Dec. 10--Peaches, a keen-eared Doberman, alerts Ann McIntyre that customers have arrived.
McIntyre perches a white cowgirl hat atop snowy white hair softly framing her face and steps outside her Brighton Township home into a gorgeous, sunny day -- disarmingly warm for this time of year. A pullover sweater is all she needs.
"It's a beautiful day to pick a tree," she greets a couple and their grandson who arrive in a pickup, and a husband and wife who drove the long, gravel road in a crossover utility vehicle.
"I ought to be in the Easter egg business instead of Christmas," she quips.
For nearly 60 years, 88-year-old McIntyre's been selling fir trees she plants from seedlings on her 106-acre farm on McIntyre Drive off Sebring Road. But this is more than a business. It's about making cherished memories for families, many who come year after year.
Dale and Deb Regner of Darlington are among them. They bought a Fraser fir last year -- "the best tree we've ever gotten," Deb says -- that lasted through the second week in January.
"She's got beautiful trees," agrees Pat Miller of Ohioville. "We come here every year."
Pat watches grandson Mason pull a fresh-cut 7- to 8-footer from its resting place against a wooden fence.
"Let me see the other side," Pat says, instructing husband, Bud, to rotate the tree. "Don't crush my branches."
Pat stands back, critically eyeing nature's specimen before her.
"I don't like skinny trees. I like them chubby," she says. "That looks perfect."
"I like that one," agrees Bud.
But after realizing it might be too tall, and not wanting to lop off the top, they amble down the row and within minutes find an equally perfect tree just the right size.
'Ready to hustle'
Most days, McIntyre is up before dawn.
The holiday season, naturally, is the busiest time; she opens the day after Thanksgiving and sells seven days a week through Christmas Eve. Hours, she says, are "9 until dark," but sometimes customers arrive as early as 7 a.m.; often well after dark bringing flashlights or using vehicle headlamps to inspect trees.
"It's hard to know when people are going to come," she said. "Everybody works now."
Many wait until school is out to come with children. Saturday and Sunday are especially busy.
"This isn't the kind of business where you close the door and put a closed sign out there," she said. "You become a family tradition." Very accommodating, she works around busy schedules.
"I'm here and I go out. It's intensive, you know."
One customer, for example, arrived at 7 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving to buy "one very large tree," she said. He needed his grandson's help to load it onto a trailer and that was the only time the grandson was available.
One wintry Christmas Eve just as she sat down to dinner, there was a knock at the door. A man asked if he could go into the field to cut a tree to take to a family that had fallen on hard times. All they had was a potted plant for a tree.
"He went down on Christmas Eve in that blizzard and cut a tree. That was nice," she said.
This morning finds her in the field by 8 a.m., cutting, bundling and loading branches she sells to customers who make wreathes and other decorations.
One visited a day or two prior and bought Douglas, Fraser and Scotch bundles for a wreath party she was hosting at noon, but realized last minute she needed more.
So, McIntyre and a helper were out early doing their best to oblige.
"At quarter of 10 she appeared," McIntyre said. "Everything was ready for her to go. You have to do that. People are used to walking into a business and expecting to get it right then."
She calls it the "Walmart and McDonald's mentality. Today, it's 24-7 so you have to be ready to hustle."
You'd never accuse McIntyre of being a slacker.
She neither looks nor acts her age.
"I'm 88 years old," she said -- a fact that leaves most agog -- "but if you can sit in a chair you can sit on a tractor. That's the way I feel."
Her bright blue, New Holland tractor -- big rear tires wrapped in heavy chains ready for inclement weather -- sits in the driveway.
"I drive the tractor. I mow the fields. I generally plow the lane if we get a bad snow. Somebody has to plow us out here. I have a plowing tractor and I plow. I've been known to plow late at night and early in the morning."
McIntyre said she rides a zero-turn mower to cut the lawn.
"My field I do with a brush hog."
She shears firs annually, usually from spring to early summer, to promote optimum shape and density.
