Draft Horses Add Historic Touch to Christmas Tree Farm

Isabel and Irene are moving along at a casual pace among the Scotch pines and matted grass, as casually as 1,500-pound giants do anything. A brisk wind is blowing through a windbreak of oak trees nearby.

The sounds of brown leaves rustling intermingle with the steady sounds of the two draft horses moving under blue skies and sunshine through the grass.

"They love to work," said Weber's Christmas Forest owner Scott Weber. "When they step into the harness, they want to go. They love attention.

"That's why I like the draft horses. They are attention hogs."

Weber sits on a wooden bench in back of the red wagon his daughter is driving. He talks about Christmas with enthusiasm. His daughter, Kayla Weber, 19, takes her turn guiding the two black Percherons through the 90 acres of pine trees at Weber's Christmas Forest, about 10 miles northeast of Geneseo, Ill.

Horses have been a part of Weber farms for over a century, and for the last two years the farm has made them a bigger part of their holiday season operation. Since last year, the draft horses have been a common sight on the farm, giving visitors a chance to find their trees on a horse-drawn wagon or a hay rack during weekends.

Scott Weber has about 600 pine trees per acre. He has more than 18 varieties, none of which are grown from seed.

"We buy them at about four years old and about 12 inches tall," he said. "It takes anywhere from six to eight years to get a seven-foot tree. It just depends on the variety of tree."

The more-than-1,000-acre Weber farm is a business that has adapted to competition through the years. Nearly 30 years ago, there were just a few places in the Quad-Cities area where people could cut down their own Christmas tree. Today, Weber said there are at least 20 such places.

"People will ask what do we have that is different," Mr. Weber said. "We have a petting zoo, horse rides, hay rack rides, a weekend food booth set up here for popcorn, cider, kind of simple things."

A miniature pony, Binkie, is in a fenced-in area near two potbellied pigs. The petting zoo has a few goats and geese, too. The farm also has Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus on weekends.

And, just like when the farm started, the horse has again become a vital part of operations.

"This farm here has been in our family for somewhere around 140 years," Mr. Weber said. "I'd like to keep it in the family. Back when it started, it was kind of potluck. You raised a cow for milk, some cattle, some wheat to feed them and oats.

"But, you always had horses back then. My grandfather's name was Claude. One of my cousins up the road, Rodney, he's in his 80s. He remembers Rosie, the old plow horse.

"When you finished plowing with her, you'd throw the reins on her, throw the harness up on her, climb on her back and ride her on up to the house."

Weber said the man who started the Christmas forest, his father, the late Eldon Weber, didn't cotton to horses himself. Eldon Weber started the Christmas tree operation almost by accident in 1955. He sold his first tree to a neighbor that year, then a few more the next year.

But, because he grew up in The Great Depression, Eldon Weber's life on the farm consisted of many chores, including tending to the horses. He saw the side of a horse not seen during parades.

"He grew up having to work with them seven days a week, shoveling the barns," his son said. "He never understood my love for horses. "He always said, 'When you have your own place, your own farm to take care of them, you can own them."'

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The Associated Press


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