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Ghosts of Christmas trees past remind daughter of hard times

The headline on the yellowed newspaper clipping reads, "Dealer burns up $10,000 in Xmas trees."

This was during the dark days shortly after Uncle Sam marched into World War II. Like now, with many people facing uncertain financial futures, times were tough during that holiday season.

"More than $10,500 in Christmas trees went up in smoke today in Burlingame and Redwood City as George Yockel, a dealer from Ashland, Oregon, set fire to his large stock of fir and spruce trees which disinterested citizens refused to buy," reads the article in the Bay Area newspaper.

"For the first time in 17 years, Yockel said, he was selling trees at a loss and would have to destroy them to save shipping, living and rental costs," it continues.

"Reasons for the slump in sales were the lack of Christmas ornaments in local stores and the absence of loved ones from the homes in which the Christmas tree was the essence of the Christmas spirit," it adds.

Medford resident Edna Yockel Wray, 81, keeps the article about her father as a reminder of how perseverance can overcome adversity in hard times.

Indeed, her father, who owned a small trucking company in Ashland, continued hauling Christmas trees to California each holiday season until he died in 1960.

"I remember he was very depressed when he got home after burning all those trees in that bonfire," she says. "He depended on that for his money-maker to get by. It was a real bad time.

"Back in those days, that was a lot of money. But it wasn't just the money. It was a lot of hard work that went up in smoke."

For a moment, she thought about the Depression era leading up to World War II.

"If people were lucky, they were making 35 cents an hour," she says. "I know my uncle, who came from Montana, rode the box cars, he started working building sewers lines at the Medford airport for $2.50 a day. That was good money. My dad had been paying him $2 a day but he took the airport job for the money. He needed that extra 50 cents."

Born in their neighbor's house in Ashland in 1927, she was reared on a farm that would now be in the Ashland city limits.

"Being young, my sister and I, we lived out on the farm and didn't know there was a depression," she says. "I remember the first Christmas on the farm Dad cut a big tree for us. We had one clear to the ceiling."

Summers were spent reconnoitering in the local mountains for likely tree-cutting areas.

"My mom and us kids would go into the woods for a picnic while dad was talking to the old guys he knew," she says. "He would talk to old timers who owned property way out by Lake of the Woods and other places in the mountains. Some of the people my dad talked to about trees were hermits, really."

The trees that brought top dollar were the high-elevation firs.

"I remember one guy was an old hermit who lived where you could get silver tips — they were very popular," she says. "I remember dad made a deal with him."

Her father drove a Ford truck built during the mid-1930s.

"The day after Thanksgiving he would always head down to California with his trees," she says. "He took them to Burlingame. He had seven lots down there. They all knew his name. They all waited for George Yockel's trees. He would always stay until Christmas Eve."

But he came home a little early the year he had to burn the trees, she says.

However, the Christmas tree man from Oregon didn't burn all the trees he couldn't sell.

"Several truckloads of Yockel's trees will be sent to Salvation Army headquarters for distribution to needy folks," the article concludes.

George Yockel continued trucking Christmas trees south from the Southern Oregon mountains for nearly 20 more years, his daughter recalls.

"When I see a big truck going down that freeway with a load of Christmas trees, I always think of my dad," she says. "He never let that one bad season stop him. He kept going."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.