Twenty-three years ago, in a small upstart tree field in Creston, Jessie Davis and father-in-law Joe Pennington never imagined that the tiny seedlings they were transplanting into the fertile Appalachian soil would one day yield a Christmas tree that would be the focus of an extravagant White House holiday decoration ensemble.
Founded in 1983 by Pennington and Davis, River Ridge Tree Farms has planted trees throughout the High Country and portions of Virginia. With Pennington’s passing in 2003, Rusty Estes became a partner in the farm along with Jessie’s mother-in-law Carroll Pennington.
For any tree or grower, the road to the White House can be a long and nail biting journey. The first pit stop along the road to such fame is to take home the state contest award, which earns the growers the right to hoist their respective tree in our state’s capitol in Raleigh.
Following their success at the state level, the Creston duo entered an 8-foot Fraser Fir in the True Fir category, which earned them a Blue Ribbon at the National Contest in Des Moines, Iowa on Aug. 15. Once they captured the highly-sought blue ribbon, Estes and Davis were declared Grand Champion after a set of 15 judges chose their tree over a Pine, Spruce, and Douglas fir winner. The Grand Champion honor, earned the growers the right to present this year’s Christmas tree to Laura Bush at the White House. According to tradition, festivities and holiday decorations do not begin until the chosen tree is presented in Washington.
“We’re very excited and I think it’s a great honor to present the tree to the nation.” Davis said. “I don’t believe there has been a county that has supplied a Christmas tree to the White House for two years straight until now.”
Davis’ reference was to Joe Freeman’s presentation of a Fraser Fir to the White House last year as the 2007 Grand Champion. Altogether, six Grand Champions have come from Ashe County. The first to deliver a tree to the White House from Ashe were Hal and Sarah Johnson in 1982. They repeated the same feat in 1984 with a Fraser Fir. In 1993, Wayne Ayers won Grand Champion and Ronald Hudler and Danny Dollar presented their own Grand Champion in 1995. The next grower to win the prestigious award was Sanford Fishel in 1997.
The road to Pennsylvania Avenue has been a long and enlightening one to Davis whose passion for horticulture and trees blossomed from a hobby he became interested in while still in high school.
“I started growing right out of high school,” Davis said, “My biggest inspiration came from my forestry teacher, Kent Poe. He always talked about how the tobacco industry was declining in Ashe County and how Christmas trees would be the future of the area. In a way, he sort of predicted the rise of Christmas trees in the county.”
An employee of Gates for nearly 30 years, Davis explained how the hobby grew through the years, but he never relied on tree growing as a reliable means of earning a living.
“We grew trees as we could afford to grow them. I wasn’t going to do anything drastic like stepping off of a cliff and quitting my job.” Davis said.
Davis went on to explain how this year’s 18-foot-6-inch tree was a “tribute” to his late father-in-law, Joe Pennington.
Representatives from the White House will come down to pick the tree from River Ridge at a predetermined date and the actual tree should be cut down the Monday after Thanksgiving.