GAINESVILLE — For more than a generation, the Unicorn Hill Christmas Tree Farm has played host to countless holiday memories. Families select their tree from six different varieties of pine, cut it down and have it strapped to their car’s roof for a ride to its new home.
But for those who are accustomed to making that annual stop at any point since 1984, this year will be the last.
After 38 years in business, John and Cathryn Gregory, both 78, who have been running the farm at 3605 NW 69th St. in Gainesville, have decided to call it quits.
That decision, however, was made several years ago, they said.
“(This was) the first year we didn’t buy new seedlings to plant, I cried,” Cathryn said. “I could not believe we were not planting seedlings.”
Cathryn estimates that about half the people who visit the farm are repeat customers, some of whom have been visiting for many years.
“We’ve had several who brought their young children when we first opened and now those kids have children and they come,” she said.
It’s those memories the Gregorys will miss most.
“It’s about the people who come out,” John said. “We sell an experience.”
“I loved everything except pruning trees,” the wife added with a laugh.
They both agreed that if they were able to continue running the farm, they would.
“We have some health issues, the both of us, which really mitigates our ability to get around and do all the work,” she said.
After selling close to 300 trees last year, the couple said they will only have about 100 trees for sale this year. They estimate that they’ve lost about 70% of their trees to needle cast, a fungal disease that causes needles to turn brown and fall off.
The trees they do have won’t last long. The farm opened for just two days this year, on Friday from 4 to 6 p.m., and on Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.
Gregorys first met in Westport, Connecticut
The Unicorn Hill Christmas Tree Farm’s roots began in Westport, Connecticut, where John and Cathryn met while teaching at Staples High School. They both later moved to Columbus, Ohio, where they each obtained advanced degrees from Ohio State University.
They then moved to Gainesville in 1977 where Cathryn was able to fulfill her dream as a kid of owning a farm full of pine trees just as her grandfather did in New Hampshire. She said she knew early on that they would name the property after her love for the mythical and elusive unicorn.
“I never thought that would happen,” she said of the 15-acre land. “That was my unicorn. That elusive dream.”
Selling Christmas trees, however, wasn’t always the plan.
Cathryn said that while she was teaching at Buchholz High School, her intern’s fiancé, who was a graduate student in the University of Florida’s landscape architecture program, was looking for somewhere to complete his final project.
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The Gregorys offered up their land and said he first tried to plant four blueberry bushes. They all died. He then gained inspiration from a Christmas tree farm in Lake City.
“He came down and said, ‘How about Christmas trees,” John recalled. “We said, ‘Why not.’ "
Florida Christmas Tree Association
After the first seedlings were planted in 1982, the Gregorys, who became charter members of the Florida Christmas Tree Association, didn’t expect to have any sellable trees for at least five years. To their surprise, however, the trees grew to about 4 ½ feet in just two years.
“We were amazed at what happened to our trees,” Cathryn said. “I was like, ‘We can sell these.’ "
John said the land the trees were planted on was previously used as a cornfield and contained a lot of residual fertilizer. He also noted that pine trees in the South, unlike northern pine trees that go dormant in the winter, continue to grow at an impressive rate.
Fast forward almost 40 years and thousands of trees sold later, and plenty of memories have been made for the Gregorys and the Gainesville community.
“It’s like a death in the family. That’s how I look at it,” Cathryn said of the closing of the farm. “We just can’t do it physically any longer, that’s really the bottom line right there.”
John and Cathryn said they planned to relax after selling their remaining trees and enjoy their time with each other on the elusive unicorn they’ve created.
“I think there’s something very important about this land right here, and more forested areas in Gainesville. We’ve begun to cut so many trees, clear-cut acres and acres at a time,” Cathryn said. “We’re really doing a disservice to our community.”
— By ALAN FESTO, The Gainesville Sun