A Champion Christmas Tree Grower Wins the Right to Fill a Tall Order for the First Family

updated 12/10/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Since the grand prize would be the honor of choosing the Christmas tree for the White House, the tension was palpable when 26 regional champion tree growers gathered in Albany, Ga. last summer for the finals of the National Christmas Tree Association tree judging. One man even slept next to his tree to guard against sabotage. But Stephen Vander Weide of Lake City, Mich., a two-time regional winner, was staying as cool as a north woods Christmas Eve. He figured the eight-foot white spruce he entered was "pretty near perfect, as close as you can get." And he was right.

"Dad-gum, I was excited," Vander Weide says of his victory. "It's like winning the Indianapolis 500, like getting the Christmas presents you really wanted and not underwear and stuff."

Landing first prize laid a towering responsibility on Steve, 36, and his wife, Debra, 31. The White House had specified a tree "exactly" 20 feet tall. "Unfortunately," says Steve, "most trees of that height are not commercially grown." The 1.25 million conifers that cover the 1,700 acres of Steve and De-bra's Dutchman Tree Farm average about six feet.

"Since it was to go under the ceiling in the Blue Room, Steve wanted to find the most perfect blue spruce in our area," says Debra. With the help of a local newspaper, Steve sought donors, since the White House never pays for its tree. One look at the 20-foot blue spruce offered by Lake City neighbor Russell Hammond settled matters. Hammond, an 88-year-old World War I veteran, had trimmed and lovingly cared for the tree since he planted it in his front yard 30 years ago. "He was getting too old to care for it," Steve reckons, "and he thought this would be a fitting end to it—having it at the White House."

Procuring the nation's First Tree is a satisfying accomplishment for a man who started in the business only 12 years ago with six pruning knives and a $200 pickup truck. From now through the middle of the month, Steve and his 30 employees will be putting in 18-to 20-hour days.

Although most of the farm's revenue comes in December, raising the trees is a year-round job that gets under way in spring with planting and intensifies with months of fertilizing, spraying and pruning. Trees seven to 12 years old are harvested as early as the second week in October.

Steve will cut Hammond's tree this week and ship it by truck to Washington. Before it goes on display next Monday, the White House will accept it and welcome Steve and Debra and daughters Sarah, 8, Laura, 5, Julia, 2, and Krista, 6 months.

One wouldn't think a healthy tree would need cosmetics, but in fact most farmers, including Steve, spray their pines with a sealant and dye called Christmas Tree Green. "Come around here in the fall and the whole town is green," Steve chuckles. But, of course, there should be no cover-ups in the White House. "This tree," Steve says, "will be au naturel."

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