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Old Traditions New Again At Garrison Christmas Tree Farm

PJ Madsen, an employee at the Cockburn Family Farm in Garrison, adjusts one of the many wreaths that he makes there on recent afternoon. Photo Credit: Carol Reif
"Santa" stands watch at the Cockburn Family Farm in Garrison. A living, breathing version of the Jolly Old Elf visits the plantation on Saturdays to hand out candy canes to the kiddies. Photo Credit: Carol Reif
A barn at the Cockburn Family Farm in Garrison is covered with red-ribboned wreaths. Photo Credit: Carol Reif
There are holiday goodies galore at the Cockburn Family Farm's new gift shop in Garrison. Photo Credit: Carol Reif
Ribbons won by Guy and Neysa Cockburn's fabulous firs are framed next to a stuffed deer's head in a cozy room with a fireplace. Photo Credit: Carol Reif
There are about 1,000 trees growing at the refurbished Cockburn Family Farm, a plantation in Garrison, says co-owner Sean Barton. Photo Credit: Carol Reif
PJ Madsen, an employee of the Cockburn Family Farm in Garrison, barely needs a ladder to put the final trimmings on a Christmas tree. Photo Credit: Carol Reif
A tree this tiny would fit perfectly in one of those cramped New York City apartments. It is one of the many grown at the Cockburn Family Farm in Garrison. Photo Credit: Carol Reif
Pretty greens and pinecones decorate an old sled at Cockburn Family Farm in Garrison. Photo Credit: Carol Reif
The Cockburn Family Farm on Route 9 in Garrison almost looks as if it belongs on a postcard of Vermont or Maine. Photo Credit: Carol Reif
Guy Cockburn's old sign holds a pride of place on the Christmas tree farm's stone mantlepiece. The Garrison plantation, shuttered for many years, has now been brought back to life. Photo Credit: Carol Reif

GARRISON, N.Y.-- When Guy and Neysa Cockburn’s Garrison plantation went off the grid 13 years ago, many tears were shed -- in a way that their perfect Christmas trees never seemed to do.

Over the many decades the farm was in operation, the demand for the Cockburns’ Frasier, Douglas and Balsam firs grew to such an extent that folks had to get on waiting list to get one – sometimes for years.

In the past, Cockburn trees graced the White House, Rockefeller Plaza and Radio City Music Hall and were shipped all over the country.

“Mr. Christmas Tree,” as Guy Cockburn was known, once took home so many awards that he was asked not to enter any more contests so other folks could have a chance to win.

Guy passed away in 2003 (Neysa in 2014) and longtime customers, such as this writer, were hard-pressed to find trees of the same quality.

An essential part of the charm of cutting down a fresh fir at the Cockburn farm were the people that grew them.

Guy, always decked out in a red-and-black flannel shirt and cap, and sweet, bespectacled Neysa were always on hand to help customers pick the perfect one or to schmooze by the fireplace over a cup of hot cocoa.

So it was with great joy -- and relief -- that this writer passed by the old farm recently and saw that it had sprung back to life.

Fragrant wood smoke was wafting from the chimney of an outbuilding festooned with fresh greens and red ribbons and cheerful hand-painted road signs advertised wreaths, fir roping and trees.

Just as the saying goes, everything old is new again; one of the farm’s new owners, Josh Maddocks, worked for the Cockburns before starting his own shrub and tree care company. Co-owner Sean Barton, who worked for Maddocks, now has his own landscaping business.

Barton said the farm was in bad shape when they took over last year. Many of the trees were diseased and had to be removed, but Maddocks, a certified arborist, saved the ones he could.

When they first opened, they had to supplement the stock by bringing in Douglas Firs from a grower in Pennsylvania and Frasiers from North Carolina.

About 750 2-foot-tall baby trees were transplanted in the Garrison farm. This spring, they will be planting 1,000 1-inch seedlings.

It takes seven to eight years for a seedling to grow into a 5-foot tree, Barton said, adding that the 2-footers should be Christmas tree height in five to six years. Some folks who live in cramped New York City apartments aren’t waiting that long and are snapping up the shorter trees, he said.

Right now, counting the old stock, there are 1,000-plus trees on the farm, Barton said.

They make wreaths and roping from fresh branches and also sell live, potted trees.

Walking into the old Cockburn barn is like taking a trip back in time. There are stuffed deer heads on the walls, a frame-full of Guy’s winning ribbons, old-fashioned “kissing balls” hanging from the ceiling, visits from Santa … and friendly staff folk like P.J. Madsen.

A seasonal worker, the dad of two is off on a fishing boat, or hauling around rocks, when he’s not fashioning wreaths and roping or helping families choose trees.

Tall and sturdy, P.J. says all he has to do to estimate the height of a 7-foot tree is to hold his hand above his head.

P.J., who says his bosses have "hearts of gold," earlier this week had cut down a 13-foot Douglas for a father and his 8-year-old son. The “best” part of the job was “the looks on their faces” when he felled the fir.

It’s all about starting a “new family tradition,” said Barton.

Trying to do something with the kids is kind of hard when they’re “glued to their iPhones and iPads,” he said.

But families come alive at the farm’s technology-free zone.

“There’s no better way to spend an afternoon in the Hudson Valley than to walk around a snow-covered field in the fresh air and then come inside for a steaming cup of cocoa,” Barton said.

The farm, located at 1611 Route 9, can be reached by calling (845) 424-3574.

For more information about the farm, click here.

To read a New York Times piece about Cockburn, click here.

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