"I'm obsessed about selling the perfect tree," she said.
Trees take on about a foot of growth a year, "so you have to shear them if you want them to be a nice shape for Christmas trees."
And every year she uses a mechanical transplanter to sow about 300 seedlings, the majority Fraser and Douglas firs as those are the most popular today because of soft needles; a few Scotch pine for "sentimental reasons."
"Frasers have a bluish-green cast people like. It's attractive. They hold up well if you take proper care of them. They have good water retention and needle retention," she said.
Originally, McIntyre planted 500 to 600 seedlings annually. It takes about 10 to 14 years for a seedling to grow into a tree sizeable enough to sell.
McIntyre doesn't have a degree in horticulture or landscaping.
"I just read a lot," she said, and subscribes to farm and tree journals and is a member of the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association.
A love of the outdoors helps, too.
An idyllic childhood
The farm dates to 1866 when the original owner -- a man from Pittsburgh -- built a one-floor, white clapboard house as a summer place for his wife who had tuberculosis. In those days, McIntyre said, fresh air was believed to have been a cure for the infectious disease that affects the lungs.
McIntyre doesn't know the date, but her late grandfather, Richard S. Holt, a former Beaver County judge, bought the rural property and turned it into a fruit farm as a hobby, growing apples, pears, peaches, grapes and cherries.
Holt and his wife, the former Sarah E. Brunton, had six daughters, one of whom was McIntyre's mother.
McIntyre, an only child who grew up in Beaver, remembers "wonderful" visits to the farm with her aunts, uncles and cousins.
"We'd picnic here on Sunday," she said; sometimes her family spent the weekend helping with harvesting. She and her father rode horses, too; one of her other loves.
Her father took her to Sunday school at the Methodist church on College Avenue in Beaver. Next door, where Beaver Supermarket is today, was a livery stable managed by Socrates "Crate" May.
As a treat, her dad sat her on the horses.
"That's how I started getting interested in riding," she said.
When she was in seventh grade she had a pony stabled at an uncle's farm in Windy Ghoul.
Later, Holt converted his apple storage house into a stable.
After he died, McIntyre's father purchased about 25 acres from heirs, which later she would inherit. When remaining acreage became available, her late husband, James McIntyre, bought it.
"The original farm is now back together the way it was when Judge Holt had it," she said.
She and her husband built a home on the property in the late '60s, where they raised their only daughter, Lisa McIntyre Gribar. A medical malpractice defense attorney, she lives with her husband, Dr. John Gribar, an intervention cardiologist, and their three sons near Holland, Mich.
Until recently, McIntyre raised American saddlebreds that she rode on trails to the edge of her land overlooking the Ohio River -- "just a magnificent view up and down." She raised a few horses from foals and boarded a friend's quarter horse.
"I rode up until I was 75."
"Some people don't care for the country life," McIntyre said. "I attribute my longevity to my daughter, who was very helpful to me on the farm, and to the horses and dogs, good friends and my customers who've been so loyal. I have people who come here for years -- a generational thing. Now, I have their children coming here with their children."
One is Ryan Morgan of Chippewa Township.
Morgan, 34, said every year he, his mom and dad, and two older brothers would pile into their 4-wheel-drive Scout pickup -- usually waiting for it to snow -- and head to McIntyre's to cut a tree, sometimes spending hours.
"I was probably 5 years old," he said, and that was "one of my earliest, greatest Christmas memories, honestly, going out there in that pickup truck ... We'd drive out through those fields and play Christmas carols. There would be tons of snow and we'd be the only ones out there. I can still vividly remember it. That's one of the best memories I remember having."
Still today, Morgan goes to McIntyre's to buy a tree for his home. So do a brother and cousin.
'I'm a little different'
After high school, McIntyre didn't want to go to college.
"I wanted to be a horse trainer," she said. "My father saw to it that I went to college."
Upon graduation from Grove City in 1951, where she majored in English and sociology, "I asked my parents for a boxer puppy and 100 Scotch pine seedlings," she said. "I'm a little different."
