Sharing the History of a Family Business

by Maia Fischler

A Idea Whose Time Had Come

When Hal Schudel got his PhD in agriculture in the early 1950s, Christmas trees were very different from what we know now. Most people opened their presents around scraggly trees that they cut themselves in the forest. A couple of companies were providing wild trees from cut-over timber land, but they were generally of poor quality, sparsely branched, and practically ready to drop their needles by the time they made it to the consumer. 

Combining Agromony and Forestry to Build A Better Christmas Tree Product

On an elk-hunting trip in November of 1954, while sharing a bottle of scotch around the campfire, Hal and his friend Paul Goodmonson started talking about the Christmas tree market, and the possibilities for improving it. Instead of competing with the existing providers of wild trees, they decided to take a radically new approach. Combining their skills – Hal’s in agronomy and Paul’s in forestry – they would start growing Christmas trees as a product. By planting on good agricultural land, with careful tending and individual tree management, they would create a brand new crop, grow it in volume, and market it competitively throughout the United States.  

Founders of Modern Christmas Tree Industry

Hal and Paul are credited as founders of the modern Christmas tree industry. The business they started, Holiday Tree Farms, has become one of Oregon’s most successful, multi-million dollar agricultural enterprises, and the world’s largest shipper of Christmas trees. But the path to that success was full of twists and turns. The story of some 50 years of challenges and hard lessons, technical advances and tough choices, legal battles, loyal employees and critical partners, makes for a great read. 

Recording Family Business History

Hal had the foresight to record his family business history, working with a personal historian. She teased out long-forgotten stories, helped him sort through boxes of photos and memorabilia, interviewed current and former employees, and brought it all together in the form of a beautiful hardback book. He was 92 years old when the book was published, and when he died at 96, the book was proudly featured at his memorial service. 

Start With The Founder

A family business history starts with interviews, preferably of the founder, if he or she is still available. Otherwise, the interviews can gather insight from key players: people who knew the founder, who understand what sparked the project to begin with, and what kept the energy going over the hurdles and through the turning points. Documents and photos can help clarify details and verify facts, but there’s nothing like an eye-witness to tell a rich origin story. That’s why it’s important to do it soon, while there’s a full cast of characters, and memories are fresh.

A Family Business Continues Thriving

Holiday Tree Farms is thriving under the leadership of Hal’s sons and grandchildren, who all know and are proud of the company’s origin story. It offers a road map and a moral compass for the challenges of today. For employees, it shows that people at every level are important, and that it takes commitment and drive to stay strong through changing times. For customers and investors, it inspires trust and connection. By showing all that went into building the company, the family business history provides a tangible statement of what it stands for, and what makes it exceptional. 

Author Maia Fischler

Maia Fischler (life-writer.com) has been a professional writer, interviewer, and publications consultant for more than 30 years. She has edited a wide variety of publications, from the national Greenpeace Examiner to Oregon State University’s Open Minds.  A member of the Association of Personal Historians, Maia is constantly networking with other life story writers to bring awareness and technical know-how to her clients’ projects. She is a good listener and creative interviewer, dedicated to bringing out the best in family story tellers.

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