Sunday, December 20, 2015

Ghosts of Christmas Past

A ghostly image of ornaments evokes Christmas past in this detail of a Kodachrome slide shot by my father, circa 1970.

Christmas is nearly here, and the frenetic bustle of the season is shifting into high gear.  At the Malibu Post that includes finding and decorating our Christmas tree this year, a tradition that was left to the eleventh hour.

For years, my family had a succession of live Christmas trees in pots. Some of the early ones grew into massive trees, others flourished in their pots for years, carted into the house in December and back to the garden in January. However, the most recent specimen didn’t fair well during the drought. Last year, my mom and I purchased the first cut tree we’ve had in a long time.

In a spirit of carpe diem, we purchased the Christmas tree equivalent of a butterfly chrysalis—a fir neatly cocooned in a sort of string hammock. Alas, it didn’t look large at the tree lot, but once it was freed, it expanded like mild-mannered Bruce Banner transforming into the Incredible Hulk. 

The unexpectedly enormous 2014 Christmas tree looms like Charles Dicken's jovial giant Ghost of Christmas Present.

Furniture went flying. The cat and dog, forgetting the rivalry between their species in the terror of the moment, both attempted to hide behind a smallish Celtic harp. I abandoned my mother as she grappled with the massive tree and leapt to rescue the toppling instrument instead.

Fully unfolded, our seven-foot noble fir ended up being nearly as wide as it was tall. It looked lovely when we finished decorating it, but there was no way of avoiding the fact that it is like having Charles Dickens’ giant Ghost of Christmas Present in residence in the living room, and it gave me a shock of surprise every time I saw it, even though the animals completely forgot that they were afraid of it, and spent the rest of the festive season competing for who got to sit directly under it.

We didn’t know then that it would be the dog's last Christmas. This year is tinged with sadness, despite the presence of a new dog in our lives—an endearing but mannerless beast adopted a month ago from the Downey Animal Shelter. She’s a far cry from her dignified, saintly predecessor, a lifetime member of the Order of Good Dogs.

This dog has not yet learned that cats are not edible, and is new to the concept of house dog, necessitating a smaller and preferably higher up and out-of-reach Christmas tree, however disappointing that may be to the feline contingent.

Recalling the Adventure of the Noble Fir and contemplating a more Charlie Brown’s Christmas-sized tree made us think about the ghosts of Christmas trees past here at The Malibu Post, and the first trees I remember came from the long forgotten McCoye Christmas Tree Farm in Latigo Canyon.

The author, her big brothers, and the family dog pose in front of a live McCoye Ranch Christmas tree, circa 1972 or '73. You can see the edge of the large pot holding the roots on the left. My brothers remember helping my dad dig the tree out of the ground at the Escondido Canyon Ranch once the family made their selection. I was too little to do more than get under foot. 

Thurlow Orin McCoye—better known as T.O.—was born in 1893 and made a fortune in real estate in Playa Del Rey in the 1920s and 30s, selling land during the first housing boom, and moving on to homes and oil leases. McCoye bought a large piece of undeveloped land in Escondido Canyon in the late 1950s, where he planted fruit orchards and a fabulous garden of tropical plants.

No trace remains of the Christmas tree farm at the old McCoye Ranch, and even the name is forgotten—the property, now parkland administered by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, is officially named Weintraub Family Park, for the developer who sold it to the Conservancy, but many of the trees planted by the original owner still survive, including evergreens like the ones sold to local families at Christmas time in the 1960s and '70s.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, McCoye grew and sold Christmas trees. It was indescribably exciting to walk into that miniature forest, smelling the exhilarating tang of pine and looking for just the right tree, i.e., the biggest one we thought we could talk our parents into buying.

A sort of hippy commune on the ranch provided cheerful if haphazard assistance with the long, hot, difficult job of digging up the trees and stuffing them in or on top of the car. 

There's a Sleeping Beauty fairytale quality to the old McCoye Ranch. Something of the same magic I felt as a child is still present, a sort of exhilaration that comes from stepping outside of the everyday world and into something extraordinary.

However, the highlight was a visit to the three-story tree-house, shaped like a stylized Christmas tree and decorated with round, colored plastic windows that were illuminated from the inside to resemble Christmas tree balls. Inside of this green-painted plywood folly were two steep ladders.

I was only allowed to go up to the second level, but my big brothers were permitted to climb the ladder to the forbidden third level, where you could look out through the red plastic window and see a strange pink landscape spread out below. 

