The holidays are all about traditions, and I have one that is very special. It started when I was a child and continues today with my own family.
Christmas won’t officially begin for me until we make a trip to one particular destination on Route 88 in Sherrard, West Virginia, to pick out our Christmas tree. E. Black and Son Nursery has been a staple in my life during the Christmas season, and I can’t imagine the holidays without it.
If you’re not paying attention, you might miss it. Even putting the address into your GPS is not a guarantee to get you there, but many loyal customers who are in the know about Black’s tree farm head to the business each year. The winding Route 88 will suddenly spit you out onto a brief and rare straight stretch — that’s where Black’s Nursery sits.
On the weekend after Thanksgiving, a familiar scene arrives for those who travel the road regularly — the yard in front of the old Black farmhouse is full of cut Christmas trees, which have grown on the family’s acres and acres of property.
BACK WHEN I WAS A KID …
When I was a kid, my dad would take my brother and me in his truck. Later, when it was just the two of us after my brother moved away, we kept up the tradition well into my early 20s. And then, I started to bring my own family to pick out a tree.
I remember my mother rarely going with us. Now that I’m a parent myself, I’m pretty sure that while we were picking out the best possible tree, she was taking advantage of that alone time to wrap Christmas presents she had been hiding.
One year, we decided to get a live tree — roots and all — to celebrate our first Christmas after moving into the house my father and grandfather built. After Christmas, my dad planted the tree in our front yard, where it remains to this day, taller than ever — a little piece of Black’s Nursery forever on my parents’ property.
When I was a kid, the yard of Black’s seemed huge, and it felt like you could get lost right there among those trees. After tree “window shopping” for a while, the trees would start to look alike, and it would become hard to tell them apart, but we were prepared for that. If there were a certain tree we liked and didn’t want to lose, I would stand by it and wait while my dad would look around for others — just so we wouldn’t forget about it.
Now, as an adult, when I tell my husband that I’ll stand by a certain tree so we won’t lose it and can compare it to others, he laughs at me. But, it’s tradition, and we’ve got to do it.
TREE FARM TRADITION
Running a landscaping and tree farm is also a tradition for the Black family, going back generations. Scott Black and Greg McCombs are now co-owners of the business after Scott’s father Ernie — the patriarch of the business and also Greg’s grandfather — passed away last year.
Ernie’s father ran a landscaping business, and Ernie worked for him. But it was Ernie’s vision to start selling Christmas trees. He had the idea as a teenager, and he did just that — getting his start selling Christmas trees out of a yard in Wheeling’s Fulton neighborhood.
And he stuck with his vision, adding that service to the landscaping business when he became the owner. The family business was originally on what is now the Hil-Dar Housing property in Elm Grove, and then moved to Sherrard in the early 1960s when that location was taken by eminent domain. Scott’s mother and father dug up some of the baby trees they had at the old location and replanted them in Sherrard.
At first, they sold Christmas trees at the Bethlehem intersection at what would have been the old Jay’s Pharmacy building before the entire operation was moved to Sherrard. Scott Black has been on the payroll for 46 years — and that’s not counting the evening and weekend work he had to put in as a kid doing chores to earn a few dollars here and there.
“If we had a day off or a holiday, we were always working,” Scott said. “I’ve been a part of it for as long as I can remember. I remember being with Dad when I was a kid and selling Christmas trees.”
Did Scott always see himself as part of the family business? He said he never really had a desire to do anything differently. The business “was just always here for me. All I had to do was walk out of the house. There’s a lot of good things about working in the family business.”
In 2018, it was evident that the dedication and love for their business extended far beyond their family. With the loss of the leader, Ernie Black, just before the Christmas tree season, the community was there for them.
“Past employees came out of the woodwork and offered to help,” said Greg. “They said if you need me, I’ll be there,” helping the business to go on as usual despite the tremendous loss.
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THE BUSY SEASON
Running a landscaping and Christmas tree business is constant work, and the week leading up to Thanksgiving and the following three to four weeks before Christmas is the busiest time for the Black Nursery — with 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. workdays.
Many of Scott’s and Greg’s friends and family provide assistance in the huge undertaking of prepping and cutting the trees for selling.
“We know people who know people. Generally, we can come up with enough help,” Scott says. After the trees are tagged and marked for cutting, it “takes five people to bale — three people to drag the trees to the baler after they are cut. And you pray for good weather.” Cutting down the trees and getting them ready is a job that takes an entire day — sometimes two.
Black’s Nursery sells around 500 trees each year. Some of those sales are wholesale to other local businesses, but a couple hundred of them go straight to their customers’ living rooms.
One thing that keeps Black’s a reliable seller in the area is their ability to protect their trees from disease. “Scotch pines have become rare because they are so hard to grow. That’s why we plant so many,” explains Greg McCombs.
“We plant to be prepared to lose a percentage of them, and then hopefully, we still have enough for Christmas trees.”
Black’s also takes special orders and will deliver.
“We’ve always sold into Pennsylvania. We have had people make requests for flocked trees out of Columbus.” Flocking trees is the process of covering a tree in white synthetic dust or powder (or other colors) to make it looked covered in snow. (I remember peeking into the barn when I was a kid and seeing a blue-flocked tree, shining brilliantly, and wondering how it was possible to get a tree like that.)
In the evenings, Scott will spend his time making wreaths, crosses and grave sprays for the Christmas season out of leftover cut limbs from the trees he grows.
And when they can, Black’s gives back to the land that gives them their business. Any cut Christmas trees that are not sold are given to a local Alpaca farm where the Alpacas enjoy snacks of pine needles and limbs.
There have been years that they sell every cut tree that is in the yard before Christmas, and Scott makes sure to go out back and cut down a few more. He wants everyone who needs a Christmas tree to be able to get one. It’s that kind of dedication that has given the Black’s the reputation of being a great local business.
I believe that to experience the true magic of Christmas tree shopping at Black’s, you need to go at night — which is easy this time of year when the sun leaves us at 5 p.m. Lights hang above the trees, giving a warm glow to the whole experience, each tree looking impressive. Christmas music is sometimes played, and every year, helpful workers are ready to load up your chosen tree.
I’ve been there when it is freezing cold, and I’ve been there when it was so warm we didn’t need to wear our coats — but the really cold years are the best years. I take my two daughters there no matter what the temperature is, but it’s fun to bundle them all up and watch them run around the trees, their breath forming as little clouds in front of their excited faces.
When it’s time to pay for your tree, you step into the little office building, warmed by a wood stove in the corner, where there are free candy canes my daughters love.
I can’t wait to go again this year. We play Christmas music in our car on the way there, and the girls eat their candy canes on the way home.
This year, I think my older daughter is ready to be initiated into my own personal E. Black & Son Nursery activity. She can be the one who gets to stand next to a tree we are thinking of getting so we don’t lose it. After all, it’s tradition.
E. Black & Son Nurseryis located at 3988 Fairmont Pike, Sherrard. The hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
•Kelly Strautmann lives out in the country of Cameron, West Virginia, and proofreads in the city of Wheeling. She has a supportive and talented husband and two ridiculous daughters who keep her busy and full of love.