Her uncle, Wilson "Wils" Mackall, also known as "Cap Mackall" because of his rank in the Army, raised Norway spruce on farms in Brighton Township and Ohio.
She accompanied her dad many times to help Mackall with his Christmas tree business.
"I liked all of this. I thought it was interesting. I liked the outdoors," McIntrye said, influencing her decision to grow seedlings of her own.
But first, she'd go to Tulane University in New Orleans to get her master's degree in psychiatric social work.
She and her husband lived briefly in Cincinnati, and upon returning to Beaver County, McIntyre worked in the 1970s as an administrator at the former Community Mental Health Center in Rochester; later as a consultant for Beaver County Mental Health/Mental Retardation, now Beaver County Behavioral Health.
Every December she took three weeks' vacation to run the Christmas tree business.
"The first year we harvested, we took trees to town," she said, selling them at the former Tweedy Feed Store on Buffalo Street across from Beaver Cemetery. When Tweedy went out of business, operations moved to a service station at the corner of Third and Buffalo.
But blizzard winds one winter put an end to that. McIntyre remembers trying to serve customers while chasing trees blowing up Third Street.
"We decided to build a house on the farm," she said, and moved the tree business there.
A small operation
Driving miles out Sebring Road you have to watch carefully for the little sign directing you to McIntyre Tree Farm.
"That's probably my fault," McIntyre said.
She runs a small operation: doesn't advertise; doesn't own a computer.
"I don't have a website. I want nothing to do with Twitter or Facebook. Consequently, my business primarily I would say is word of mouth.
Customers come not just from Beaver County, but Moon Township, Sewickley, Pittsburgh and Hermitage, too, she said.
Why so far?
"I think for one thing I'm fussy about what kind of trees I sell. I have good quality, I think. I like my customers very much and that probably shows. They like to come to the farm because of the atmosphere of being on a farm. It's that kind of environment, I suppose."
McIntyre said some customers stay in the field "for hours and not come back 'til dark. They don't always get an opportunity to get outdoors. Maybe it's somebody from Pittsburgh who comes here and wants to walk through the fields. They like to linger."
But don't expect to find a gift shop; horse-drawn wagon rides to the fields to cut trees; or drink hot cocoa around a bonfire like some larger enterprises offer.
Yes, you can cut your own tree if you choose, but for liability reasons, don't bring a chainsaw. Bow saws only -- your own or she'll provide one.
Over Thanksgiving, three second cousins flew in from Minnesota -- a neurosurgeon, radiologist and retired sports broadcaster.
"They came in ostensibly to help with the Christmas tree business," McIntyre said. "I thought, 'They won't be worth anything,' but they were. They cut pine, they held trees, put trees in customers' cars."
One was Ann Carlon, who via email contacted The Times prior to her visit to Beaver County, to say "this will be the final year" of operations -- news that came as great surprise to McIntyre who has no intention of retiring.
"No, not really," she said. "At 88, sure they're wondering just how much longer I want to be involved in this."
Having visited, however, McIntyre said her relatives "got a real sense of it ... They had the greatest time of their lives. She (Carlon) realized then that this doesn't necessarily have to be the last year of operations."
And besides, McIntyre's still planting seedlings.
"This is what I call the definition of an optimist; someone my age planting seedlings. I do it every year."
One thing is certain, however. When the time comes to retire, don't expect McIntyre to sell the property to a developer to erect cookie-cutter homes.
"Lisa knows my feeling about that," McIntyre said of her daughter.
McIntyre hopes the farm will remain in the family or if sold would continue as a tree or horse farm.
"I would hope it would gravitate in that direction," she said.
'A great lifestyle'
As Pat Miller pays for her tree, she tells McIntyre she plans on coming to her farm until she's 107.
"You better still be here," she says.
Something tells you McIntyre will.
"She's awesome," Pat says.
"Yes, she is an amazing lady," says husband Bud.
"It's been a great lifestyle, it really has," McIntyre says. "I just so appreciate the people that come."
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