This is the audio from our monthly radio show: Focus on Stafford County. This show aired live Thursday, Jan. 25. Topics included a $50,000 HEAL grant that was awarded to the W.R. Gray Studio in St. John and a $50,000 loan from SJN Bank for the studio’s renovation. Other subjects included the Stafford County Port Authority, updates on the upcoming Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge; the county’s commercial kitchen, childcare, the Community Fair Building and new housing construction.
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.”
Stafford County Economic Development has been working hard the last 2 years to complete 10 houses that are in St. John, Stafford, Hudson, and Macksville respectively. These houses have government requirements for income and age and meet the need of a critical group in our community. We are now looking for a lucky person or family to move into the last house in Macksville. The 412 W. Halveson house has a large yard and has 3 bedrooms and 2 full bathrooms. The other houses in the county are now called for. The house on First and Monroe in St. John was recently filled and the house in Hudson has someone moving into it starting in November. If you or someone you know needs housing in Macksville please contact Housing Opportunities Incorporated (HOI) our partner who manages the houses. Reach out to HOI by phone (620) 792-3299.
This is our September 2023 Radio show with our director Ryan Russel
The new rental houses completed earlier this year in St. John and the currently under construction in Macksville are part of the nine house county-wide rental housing Stafford County Economic Development (EcoDevo) started building in September 2021. The first house was built in Hudson and completed in February 2022. Three houses in Stafford were completed in June 2022. The three houses in St. John were completed in January 2023. And the final two houses in Macksville should be completed by August 2023.
For updates on Stafford County housing, childcare, the Port Authority and more.
EcoDevo is having to slow down its plan for a New Housing Development Program that would have built 10 more houses. Its fall 2022 application for a Moderate Income Housing Grant was not awarded funding. The Kansas Housing Resource Corporation received around $19 million in Moderate Income Housing grant requests in its fall grant cycle and was only able to award about $5 million in funding.
Stafford County Economic Development has engaged Housing Opportunities Inc (HOI) a nonprofit in Great Bend to take over property management of their rental properties effective March 1. Stafford EcoDevo’s rental portfolio has grown from three units to eleven in just over a year with two more houses still under construction.
Our VISTA’s service year has come to an end! Over the past year, Falon Runnebaum’s work has focused on housing and childcare which are crucial for developing a strong and robust workforce.
For the next year, Theresa McLoyd will be working with Stafford County Economic Development (EcoDevo) as an AmeriCorps VISTA. She is originally from Birmingham, Alabama and moved to Johnson County, Kansas in 1995.
Stafford County Economic Development, Inc.
We are a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.
311 N Broadway St, Saint John, KS 67576
PO Box 233, Saint John, KS 67576
To promote economic and population growth throughout the County by assisting our local businesses, engaging in community activities, and promoting Stafford County as a great place to live, work, and play.
We are an equal opportunity provider and employer.