MILWAUKEE — It started with a simple vision – to raise funds for a local Boy Scout troop – and has become an annual tradition on Milwaukee’s west side each Christmas for six decades.
Boy Scout Troop 61, sponsored by Mother of Good Counsel Parish and School since 1945, began selling Christmas trees in 1949 so scouts could participate in activities throughout the year.
As the 750 trees were unloaded from three trucks the week before Thanksgiving in preparation for this year’s sale, Greg Harrington was reflective. He has been involved in the effort since the start, initially as a Boy Scout and later as a Scout master.
“We started out small, just setting the trees up against the building (of Mother of Good Counsel School),” Harrington said. “It’s always been an interesting experience. I’ve enjoyed it very much.”
Like Harrington, Scout master Pat Bieser also began with Troop 61 as a Boy Scout in 1971.
Bieser credits dedication and teamwork for maintaining the tradition. This year, there are 55 regular Scouts registered with the group, along with 30 adult leaders. All 85 are involved with the tree sale in some capacity.
As the tree sale grew in its early years and became the success it is today, Harrington and Bieser said the effort became an activity for each member of the troop.
“It’s really a small business, and everyone finds a niche,” Bieser said. “As an activity, this is an opportunity for everyone to come together. The kids learn all sorts of salesmanship skills, and there’s a lot of camaraderie. The older kids help the younger ones out.”
Harrington said the Scouts take on various tasks, whether handling money, helping customers secure trees on top of their cars or shoveling snow from the lot.
“The kids really do have a lot of fun with this,” Harrington said. “When it’s quiet, they’ll play games with one another. It’s a great bonding activity.”
Francis Klein has been a troop member for five years. He looks forward to the tree sale.
“I think we all have a sense of pride from being a part of this,” Klein said. “We’re always talking about camaraderie in the troop, and this event really helps solidify that.”
Bieser’s son, also named Pat, has been a Boy Scout for six years. Like his father, Pat has been involved with the tree sale, which he deems a highlight of his year.
|WHAT: Members of Boy Scout Troop 61, sponsored by Mother of Good Counsel Parish and School, are holding their 60th annual Christmas tree sale
WHEN: 4 to 9 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays; open through Wednesday, Dec. 23, or when trees sell out
WHERE: northeast parking lot of Mother of Good Counsel, 6924 W. Lisbon Ave., Milwaukee
“This gets you in the spirit of Christmas,” younger Pat said, moments before he started piping an assortment of yuletide tunes over a loudspeaker in the lot. “You get to meet a lot of new people. For me, it’s always fun to meet the customers.”
From set-up in late November to takedown just before Christmas, Harrington and Bieser estimate a combined 1,500 hours are spent on the tree sales.
“It’s very labor intensive; it takes a big effort to get this thing up and running,” Bieser said. “But we’re fortunate to have great leaders, and we’ve got boys from all over that are enthusiastic about this. It really does take a village to make this thing happen.”
The tree sale runs smoothly because of its longevity; most of the logistics are taken care of well ahead of time. The effort begins in spring, when troop leaders gather and decide how many trees will be ordered for that year’s sale. In mid-November, troop members begin setting up the site with fencing and a shed.
Some elements of the tradition have changed. For example, the troop had long purchased the trees from a supplier in northern Wisconsin. But when the owners retired, troop leaders struggled for a few years trying to find an adequate substitute. They found one three years ago when they purchased high-quality pines from Grimm’s Tree Farm in Wautoma.
The tree sale has become such a tradition that customers come to expect it in Mother of Good Counsel’s parking lot each November and December.
Harrington said about 80 percent of the clientele are repeat customers. That was evident during a reporter’s visit to the tree lot Nov. 28. A couple from Illinois said they venture to Milwaukee every November and purchase a wreath from the lot as they visit relatives buried at Holy Cross Cemetery across the street.
“It’s always interesting to hear where people are coming from,” Harrington said.
The Christmas tree sale is Troop 61’s sole fundraiser throughout the year. Proceeds in recent years have gone toward its annual High Adventure Trip, an initiative that gives members an opportunity to visit locales from as far south as the Florida Keys and as far north as Canada.
Scouts in the troop are eligible to attend the High Adventure Trips as long as they work six shifts, each lasting between two-and-a-half to three hours, at the tree sale the year prior.
Harrington said he is proud of the tree sale and has no plans to relinquish his involvement anytime soon.
“The kids keep me young,” he said, with a laugh. “I can still keep up with them.”