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‘People love the smell of a fresh tree, and that’s what we give ’em’
Something was missing from the Christmas season this year.
McKeesport’s “Tree Man,” Don Spang, passed away July 30 at UPMC McKeesport Hospital. Spang was the owner and operator of Spang’s Landscaping and Tree Farms for more than 54 years.
For more than a half-century, beginning each November, Spang could be found along Hartman Street in the city, helping local residents pick out the perfect Christmas tree.
Writer Emily Pidgeon talked to Spang last Christmas. Our deepest sympathies to his family and many, many friends.
Herb Spang and an employee prepare to bale a customer’s tree at the family’s lot on Hartman Street in McKeesport. The Spangs have been selling Christmas trees at the location for nearly 60 years. (Emily Pidgeon photo special to Tube City Almanac)
(Originally published Dec. 20, 2019)
Selling Christmas trees during the holidays may seem like a fun and easy way to make a buck, but after talking to some local tree lot owners, you may think differently.
“We have to fight snakes, spiders, the sun, the weather — everything, you know,” said Don Spang, 88, of White Oak, owner of Spang’s Trees on Hartman Street in McKeesport.
Spang and his brother Herb, 79, along with other family members and employees, are celebrating 59 years of selling Christmas trees in the very same location.
Spang said he’s sold as many as 5,000 trees in one season. These days, the lot sells closer to 500 trees.
Spang’s trees are planted primarily in Indiana County, and cared for year-round. In the past, the Spang family have shown their trees in the Indiana County Fair.
When asked why a customer may choose a real tree versus an artificial tree, both Don and Herb Spang cited “tradition” as the main reason.
“People just love the smell of a fresh tree, and that’s just what we give ‘em,” Don Spang said.
(Emily Pidgeon photo special to Tube City Almanac)
The Hartman Street lot opened in the winter of 1960 and the Spang family has supplied freshly cut trees every year since then, often braving extreme cold and severe storms that brought heavy snow and thick ice. In some cases, the Spangs are now selling trees to the third- and fourth-generation members of the same families.
“In 59 years we’ve been through it all,” Don Spang said. “There’s some years there was an ice storm, we had to use an ice pick” to break the trees loose.
Until a few years ago, Don Spang sheared the trees himself, up to three times per week. “We’re talking about 500 to 750 trees sheared by hand,” he said.
Now retired and battling cancer, Spang spoke energetically of his passion for cultivating and selling what some would call the quintessential Christmas decoration. It’s a labor of love, he said.
Every tree has a different smell, Spang said: “Concolor fir smell the best, just like lemons and oranges.”
In fact, Spang said, a big reason live trees still sell well is because they smell so great. “Nothing beats the smell of freshly cut Christmas tree,” Spang said.
In White Oak, Rainbow Volunteer Fire Co. has been selling fresh-cut Christmas trees for more than 40 years from the parking lot of the fire hall on Jacks Run Road.
“We usually buy 300 trees (each season), and when they’re gone, they’re gone,” said Keith Conn, the fire company’s treasurer. “The reason we do that is mainly for our membership, because they all have families or friends to prepare for the holidays with as well. Rather than have someone sitting around until Christmas Eve for that one last tree sale, we don’t do that.”
The annual tree sale is one of Rainbow’s biggest fundraisers of the year, and just like the Spang family, volunteer firefighters and their families have braved severe weather on many occasions — and met many repeat customers.
“There was a fellow and his wife (who) came in and said he had to come down here to buy their Christmas tree, just like last year,” Conn said. The husband told his wife that “the big box stores also carry nice trees.”
According to Conn, the man’s wife replied: “Yeah, but if our house catches on fire, is that store going to come put it out?”
(Emily Pidgeon photo special to Tube City Almanac)
Customers who purchase a live Christmas tree each year may have seen the price go up, Conn and the Spangs all said, but there’s a cost to raising and selling live trees, and keeping them fresh while they’re for sale on the lot.
It takes several years for a tree to grow large enough to be harvested, Spang said. Trees that are planted as saplings must be tended, pruned, sheared and cared for, he said.
Families who are allergic to live trees, or who have small children or pets, often have to forego a live tree. Live trees also require maintenance. “Watering your tree daily, making sure (the water) is fresh and clean is the best tip we have for all of our customers,” Herb Spang said.
Everyone has their own idea of the “perfect” Christmas tree, Conn said. Sometimes, he said, he sees a tree and thinks, “only a mother could love it.”
“It’s all a matter of taste,” Conn said. “I’ve already looked at a tree and said, ‘that’s going to be the last one on the lot,’ and a half hour later someone comes in and says that’s the tree they want, ‘it’s perfect.’”
Emily Pidgeon is a freelance writer from McKeesport. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published December 24, 2020.