If you read Larry’s Tree Redux — Prequil Behind-The-Scenes: Travels With Larry Smith – you have already met some of the great people in Avery County, NC. The rest of the WTFCF crew arrived on August 8 and the actual shoot began on August 9.
The crew received such a warm welcome from Larry — It was like coming home to your own small town
Time for a small digression. Remember, in my previous article Travels With Larry, I mentioned Chip and I went up on August 5 to spent some quality time with Larry? What I did not tell you was the house was not air-conditioned. Coming from Tampa, FL this was a No Bueno. To my surprise it worked out just fine. Larry’s house is so far up the mountain it was actually a little cool and a couple of floor fans was all that was needed to keep things comfortable. Digression over – time for the interviews.
The first interview was between Larry Smith and Rusty Estes, owner of Peak Farms. Talk about a long history together. They discussed when they were in high school they worked for a Christmas Tree farmer and worked their butts off. It was this that made both of them decide to go into Christmas tree farming. In my opinion, what is even cooler is they have remained lifelong friends and have had some very interesting experiences together. One being blue tuxes, which you’ll hear about in the episode.
Did you know NC Christmas trees have been to the Whitehouse 14 times as the official Blue Room Christmas Tree? How does this happen? Rusty explained how the State and National Christmas Contest operates. It is not a simple process; again, more in the episode.
Larry went on to say winning the Christmas Tree competition is like “Winning the Super Bowl.” So emotional. You can see how emotional in Larry’s Tree: A Christmas Journey To The Whitehouse, which was actually the pilot for WTFCF in 2018 (it will also be rereleased worldwide this Christmas! More details to come…)
Even more interesting is the fact the First Lady is in charge of everything involved with that special tree. The tree has to be to her exact specifications. Talk about pressure. Apparently, NC has pulled this off with no problem at all.
Rusty fielded the next question. Personally, I would have not touched it with a 10-foot pole. Rusty has sent three trees to the White House and was asked about the first ladies involved each year. The first ladies were Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, and Melania Trump. The question, “Which first lady was easiest to deal with?” Rusty found this a cinch to answer – Laura Bush. Rusty said, “She was so down-to-earth” she even carried one of his grandchildren around the White House while touring.
Next we met Harry Yates, retired owner of Yates Christmas Tree Farms. Harry is referred to as the “Godfather” of Christmas trees. Born in Boone, NC the Yates farm is a 6th generation farm. I do like that.
Harry talked about the Christmas tree industry and how it has changed. He explained in the ’70s and ’80s Fraser Firs were not even recognized as Christmas trees. Well, that has completely changed and now they are one of the most popular. Go figure.
What I found interesting is in order to grow a Fraser Fir you need to be at an elevation of 3,000 feet or more — only seven counties meet this requirement. No wonder why my heart is in my stomach driving around those mountains.
Let’s take a trip to one of Larry’s Christmas tree fields
I cannot even begin to tell you how many acres he has and they are all so incredibly beautiful. Oh it did have some bugs. Not gnats this time – we all know how I hate gnats – flying around my wrists. But it was annoying all the same. In hindsight, maybe it had something to do with the white UV sleeves I had on. Next time I will try black.
Larry and Chip had a long discussion about how Christmas trees are labeled. The Christmas trees are tagged every year with an orange, blue, or white tag on a 10-year rotation. That makes it easy to tell their age on sight. You’ll see those tags throughout the show, in case you’re wondering what they are.
I don’t think a lot of people give a thought about how Christmas trees are shaped… well, like Christmas trees. Larry explained the process, which goes on for years, and trimming tools to Chip. A large clipper to trim the top of the trees and a machete looking tool to shape them.
Whack, whack, and whack! I wonder how long his arm takes to A) to get use to it and B) to recover. None of us volunteered to give it a try.
Larry is an emotional man. He went on to talk about his family. He teared up when he spoke about his grandfather and wished the people he loved could be there with him. I had no tissues this time and I really needed them.
