By Beccy Tanner
For many Kansans, the Christmas holiday season begins first with a visit to the Delp Christmas Tree Farm in St. John.
It’s tradition and for good reason:
The Delp Christmas Tree Farm is the oldest continuously operating commercial Christmas tree farm in Kansas. Cecil and Ruby Delp started the farm in 1959 and were founding members of the Kansas State Christmas Tree Growers Association.
Decades later, one of the Delp’s sons, Tony and his wife, Linda, returned to St. John to help with the farm. And now, Joel and Sarah Delp and their children help – representing the second, third and fourth generations of the Delp family to help with the farm.
Go now, and there are Christmas carols playing nonstop on a sound system.
The scent of fresh-cut trees, swags and wreaths hangs in the air.
Inside the main office is a fireplace and a help-yourself area with peanuts, candy canes and hot apple cider. Outside are rows and rows of trees where generations of families have come to select Christmas trees.
In the beginning, it was small-town life that first drew the Delps to Stafford County.
Cecil and Ruby moved to St. John in 1946. Cecil was originally from the St. John area. His parents did some farming south of St. John, near the Antrim community. Ruby, although she was born in Arkansas, grew up near Guthrie, Okla. The two met in Oklahoma.
Tony and Linda were the next generation to move back.
“We moved back to St. John so we could be closer to family and also a smaller, rural community where we could raise our family and have the advantages of a smaller school and the opportunity to work out on a farm,” Tony Delp said.
How the farm began
The idea of a Christmas tree farm began with his father’s cousins, who would talk of harvesting 40,000 to 60,000 trees grown in natural habit for sale at Christmas in Detroit and Chicago. Also, Cecil Delp’s two brothers both operated fruit orchards in Yakima Valley, Wash.
“Dad always liked to try different things,” Tony said. “He never liked to do like everybody else. So, he took trips and looked at nurseries and trees. He worked with Kansas State University with the state forester.”
By the 1960s and 1970s, the Delp Tree Farm in St. John was a large operation. During the summers, high school and college students would often help with the farm labor.
When it was the first Christmas Tree farm in Kansas, it wasn’t unusual to see car after car lined up along US-281, waiting for the chance to pull in and select a tree.
Travel the surrounding highways then – especially after Thanksgiving — and it was a common site to see station wagons and pickups with Christmas trees tied securely on top or in back.
The Christmas tree farm heyday for the Delps and other tree operators was during the 1970s and 1980s, when there were 150 tree farms across the state. Now there are closer to 30.
Pre-lighted artificial trees have grown in popularity, Delp said, but he has seen their popularity peak and decline over time. Also, there are more trees available at local grocery stores and at organizations that set up lots in cities.
Cecil Delp was well past 50 when he planted 17,500 evergreen trees using his Fordson tractor, sons Phil and Tony and a planter he borrowed from the local Soil Conservation Service.
Ten acres were set aside for a 4-H project for Phil and Tony.
For decades, Ruby Delp taught first grade to students at St. John Elementary School. Then, in the early 1970s, Ruby and Cecil built a combination tree office and pre-school on the farm. The center of the office included the huge fireplace where customers could go to get warm after tromping through rows and rows of trees to select a Christmas tree. Cecil and Ruby both died in 1997 after 65 years of marriage.
Joel Delp has also experimented with various fruit trees including growing some paw paws. The paw paw trees are normally grown only in thick woodlands, usually close to streams in eastern Kansas, as far west as Butler County. And so, it is rare and exceptional the trees are beginning to thrive on the sandy soils of Stafford County.
Still, it is the Christmas trees that remain popular.
“We couldn’t have a better customer base than the people who come for the Christmas trees,” Tony said. “Most of them are happy, pleasant, and easy to talk to and get along with. It’s fun to see them each year.”
It’s all about family for the Delps.
Linda Delp – according to Tony – is an expert bowmaker and has literally created and tied thousands of bows. She also runs the counter and keeps the office going.
For the Delps, Christmas is their family legacy.
“We care about the community,” Tony said. ““For our family, Christmas begins with Christ and then, it’s about spending time with each other.”