If you have driven down Arthur Street in Elmira after dark over the past few weeks, it is likely that you’ve seen the twinkling lights that wrap around a small trailer parked in the middle of Gore Park. This is the ‘head office’ of Brian Soehner, group commissioner, lead Venturer advisor and Elmira’s Christmas tree expert since 1971.
“This is the lap of luxury,” jokes Soehner of the trailer the Scout group inherited after some of the Jaycees found it abandoned at the transfer station several years back. “It’s a fine office, this one.”
Soehner and the Scouts, Beavers, Cubs and Venturers have set up shop in the park for their annual Christmas tree sale, a fundraiser and volunteer opportunity for the group. The program is entirely for the kids, with the money raised from sales going directly to Scouting activities. In return, some of the kids and leaders volunteer during the four-week season by carrying trees to the lot and serving the customers who stop by. Over time, the volunteers learn a thing or two about the Christmas tree business.
“I didn’t know much about trees before this job,” said Venturer Ben Bell, “but we learned quickly about the different types and the quality. There are a lot of good trees here.”
Soehner and his Venturers, part of the 1st Elmira Scout Group, have been involved with the tree lot for years, first helping the former group of Jaycees who ran it before taking over the reins when the service club disbanded.
Throughout his many years with the Venturers (youth in Grades 9-12), Soehner has travelled to several Jamborees around the world. In doing so, he has spent many a holiday season abroad, allowing him to note that each country seems to have its own flavour of Christmas decorations.
“When we were in Chile in 1999 we looked out from our room and we could see the downtown core with all the different colours of Christmas lights on. It was 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but it still felt like Christmas with all the colours.”
Soehner has since brought this tradition back to his own home here near Floradale.
“I liked the mixed colours on a Christmas tree. For years at my home we have had just one colour of lights on our house and this year I finally talked them into changing it up and now we have a variety.”
To get the trees from Somerville Nursery just outside Shelburne where they are grown to a home in Elmira takes a whole team of people, Soehner explained. After being ordered from the nursery in September, volunteers from Elmira Pet Products drive a truck out to pick them up and deliver them to the lot on Arthur Street. From there, Scout leaders and their troops of volunteers set up the trees on the lot and watch over them when families come to choose the tree that is just right.
The supply of Scotch pines, white spruce, balsam and Fraser fir trees has been dwindling over the last few years, said Soehner, so much so that they only order half a truckload nowadays, in comparison to the two full truckloads they would purchase in previous years.
“The numbers have really dropped since trees started to get more expensive, but we make a point of only ordering the number that we need. I would hate to see a tree go to waste after it’s been cut down.”
The Christmas tree has always been Soehner’s favourite part of the holiday season, so his job on the lot suits him just fine. But he says things have changed quite significantly since he was young and searching for his perfect tree for his family’s home.
“We would often go out and cut it down ourselves, my dad and I. I don’t think we ever bought one from a lot.”
Although Soehner has fond memories of his search for the best tree, he thinks the benefits to the community of purchasing a tree from the Scouts are enormous.
“People still do go and cut down their own tree sometimes, but this is so convenient and it helps out the Scouts a lot. The money we raise here goes directly to the kids’ programs, so it’s a win-win.”