Another Gentle North Carolina Giant
In Heart And Soul, Part 2 we met Jason Brown, former NFL player. Jason became a farmer, a first generation farmer even, who donates his produce to local food pantries. But there is more than one professional sports player who farms.
Anyone like the NBA? Hello Tommy Burleson. Tommy was born and bred in Avery County, NC. He was an All-American at Newland High School, Avery County High School, and he brought a national championship to North Carolina State University. Professionally, he went on to play for the Seattle SuperSonics, Kansas City Kings, and Atlanta Hawks. He was also a member of the 1972 USA Men’s Basketball Team at the Munich Olympics.
I do have to share one of my famous just because pictures. Our sound man Will DeHaan, who is not a tall guy, is attempting to mike up Tommy. Will, being the professional he is, managed not to have any trouble at all. I guess Larry was curious and wanted to make sure Tommy was miked up properly.
Not to dwell on Tommy’s height, but I must. My son-in-law is 6 feet, 7 inches tall. He is the tallest person I have ever met until I met Tommy. You see Tommy is 7 feet, 2 inches in real life. Why do I say real life? When he played at North Carolina State they listed his height as 7 feet, 4 inches. Even though Tommy wanted to list his actual height, the coaches knew that 7 feet, 4 inches would make Tommy the tallest basketball player in America at the time — he was even listed that way on the cover of Sports Illustrated and he’s still not happy about it. (For comparison, the tallest NBA player on record is Gheorghe Mureșan who measured in at 7 feet, 7 inches.) I digress.
Before sitting down Chip had to challenge Tommy to a very short — and I do mean very short — game of basketball. It did not bode well for Chip. Take a close look when Tommy spikes the ball. I am sure that left Chip with a mild headache.
Remember I have mentioned about how important it is if for camera angles being setup before a shoot? Because of their heights the setup was Tommy on the left and Chip on the right.
The hit in the head must have affected Chip more than we thought. So much so he kept getting confused about which chair to sit in. He went to the wrong chair at least three times.
Now back to the actual interview which took place at the Newland Rock Gym. Pretty cool because this is where Tommy played basketball when he was growing up.
Like most farmers in the area Tommy grows Christmas trees. What is interesting is his people started farming cabbage and raising cattle back in 1725. How awesome is that? Makes me wonder what Avery County looked back then. I can’t imagine what it was like trying to get around the mountains. They must have had some pretty strong horses.
Larry and Chip land in jail…
What little town would be complete without a jail? Well, Newland is no exception. The century old Avery County jail has been turned into a museum. And like most small museums it is very dark inside. Which to me is just plain creepy and makes the hair on my arms stand up straight.
We visited this jail during our Travels With Larry journey. Chip was fascinated by the jail, specifically the cells. Seeing this, Larry came up with the brilliant idea they should spend the entire night there. Both of them were very excited at this possibility. Let me tell you I was beyond grateful when they changed their minds. All I could picture were ghosts coming out of every corner.
We returned there during the day of the shoot to get some video and stage a jailbreak that opens and closes the show. I was still not comfortable walking around the dark place with the creaking floors.
We went up to the second floor where the jail cells are (Fun fact, these were actually the women’s cells). One of the cameramen actually climbed out of a window onto an overhang above the first floor porch to take some pictures with better lighting, but he quickly came back inside. The overhang started to creek under his weight and he really thought it may cave in. That really is a No Bueno.
I don’t have many pictures because it was just too dark. But, you do have to admit; Chip makes an interesting looking convict. But where was Larry? After all this was his idea. Larry was right there with Chip relaxing on the top bunk – if you can call the top bunk relaxing.
To my relief it was finally time for the jailbreak. For me this meant I could finally get out of there. With the help of Lily Kincaid, star reporter for The Avery Journal-Times, Chip and Larry were able to escape. It’s all part of the show, as you’ll see. You’ll also see their attempts were futile, because…
They did not make it very far. The train was for looks only, a relic from a bygone era.