THE CHRONICLE – JORDAN NAILON – EAST LEWIS COUNTY: Charley Burton Changed Local Christmas Tree Market; Now, His Family Will Celebrate What Would Have Been His 100th Birthday –
Charley Burton was a man who spent his life working toward the future.
As a pioneering Christmas tree farmer, his daily toils were focused primarily on improving the fertility and yields of tomorrow, even going so far as to manicure by hand each of the thousands of trees in his expansive lots multiple times each year as he daftly curated their look in preparation for market.
Burton, who died in June 2003, was born on September 8, 1917, and grew up on Butts Road in Morton. His surviving family is inviting the public to join them for a memorial celebration of his life the day after what would have been his 100th birthday.
Burton and his wife Dorothy (Dottie) first purchased land in East Lewis County at their Bear Canyon property in 1949, and they planted their first Christmas trees shortly thereafter. Charley Burton had always liked the look of Noble Firs, which had traditionally been grown at higher elevations. He was curious if they would be amenable to the hillsides that shade the Cowlitz River Valley closer to 1,000 feet of elevation. As it turns out, Noble Firs have a particular affinity for the rocky soil and climate east of Ethel. The popular Christmas trees are now grown by farmers throughout the valley, from Packwood to Cinebar. Burton’s pioneering work in the local Noble Fir market eventually earned him the honorary title of “Father of the Noble Fir.” His work on behalf of tree farmers did not end in the field either as he was paramount in the effort to get Christmas tree sales recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as agricultural goods that are eligible for more favorable capital gains taxation.
Charley and Dottie Burton had five children, and all of them have worked in the tree business, with four of the siblings remaining active in the industry. Bear Canyon and Christmas Hills tree farms are both owned and operated by the family, although they are independent of each other.
Charley’s legacy lives on through his children and also his trees. At Christmas Hills Tree Farm in Mossyrock, John and Cheryl Burton work with about a dozen trees that were planted by Charley Burton some six decades ago. Those trees are used for grafting stock, and the Burtons say they make for healthier, more vibrant trees.
The original 80 acres at Bear Canyon are still owned between the Burton siblings and their mother. The centennial memorial will be held in the family home where Dottie, 95, still lives.
“It’s a beautiful view of the valley from there,” said Lynne Galligan, Burton’s daughter, who returned to Lewis County after a 50-year hiatus in order to take over shipping operations for both Bear Canyon and Christmas Hills.
When Charley Burton was running the show, he regularly shipped his trees to Hong Kong where they developed a loyal customer base, and twice he provided 20-foot trees to former U.S. President Richard Nixon. Burton retired from the business when he was 80 years old, but Galligan says her father never really gave up his regular visits to the tree lots.
“He never really quit. He was out there until the last,” said Galligan.
She believes her father would be pleased with the family’s continuing efforts to maintain his noble legacy.
“He would like most of what’s going on,” said Galligan, who noted that the family has worked hard to maintain their markets over the years in an industry that is prone to extreme highs and lows.
“My dad and my brother always targeted a very specific market. They don’t sell to Lowe’s. They don’t sell to Costco. They only sell to small, independent nurseries,” explained Galligan. “They are marketing to a very specific niche and they are selective about who they sell to.”
While the Burtons have long been renowned for their top tier Christmas trees, that didn’t mean that they ever adorned their front room with a robust ceiling tickling tree when the kids were growing up.
“We get some old dog we can’t sell,” Charley Burton told The East County Journal in November 1983. He noted that through the power of imagination his family always managed to decorate their Charlie Brown tree just fine.
“It’s just like getting dressed up for a party … It doesn’t matter what you start with, it’s what you do with it,” he said.
Galligan said it was her mother’s idea to throw a party in remembrance of the departed family patriarch. Everyone in the family is excited to see what old friends might show up and what sorts of long forgotten stories might fall out of the woodwork.
“She wanted to do something to memorialize him, and we all jumped on it because we thought it would be a good opportunity for people to interact with mom,” said Galligan.
She noted that their annual family reunion typically draws close to 70 people. She expects more than 100 people to turn out for her father’s centennial celebration.
Galligan added that her father’s name lives on outside of Christmas tree culture as well. Two days after Charley Burton died, a baby girl that would have been his youngest granddaughter was born into the family. She was named in honor of the Father of Nobles.
“So if you meet Charley Burton today, she is a 14 year old girl,” said Galligan.
Charley Burton’s 100th birthday memorial celebration will be held from 1-4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 9 at 188 Bear Canyon Road, Morton.
By Jordan Nailon / firstname.lastname@example.org
Picture: A family photo shows Charley Burton with his dogs Skipper (top) and Samson (bottom) during harvest time in one of his Christmas tree fields in 1991. Burton’s family is holding a public memorial celebration in honor of what would have been his 100th birthday on September 9 in Morton. Courtesy Photo