For more than a generation, Unicorn Hill Christmas Tree Farm has been home to countless holiday memories. Families choose their tree from six different pine species, fell it and strap it to the roof of their car to drive to its new home.
But for those accustomed to making that annual stop since 1984, this year will be the last.
After 38 years in business, John and Cathryn Gregory, both 78, who ran the farm at 3605 NW 69th St. in Gainesville, have decided to quit.
However, that decision was made several years ago, they said.
“[That was]the first year that we didn’t buy new seedlings to plant, I cried,” Cathryn said. “I couldn’t believe we didn’t plant seedlings.”
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Cathryn estimates that about half of the farm’s visitors are repeat customers, some of whom have been visiting for many years.
“We had several who brought their young kids with them when we first opened, and now those kids have kids and they’re coming,” she said.
These are the memories the Gregorys will miss the most.
“It’s about the people that come out,” John said. “We sell an experience.”
“I loved everything but pruning trees,” the woman added, laughing.
Both agreed that if they could continue the farm, they would.
“We have some health issues, both of us, which really limits our ability to get around and do all the work,” she said.
After selling nearly 300 trees last year, the couple said they will only have about 100 trees for sale this year. They estimate they lost about 70% of their trees to needlestick, a fungal disease that causes needles to turn brown and fall off.
The trees they have won’t last long. The farm will only be open for two days, December 2nd from 4pm to 6pm and December 3rd from 12pm to 6pm
Gregorys first met in Westport, Connecticut
Unicorn Hill Christmas Tree Farm’s roots began in Westport, Connecticut, where John and Cathryn met while teaching at Staples High School. Both later moved to Columbus, Ohio, where they each earned advanced degrees from Ohio State University.
In 1977 they moved to Gainesville, where as a child Cathryn was able to fulfill her dream of owning a farm full of pine trees just like her grandfather in New Hampshire. She said she knew early on that they would name the property after their love for the mythical and elusive unicorn.
“I never thought that would happen,” she said of the 15-acre land. “That was my unicorn. That elusive dream.”
However, selling Christmas trees wasn’t always the plan.
Cathryn said while she was teaching at Buchholz High School, her intern’s fiancé, who was a graduate student in the University of Florida’s landscape architecture program, was looking for a place to complete his senior project.
The Gregorys offered their land and said he first tried to plant four blueberry bushes. They all died. Then he was inspired by a Christmas tree farm in Lake City.
“He came down and said, ‘How about Christmas trees,'” John recalled. “We said, ‘Why not.’ “
Florida Christmas Tree Association
After the first seedlings were planted in 1982, the Gregorys, who became founding members of the Florida Christmas Tree Association, did not expect to have salable trees for at least five years. To their surprise, however, the trees grew to about 4 ½ feet in just two years.
“We were amazed at what happened to our trees,” said Cathryn. “I thought, ‘We can sell these.’ “
John said the land where the trees were planted was formerly used as a corn field and contained a lot of residual manure. He also noted that southern pines continue to grow at an impressive rate, unlike northern pines, which are dormant during the winter.
Nearly 40 years later and thousands of trees sold later, and many memories have been created for the Gregorys and the Gainesville community.
“It’s like a death in the family. That’s how I see it,” Cathryn said of the farm’s closure. “We just can’t do it physically anymore, that’s really the bottom line.”
John and Cathryn said they plan to relax after selling their remaining trees and enjoy their time together on the elusive unicorn they’ve created.
“I think there’s something very important about this land and other forested areas in Gainesville. We started cutting down so many trees, clear cuts and acres at once,” Cathryn said. “We’re really doing our community a disservice.”