- Associated Press - Sunday, December 3, 2017

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) - Social media saved the Christmas season for many local residents who have spent years shopping for the perfect tree at Stewarts Original Hot Dogs in Huntington.

Although the company had announced the end of its half-a-century long tradition of selling Christmas trees, its 5th Avenue location was abuzz with dozens of families searching through the beautiful green trees for their perfect fit, with a chainsaw roaring in the background as employees cut stumps off trees and tied them to vehicles.

Kelly Cummings of Hurricane, W.Va., was in search of her second tree after an accident left her without a tree.

“The tree fell off our car. On the highway,” her children jointly exclaimed, telling the story of their exciting adventure. When one of Cummings’ children saw his sister’s choice at Stewarts did not fit well in their van at first, he said his choice would have fit much better.

Stewarts Original Hot Dogs began in 1932 selling only Stewarts root beer and popcorn, but would shut down during the winter months due to the cool weather. In 1966 the business started renting its lot to a family who wanted to sell trees, starting the 51-year long tradition.

John Mandt Jr., the fourth-generation owner and operator of Stewarts Original Hot Dogs in Huntington, recounted his first few years of helping out on the Christmas tree lot.

“There are times when it first started that we had to go out in the fields and follow the cutter, drag trees out of the field, put them on the bailer, run them through the bailer, load them up, bring them here and unload them” he said. “Those were fun times.”

Mandt continued the tree lot after the 1990 death of the former leaser. He hasn’t changed much, however.

“We like to display them old school, with the wooden cross stands, like what you see on Charlie Brown. That’s how my dad did it, and that’s how I like to do it,” he said. “We give everybody a fresh cut, because if you don’t, the sap seals the bottom. We tie them up on your car for you. We do everything we can, other than decorate it for you.”

You might even get a candy cane if you are a good child while shopping. That still doesn’t stop the children from running, winding between the trees, hiding from their siblings and parents while waiting for the right moment for a jump scare.

When a mid-October Facebook post announced the end of the tree lot after a case of disease killed his source’s supply, its loyal followers quickly rejected the announcement.

“I get almost 500 trees. That’s 500 families that would have had to figure something out. It would have changed their tradition and what they are used to doing,” Mandt said. “I’ve known for years how special our drive-in is and the effect it has on generations, but didn’t realize the Christmas trees were until I got that feedback.”

Within the day of the post, Mandt had found new supplier: Jim Rockis, from the northern panhandle of West Virginia, just east of Morgantown.

“He wanted to know how many trees I needed, and I said over 400. He said he didn’t think he could get me that many,” he said. “He later looked at the Stewarts Hot Dog Facebook page and saw all the comments from our customers. He called me back and said he would be able to take care of me.”

Mandt and his son, Phillip, traveled to pick up the trees, which arrived at Stewarts on Nov. 19 to the 2445 5th Ave. Huntington location. The new business partnership will keep Stewarts in supply for years to come, he said.

According to an Associated Press report, there is currently a shortage of Christmas trees, which comes from a shortage of supply from the country’s top two producers, Oregon and North Carolina. The AP reports that about the time of the 2007 recession, growers had an oversupply of trees after planting too many in the early 2000s. Subsequent low prices forced many farmers out of the business.

Now farmers are allegedly struggling with the demand, since it can take nine years before some trees are ready for sale.

Mandt said it could be more than just the economy, however.

“The guy I bought my trees from has told me the younger generation is not coming through and taking over Christmas tree farms. That’s another reason they are hard to find,” he said. “It’s kind of a dying family tradition of continuing the farms.”

Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, denied a shortage to the AP, but did say the supply was tight.

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture is encouraging West Virginia residents to buy local from area tree farms, including the tree farms of Hidden Acres in Mason County, Wilkerson in Lincoln County or Whipkey in Charleston. In the Tri-State, Pinkerman Tree Farm in Proctorville, Ohio, is also an option.

Buying a locally sourced tree from a small business doesn’t just help the business, it helps the state economy, Mandt said. It starts with buyers purchasing the trees from local businesses and leads to young employees being able to pay for Christmas presents. After Christmas, the trees will be put into lakes to house eggs at local fish farms or ground up into mulch for landscaping, he explained, creating a whole new source of income.

Mandts was elated and welcomed his customers by name.

Huntington dentist Kurt Fleckenstein said that customer service kept bringing him back, rather than getting an artificial tree.

“I grew up here, but we moved back in 2007, so it’s been probably since 2008 we have been getting our tree here,” he said. “He always has fantastic trees, and it’s been our tradition as the Sunday after Thanksgiving we come down, pick out a tree and grab some hot dogs.”

For the Mandts, there are traditions and memories of his own that make the tree lot special.

His son, Phillip, now 25 and working for the business, has been part of the tree lot since he could walk.

“When he was younger, about 4 or 5, he would come down here with me and hang out. He had a little Fisher Price chainsaw. He would get back there with that thing. Now he’s 6-foot-4-inches and a big guy, but then he would be over there acting like he was cutting trees with a chainsaw. Who would have known 21 years later he would be out here really doing it.”

Phillip Mandt has since upgraded to a real chainsaw.

While tying a tree onto a car years ago, Mandt helped a newlywed couple by cutting something hanging off the bottom of their car while tying a tree down with twine. It turned out to be a bow from their summer wedding they were keeping on the car for good luck.

“I had to think quickly and on my feet. I said, ‘Now it’s the first ornament on your tree,’ ” he said. “I had to come up with something fast.”

Mandt also recounted the time he sold the tree from his own house after he brought it home and realized it was much too big for his new living room.

It’s memories like that which helped him make it through the struggle of opening the lot this year, he said.

The business spends about $15,000 yearly on the trees, but after paying his employees, renting trucks and fuel to drive to the northern end of the state, Mandt said he only receives a small profit in the end. But that’s OK, he said.

“For me, the most important thing is to make it affordable. I do it for the love of doing it,” he said. “I want to make sure people have such a good experience, they don’t go to artificial. Let’s keep it going, keep it real and keep the tradition going.”

Mandt said he believes the trees will be sold out within two weeks.

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