Old Mr McCoy always said “next year you will be big enough to go up there, too.” I was convinced that climbing to that third level was somehow an extraordinary experience on the level of climbing through the wardrobe into Narnia, but I never had the chance to find out. I was, alas, never old enough or big enough.

Stone walls and the old ranch road are just about all that remains of the old McCoye Ranch in Escondido Canyon. The property is an essential link in the Pacific Slope Trail and is preserved as open space. 

The farm closed and later burned. After McCoye’s death in 1981, the property was at the center of a legal battle between his daughters and his caregivers. Eventually it was sold. After years of half-baked development plans that at one point included a conference center and self-catered vacation yurts, the property was purchased by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy in 2013. 

I suspect that Mr McCoye might have liked the idea of yurts. He had a grand vision for his farm and the gift of blarney. His trees came with assurances that they would thrive and grow and bring luck upon the house and long life. Ours invariably died, but they came with memories that continue to live on even after the trees and the man who sold them have been forgotten for decades.

Old Mr McCoye always wanted the property to be a botanic garden, open to the public. More than 30 years after his death, his wish has been realized in part.

Although the gardens are neglected and overgrown, and the tree house that so fascinated me as a small child is long gone, many of McCoye’s trees are still there, having survived devastating fire and continued to thrive. Among the oaks are redwoods and pines, still fragrant with the scent of holiday enchantment.

A message left behind on a secluded garden bench reads: "His strength is the rock on which our fears are shattered into nothing." The inscription is signed "T.O. Mc."

I couldn’t find a single photo of the tree farm, but there is a Youtube video of McCoye’s grandson recalling the Escondido Ranch in its heyday. You can watch it here:

For several years after the McCoye Tree Farm closed, my family purchased cut trees from the tree lot in front of the Colony Market, and later, from in front of the Market Basket grocery store, located where the Malibu Village shopping center is now. 

Early Malibu residents had few shopping options in Malibu, and Christmas trees  were not one of the things that were readily available, but this 1946 ad, rather pessimistically advertises that the proprietors of "The Little Store" had at least "a few Christmas tree lights." An ad for the following year advertises not just any tree lights but "fluorescent Christmas tree lights." I had no idea there was such a thing.

By 1949, Malibu residents had the option of  buying a Christmas tree at the Malibu Nursery on Malibu Road. According to Google Earth, the Perenchio family's private golf course is located on the site today. 

In the early 1980s, Calvin’s Nursery began stocking live trees in pots. They were Monterey Pines, just like the trees McCoye sold. 

My brothers were grown by then, but Dad and I would always go together to pick out our tree, just the way we always went there together on the way home from weekend errands in the summer to buy flowers for the garden.

Once again, although I can shut my eyes and smell the scent of exotic flowers in the greenhouses and see the rows of bedding plants and orchard seedlings and the nursery's motley family of barn cats, there isn't a single photo of those visits in the family collection. 

You might meet a rock star or an A-list celebrity at Calvin's. We often saw Dick Clark there, chatting with the proprietors, Gloria and Polly, about growing pansies or petunias. There wasn’t much those two ladies didn’t know about plants, for all that Gloria spent more of her time in the greenroom than in the greenhouse as a young woman. She and her identical twin sister Patty were performers who toured with Spike Jones and his City Slickers in the 1940s and 1950s. 

Gloria and her adopted sister Polly took over Calvin’s after Patty and her husband, Joe Calvin—a trombonist for both Les Brown and Jimmy Dorsey and the founder of the nursery in 1953, died. Joe and Patty’s daughter, Casey, stepped in to run the nursery for its final years, when Gloria and Polly retired. It closed in 2012. 

The pine tree under the span of the rainbow is the last surviving live Christmas tree, purchased over two decades ago at Calvin's Nursery.

Later, our pilgrimage for a live tree took us to Treeland in Woodland Hills. Unlike McCoye’s Farm or Calvin’s, Treeland is still there, and still family owned, but it isn’t the same going there without dad.

All of the trees my family purchased from the McCoye farm are gone now, but there is still one big Calvin’s tree in the garden here at The Malibu Post. It's a living reminder of Christmases past.

Wishing you, dear reader, a very happy Christmas, one that will be remembered with affection in years to come.

Suzanne Guldimann
20 December 2015

The Malibu Post's helpful cat assists with decorating the 2015 Christmas tree.

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