In 1875 A devastating mountain blaze started at the base of Mt. Shasta and spread East to Pumice Stone Mountain. Within a few days, 40 miles of forest was transformed into a charred rubble. But from this ruin Silver Tip seedlings sprouted, although this legacy of Christmas trees left by the Stevens Pass burn was so dense it was difficult to penetrate.
The Bishop’s started Christmas tree farming in 1939. They originally set up tents on Swamp Creek at the base of Mt. Shasta. That was really a primitive area. The men had to move into thick virgin areas carefully, to thin out overgrown stands and give the healthiest trees a chance to see sunlight and grow. Some stumps were not even 6 inches across and had more than 70 rings because the stand was so crowded that it’s growth was suppressed. After the thinning was done, the men pruned the trees that were left. Pruning meant taking the top off of a tree, and stripping the rest of it down to 1 ring of branches. From that a new tree would sprout and start reaching for the sun, becoming the next tree. Sometimes they had to carry the trees a quarter mile through brush fields and thickets. At night they listened to coyotes and cougars, and bears were always wandering into their camp.
The Bishops and their crew also had to contend with snow storms and freezing weather. Five years later they decided to buy land of their own, and purchased 5000 acres of wild, forested mountain area near the tiny logging community of Tennant, Ca. Over 80 miles of roads were carved into the mountains.
No one had tried to farm silver tips before, so the first years Ken experimented on all types of thinning and pruning methods. He did everything by trial and error. After 15 years he finally hit on a pruning method. It would take 20 years to grow a six foot tree if you planted a seedling,but with this method, you produce a tree in 12 years.
The trunks are trimmed of most of their branches, with only a small clump remaining at the top about two feet high, with several whorls of branches lower on the trunk, which Bishop dubbed a hula hoop.
The pruning allows all the nutrients gathered by the extensive root system of a mature tree to go to the few remaining limbs. Shocking or cutting vertical slashes in the trunks reduces vertical growth when necessary and produces a desireable, fully branched, wide based tree.
When the top of the tree is harvested, several of the branches in the hula hoop turn skyward and start new trees. The best potential branch is selected, the others are removed, and the process is repeated on the same stump to grow a new tree every 12 years.
On October 15 of each year, Ken would slice through the bark of a tree to see if it bled. If it didn’t the growing season was over and it was safe to begin the harvest. The base camp would come alive. Alongside the dirt roads were stacked piles of cut trees waiting for a truck to pick them up. A good cutter in those days could harvest up to 250 trees per day with his hand saw. At 6500ft elevation, the threat of getting snowed in was real. Many times the crews drove up the hill at night in the snow to harvest. Ron always brought several flashlights and bottles of whiskey to keep the crew moving. Retired army half tracks were often used. Each vehicle had it’s own name. The one below was named the “Whaleback Express”.
The trees were unloaded into open areas at base camp, then sorted and tagged. The trees were graded for height, color, even whorls, and 4 sidedness. According to how well it measured up, the tree was assigned a tag that established it’s fair price.
Trees bearing the Ken-Del name tags were sent by the thousands to U.S. Navy outlets in Guam, Alaska, and the Bay Area. In California, buyers for Sears Roebuck stores, Signal Oil, Standard Oil, and dozens of other department chain stores, and independent retailers would find their way to the ranch each pre-Christmas to place orders for trees, wreaths, swags, and boughs. Two months later, 60,000 trees were brought down from the mountains.
The camp itself was a scattering of red frame buildings set in a mountain rimmed valley dissected by Antelope Creek. There were bunk houses, a cookhouse, barns, workshops, trailers, and cottages where buyers could stay while they selected their trees.
It had all the trappings of a lumber camp-rugged men who knew the forest, heavy machinery, power saws, half tracks, and bulldozers. Women often worked alongside the men.
Ken’s wife Flo, had a fascination for fancy and glittery things. This fascination soon led to a new and thriving business venture for the tree farm…a wreath and door charm division. She added pine cones, ribbon, and a little ingenuity to some of the boughs cut off the trees as waste, and came up with beautiful Christmas decorations for the home. A staff of local women turned out every year to assist her.
Eventually, plantation grown Noble Fir came on to the market, then Grand fir. It became clear to Ken that the practice of growing trees in a controlled environment was much more efficient and profitable that harvesting trees from wild stands using stump culture methods. Sales for Silvertip and White Fir began falling off, and eventually the tree farm in northern California was sold. It has now become a beautiful Fly Fishing resort, which is owned by Mike Michalak, the owner of The Fly Shop in Redding, Ca.
Many of the original customers of the old Ken Del Ranch continue to buy trees from us to this day. Today, Bishop and Mathews continues to operate as a Christmas Tree Brokerage Firm, obtaining our quality trees from Oregon farmers. One of them started out as a worker for Ron Bishop Sr. at his retail lot at 8th and Alameda in Los Angeles. He ventured out to start a farm of his own, and Ron was his first customer. We have been buying his trees for over 30 years. Another was a young kid that planted some trees on his families farm. When Ron saw the quality of his trees, he liked them so much that he bought the entire 1st inventory. We have continued buying the entire lot ever since, again for over 30 years.