A final good-bye after 50 years

End is bittersweet for tree farm that made Christmas for some local families.

Laura Jones Rench has gotten more than her share of hugs — and shed more than her share of tears — as Country Pines reaches the end of its 50-year run as one of Dayton’s favorite holiday traditions.

The New Lebanon Christmas tree farm is closing its doors for good at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The crop has dwindled after repeated seasons of drought, and Rench and her husband, David, decided it was time to retire from the business they took over from her father more than 30 years ago.

It hasn’t been easy for them or their loyal customers — some of whom have been coming here for generations.

“This is our favorite Christmas tradition,” they tell Rench, again and again, before heading to the century-old barn to pet the donkeys, Jack and Eeyore, or to roast popcorn over the stone hearth.

“This has been a special place in so many of our lives,” said Cindy Currell of Dayton, who took home her last Country Pines Christmas tree Sunday. “Being here for the last time felt like a special walk through all the ages of our kids and the memories of our family.”

Daniel and Carol Nolan of Oakwood have been bringing their kids to Country Pines since they were toddlers. They are now young adults, but the custom remains unchanged. “It was the first thing my daughter asked when she got home from college: ‘When are we going to Country Pines?’” Daniel said.

Rench understands. It was her family tradition, too, going back to when she was a 13-year-old-girl traipsing around the farm with her father, the late Dayton pediatrician Mason Jones. He purchased the 100-acre farm in the late 1950s with his close friend, Ron Baker, to raise quarter horses as a hobby. Then one day Jones asked, “Wouldn’t it be fun to start growing Christmas trees for little kids?”

And it was a lot of fun, for generations of kids – beginning with Rench and her four siblings, who have remained involved throughout the years. “As a kid I always wanted to go to the farm with Dad,” she recalled. “I wanted to be wherever he was. And then I would start whining that I was thirsty and tired, as you do at that age. But that was the story of the whole thing. I just wanted to be with my Dad.”

Mason Jones stayed active at the farm until his death five years ago at 95. Even in his 90s, he would be out trimming trees and come in from the cold to make the popcorn. His obituary stated that he “loved planting, mowing, shearing and harvesting, and, at Christmas, he was the supreme popcorn maker and CEO of parking management. He greeted every day with happiness and enthusiasm.”

Nearly every day someone asks about “the Grandpa who always made the popcorn.” And every day Rench feels her father’s presence at the farm: “When I’m having difficulty with other people or something is going on in my life, I always ask, ‘What would dad do?’ When a customer was a little cranky, Dad would always say, ‘Let it go. You don’t know what’s going on in their lives. Maybe they just need a little extra kindness.”

Kindness was the Country Pines trademark, according to the Nolan family. “The owners really made it special; they were so friendly and helpful,” Daniel said. “And of course the kids loved the donkeys.”

For many families, snapshots of kids with the donkeys have become the photographic equivalent of the penciled height markings on the kitchen wall. The kids may sprout up, but they’re never too sophisticated to pet the donkeys. “They’re our yard ornaments,” Rench quipped. “They get to play all year long and then they have to perform for one month.”

Every family has its sacred rituals. The Nolans and their golden retrievers explore the far reaches of the farm when searching for their tree. “With five people it can be hard to agree on one tree,” Daniel said. “Then we sing the Christmas tree song over the tree that we are going to cut down.”

Currell and her husband, Ed Finn, took one last stroll through the icy fields Sunday, remembering the childhood years of their three daughters, now in their early 30s. The images became superimposed like layers on a collage. Finn could see little Caitlin — “the consummate big sister, who made sure if anybody got too far away she would go find them.” He can see Molly falling off her sled, her rosy cheeks packed with snow. And he can see Grace, the baby, leaving them exasperated every year by her quest for the perfect tree.

“For God’s sake, girl, they all look alike,” her father would say at last.

“No, but this one looks different,” the girl insisted.

And now Caitlin has a newborn daughter of her own, and her grandparents are feeling a bit wistful that she will never be part of a Country Pines expedition. “Our kids will have new traditions,” Currell said.

The Nolan family, too, found it hard to say goodbye. “They made our Christmas,” Daniel said.

It has meant a great deal to Rench to carry on her parents’ history of hospitality and their dream of bringing families closer together. “The response that we’ve gotten from families has been overwhelming,” Rench said. “One couple has been coming here since they were newlyweds. And this year they brought champagne and anniversary glasses and celebrated their 50th anniversary.”

Both Laura and David Rench’s extended families have been heavily involved with the Christmas tree farm, and it has brought everyone closer together. The couple will continue to live at the farm and care for the trees, and they hope a younger relative or former employee might take over the business one day. “I will always decorate the barn,” Rench said. “It would be a lovely place to have weddings and events.”

So perhaps Country Pines will start another chapter one day. But for this Christmas season, a beloved annual ritual has been bittersweet for many Dayton families.

As Currell observed Sunday, “It was good to be here today to say goodbye to a part of our family lore.”