Family celebrates 55 years in the Christmas tree business

Elijah and Joel Delp represent the third and fourth generations of Delps to help manage and work the Delp Christmas Tree Farm in St. John. The farm was one of the first Christmas tree farms in Kansas.
Elijah and Joel Delp represent the third and fourth generations of Delps to help manage and work the Delp Christmas Tree Farm in St. John. The farm was one of the first Christmas tree farms in Kansas. The Wichita Eagle

Walk into the Delp Christmas Tree Farm and Christmas fills the senses.

Carols play nonstop on the sound system.

The scent of fresh-cut trees, swags and wreaths hangs in the air.

Inside the main office is a fireplace and a help-yourself area with peanuts, candy canes and hot apple cider.

Outside are rows and rows of trees where four generations of families have come to select Christmas trees.

The Delp Christmas Tree Farm is the oldest continuously operating commercial Christmas tree farm in Kansas, said Tony Delp. His father, Cecil, and mother, Ruby, started the farm in 1959 and were founding members of the Kansas State Christmas Tree Growers Association.

“The Delps were the innovators,” said Bob Scott, owner of Prairie Pines Christmas Tree Farm near Maize. “The Delps are still the model we all follow.”

The idea to plant trees came to Cecil Delp after he noticed how well Ponderosa pine did in Stafford County shelterbelts. Cecil Delp also believed the county’s sandy soil would provide good drainage, Tony Delp said.

“Dad loved trees,” Tony Delp said. “Even before this started, at the house, he had fruit trees. He loved doing things different from everybody else.”

The idea of a Christmas tree farm began with his father’s cousins, who would talk of harvesting 40,000 to 60,000 trees grown in natural habit for sale at Christmas in Detroit and Chicago. Also, Cecil Delp’s two brothers both operated fruit orchards in Yakima Valley, Wash.

Cecil Delp was well past 50 when he planted 17,500 evergreen trees using his Fordson tractor, sons Phil and Tony and a planter he borrowed from the local Soil Conservation Service. Ten acres were set aside for a 4-H project for Phil and Tony.

For decades, Ruby Delp taught first grade to students at St. John Elementary School. Then, in the early 1970s, Ruby and Cecil built a combination tree office and pre-school on the farm. The center of the office included the huge fireplace where customers could go to get warm after tromping through rows and rows of trees to select a Christmas tree.

Cecil and Ruby both died in 1997 after 65 years of marriage.

Today, the farm has 20 acres and 13,000 trees in seven varieties.

Growing Christmas

It takes patience to grow Christmas trees – enduring seven to 10 years of Kansas wind, drought, floods and blizzards.

In 1959, it also took some ingenuity and a vision.

“The county had a planter they used to plant windbreaks,” Tony Delp said. “We used that for the first 40,000 trees, and then Dad built a single-seat planter so one guy could do the work of two.”

From the 1960s through the 1990s, area teenagers worked at the farm during the summer for extra spending money or savings for college. The Christmas tree farm heyday for the Delps and other tree operators was during the 1970s and 1980s, when there were 150 tree farms across the state. Now there are 32.

During that time, the Delps had 200 acres in trees. Semitrailer trucks ran nonstop for a few weeks each season taking thousands of trees across the state as part of its wholesale business.

Cecil Delp built a high-clearance tractor that could drive over most of the trees and spray green colorant, plus help to trim the tallest of the trees.

“We’d have cars lined up and out of the drive and lined up in back of the overpass and back the other way waiting to come in,” Tony Delp said.

Scott, of Prairie Pines, said he got his start and interest in having his own farm from the Delps.

In the fall of 1969, Scott was selling pecans from his wife’s family farm near Memphis to cattle sale auctions in western Kansas. One evening, he stopped at the Delp farm to bring back a Christmas tree for his own family.

“I became fascinated with their farm and told Cecil Delp I was thinking about having one,” Scott said. “He told me it was a wonderful idea.

“Back then, the Delps were the only game in Kansas, but their generosity in helping someone else was what gave us our start. Through the years, we’ve stolen some of their business.”

Scott said the Delps were the innovators in providing a cozy, welcoming atmosphere for families.

“Cecil Delp was the only farm back then that had a fireplace where people could go in and get warm,” Scott said.

Now, Scott said, he and Tony Delp are the best of friends.

“We have done things together for so many years,” Scott said. “We are an entertainment farm, but Tony is still growing some of the best trees in the state.”

The trends in trees have also changed.

Pre-lighted artificial trees have grown in popularity, Delp said, but he has seen their popularity peak and decline over time. Also, there are more trees available at local grocery stores and at organizations that set up lots in cities.

At the Delp Christmas Tree Farm, families still pick and cut their own trees. Cost is estimated by height.

Nothing, Delp said, can beat the smell of a fresh-cut tree.

His wife, Linda, said their customers are people who still make family their priority.

“For our family, Christmas begins with Christ and then spending time with each other,” Tony Delp said.

“As far as the farm, it is a neat thing to see families come out and spend time together.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

About the farm

The Delp Christmas Tree Farm in St. John is three miles north of the U.S. 50-U.S. 281 intersection. For more information, go to www.delptreefarm.com or call 620-549-3273.

Kansas Christmas traditions

When Kansas became a state in 1861, Christmas celebrations often reflected the traditions from where the early settlers originated: Sweden, Germany and other places.

Early settlers often used whatever tree-like elements they found on the prairie, including tumbleweeds. George Worrell, one of the first settlers in Larned, wrote of a Christmas celebration in 1873 in which many residents gathered around a community tree, an ash wrapped in cotton : “Everybody got something – no one was missed. It might be only a naked stick of horehound candy with a string around it, but it was taken off the tree – name called and delivered.”

In the late 19th century, tabletop trees were the custom. Most common was a feather tree. The trees were made of goose feathers dyed green and wrapped around wooden dowels. The dowels were inserted in a central column so that the feather/dowels resembled a spindly tree.

Sometimes, residents would use tinfoil tobacco wrappers and wrap them around walnuts, tie strings around them and hang them on trees.

Trees were often the place where presents were hung. Presents too large were placed underneath trees.

One early resident in Potwin recorded how “a nice Hackberry tree was selected and transported to the hall, where it was found the tree was four times as large as the door.” The limbs were sawed off until the tree could be taken in and then promptly nailed back in place.

Beccy Tanner

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