Remember When: Publishers grew, sold Christmas trees for scholarships

Wisconsin publishers beginning in the mid-1960s sold Christmas trees that were harvested from the industry’s Press Forest near Eagle River as a scholarship fundraiser. Pictured here, from left, loading trees into a truck at Trees For Tomorrow’s original headquarters in Merrill are Ed Sorum, Cottage Grove, a Neuendorf Transportation driver; Carl Zielke, manager of the Wisconsin Press Association; Roy Rollins of the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association; and Mully Taylor and Bill Sylvester of Trees For Tomorrow. – Courtesy of the Poynette Press

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Wisconsin publishers began a unique tradition in an effort to raise money for journalism students — they started growing Christmas trees.

Proceeds from the harvests funded annual scholarships to Wisconsin journalism students who planned on careers in community journalism. To bring attention to the scholarship and forestry education, publishers occasionally sold the “scholarship trees” for $15 to mayors, civic leaders and organizations in their hometowns. With the help of the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association, the trees were transported from the industry-owned forest outside of Eagle River, where they were harvested, to new homes across the state.

The tradition was featured this week in the Poynette Press, along with a photo of Carl Zielke, then-manager of the Wisconsin Press Association (a forerunner to the WNA), and others loading trees into the back of a truck in 1967 at the original Trees For Tomorrow headquarters in Merrill.

Trees were first cut from the Press Forest in 1960, just a couple of years after the WPA purchased the 78 acres of abandoned farmland. A new program of shearing and shaping the balsam firs began in the mid-60s, and the scholarship fund was conceived.

During the first 15 years of the program, more than 40 scholarships were awarded.

What is the Press Forest?

The Press Forest’s origins date to 1956 during a WPA outing at Trees For Tomorrow. During the outing, members voted to buy a tract of nearby farm land and transform it into an outdoor study area for teachers, students and others to learn about nature and ecology.

In 1958, after collecting donations from members, the WPA purchased the land, located four miles south of Eagle River, for $1,500. The property was viewed as an opportunity to illustrate how land not suited to traditional agriculture can be used to grow trees as a crop.

More than 30,000 red pines were planted on the land during a five-year period beginning in 1959. The red pines were planted by machine and by hand by student campers from Trees For Tomorrow. Other species of trees and several improvements have been introduced to the forest in the years since then, including the addition of a small manmade lake, a boardwalk and a picnic shelter. The forest continues to be in active use by Trees For Tomorrow as an outdoor classroom.

The WNA continues to hold annual outings each fall at Trees For Tomorrow, which manages the Press Forest. The two-day retreat features training opportunities, a memorial ceremony honoring deceased publishers, networking opportunities and a steak fry in the Press Forest.