you couldn’t get any repeat customers,” he said. “That’s why I came here, and I get a lot of repeat customers.
“The people (in East Tennessee) are really nice, and I’ve made a lot of good friends.”
Helsel comes from a family of loggers. His father was a successful logger, and his great-grandfather started the family tradition by cutting down Balsam trees and selling Christmas trees to locals at the turn of the 20th century.
His family would turn the tops into Christmas trees, and the poles were turned into log cabins. The Helsels built as many as 40 homes from those trees over the decades.
“(My great-grandfather) cut trees and took them to market, and he did it all with handsaws,” he said. “My dad did it that way, too.”
Helsel offers Black Hill Spruce, Fraser fir and the more common Douglas fir trees. Customers can also purchase wreaths, large and small, as well as tree stands.
Each tree takes upwards of a decade to grow to maturity. The fields are cleared out for planting around April to replace the trees harvested for the holidays. Helsel harvests his trees from the 25 acres of land he owns around September, as well as adjacent properties in which he pays his neighbors for trees to start getting them ready.
“It’s got to happen fast because you only have a few days to get them ready before the truck comes (to bring them to East Tennessee),” he said.
Once the trees are harvested, he paints some of the trees in various colors, including blue, pink and purple, resulting in a seamless creation that looks so natural it seems like the trees were grown that way. The colored trees, which take five to 10 minutes to paint, have become a popular item for area residents, more popular than Helsel even anticipated.
“We (paint some of the trees) to give them color. We use a water-based paint that won’t hurt the trees,” Helsel said. “Since I started doing this, we have to bring more every year.
“(This year’s batch) sold out in a couple of days. I have to get more next year.”
Helsel also said painting the trees is far from an easy job, but a worthwhile endeavor.
“We usually do it in October, when it’s warmer and the winds are calm. It has to be at least 50 degrees,” he said. “It’s a nasty job, and my toenails are still green from painting the trees.
“The paint sticks, and if I had on flip-flops, people would think I paint my toenails.”
Over the years, Helsel has gotten local assistance in selling his trees. Helsel uses a company from Grand Rapids, Michigan to transport the trees, but the company enlisted a Lakeway Area driver to bring the trees to Morristown. Though, he generally works alone, Helsel has helpers from the community lend a hand sometimes.
Helsel said the lot has changed in Morristown since he first arrived four decades ago.
“(As Is) used to be a laundromat. It was vacant when I first got here,” he said. “Then the furniture store moved in, and we’ve had a good time working together ever since.”