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Christmas trees are family business

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GREENSBORO — Many of you will get a Christmas tree this weekend — from Wagoner’s, the other Wagoner’s or the Wagoner’s farther across town.

Christmas tree lots are plentiful locally, with sales at some specifically benefiting the work of Scouts or the Lion’s Club.

But those lots with “Wagoner’s” signs are to Greensboro what McDonald’s is to fast food: everywhere.

And it wouldn’t be 28 days before Christmas without passing one of those lots — all independently owned.

The Wagoners’ first tree venture in Greensboro dates back to the 1940s.

Fred Wagoner’s dad thought what started as a 4-H project could help raise money for college for that then-16-year-old and his twin brother, John. His father helped them plant red cedars in Gibsonville to sell.

“We hauled them to town on a trailer behind the car and set ’em up at the Kerr Market on North Eugene,” Fred Wagoner, a native of Gibsonville who died in 2011, told the News & Record in 1985.

“We sold 50 trees that year, for $1 and $2 a piece.”

And as Ronald McDonald was to the burger business, an older Fred and his future wife, Dot, eventually would become the face of tree buying here for decades. They owned the popular lot near Honeybaked Hams on Battleground Avenue.

Bradley Lowe, who bought the “Fred and Dot Wagoner Christmas Trees” business and kept its name after the couple retired, used to work at that location while in high school. His parents had bought their Christmas trees there when he was growing up.

That lot included a merry-go-round, a horse-and-sleigh statue and a huge inflatable snowman that families for decades used for holiday portraits.

“It was like a Norman Rockwell moment,” he said of the poses.

Lowe, who continued working on student breaks while attending UNC-Chapel Hill, eventually went into the textile business before deciding to make the investment: The eight-year wait for trees to mature, the year-round work schedule and competition from artificial trees and those trees that are available at grocery stores and home improvement stores.

His lot is now located in front of the Target on Lawndale Drive.

Lowe said he knew what he was in for, having watched Fred Wagoner keep the business going, which included cultivating a long-term relationship with customers.

“We do probably 40 to 50 percent of our business in five days,” Lowe said of Thanksgiving weekend and the next. “And from year to year, many of those faces have stayed the same.”

Lowe benefits from a legacy that partly dates back to 1968, when twins Fred and John Wagoner opened a lot where the Hardee’s now sits on the corner of Westover Terrace and Green Valley Road. The business would expand and then the brothers would branch off with ventures of their own. Fred Wagoner would later sell his business to Lowe, while John Wagoner worked with his sons, Bruce and Bryan. Today, both of John Wagoner’s sons each operate two lots.

But in 1968, the families all worked off the site on the corner of Westover and Green Valley.

“We used to sell trees back then until New Year’s Eve,” recalled Bruce Wagoner, one of John Wagoner’s three children, who grew up playing on and then later helping out at the lot. His mom, Helen, who died three years ago, and his Aunt Dot often made wreaths and big bows in a heated travel trailer on the property. The women also collected money from the sales of the trees.

Bruce Wagoner, like his dad and Uncle Fred and grandfather, would go on to N.C. State, where he would earn a degree in horticulture.

And by then it was in his blood.

He operates Bruce Wagoner Christmas Trees lots at Friendly Center, near the Sears store, and another at N.C. 150 near Northern High School.

In the summer, that means visiting tree farms in the Blue Ridge Mountains and tagging the still-maturing trees they will want months later for their sales lots.

After Thanksgiving, they make numerous trips back and forth to the tree farms so there are always fresh ones on his lots.

And you think you have trouble with pine needles showing up everywhere.

“You find them in your underwear, your socks and your hat,” Bruce Wagoner said. “I take my sweatshirt off at night, and my back is covered with them.”

He’s not bothered.

“People tell me, when I was a kid, my family bought trees from your dad,” Bruce Wagoner said, referring to John Wagner, now 92. “I just want to keep the legacy going.”

The same can be said of his brother Bryan, whose children also hang out and are assigned chores on his lots, which are behind Hardee’s on Guilford College Road and in a lot near the intersection of New Garden and Horsepen Creek Road.

“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else this time of the year,” Bryan Wagoner said.

Only their sister, Lynne Wagoner, had another passion: She’s a cardiologist in Ohio specializing in heart transplants.

Bryan Wagoner opened the lot on Guilford College a year after finishing school, 35 years ago. He has a business degree from Campbell University and, like his brother, also has a wholesale nursery business, which provides the bulk of their income.

“Everywhere I go, my name is associated with Christmas trees,” Bryan Wagoner said.

He said he will clear his lots on Dec. 22, to give his crew time to be with their families.

“You are out there every day from sun up to sun down, and you are worn out by the end of the season,” Bryan Wagoner said. “That’s also when I do my Christmas shopping.”

Contact Nancy McLaughlin at (336) 373-7049, and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.


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