For Corey Drapala, the woods of Charlton are lovely, dark and deep.
Deep and green — Drapala has been waltzing with evergreens at Ellms’ Christmas Trees since late November. He’s carried Fraser firs, balsams and blue spruces up the rows of pre-cut trees. He’s drilled, shaken and wrapped holiday trophies in blue twine, and sometimes helped people secure trees to roofs of cars and sports utility vehicles.
On a gray Saturday morning with light mist in the air, the 22-year-old Drapala walked into the large maroon shed on the 50-acre Ellms tree complex. At 11:15 a.m. he did a quick survey of 10-foot trees waiting for homes, and knew one needed a bit of shortening. He found the tall green and maneuvered the tree into proper position for fellow Ellmsman Jordan Adey to make a quick trunk trim with a miniature Stihl chain saw.
The tree was placed in a stand, and ready for placement in somebody’s living room. Task accomplished, Drapala left the shed and decided to walk through the five rows of pre-cuts, ranging from five feet to more than nine feet in height. The place was crowded — parents and small children were dressed in coats and hats more appropriate for January than a 40-degree early December morning. Hot cocoa, Christmas music and performances by a group of animatronic, singing chickens were free. Trees were priced between $29 and $99.
Ignoring the rain
The rain didn’t bother Drapala, who was dressed in gloves, a light tan parka, khaki green work pants and a red work apron. “At least it’s warm,” he said.
There didn’t seem to be much early interest in the five-footers. Drapala found some customers in the eight-foot row. Brian, Christy and Conner Linnehan of Saratoga Springs were looking for something majestic.
“How’s it going?” Drapala asked. “You guys need any help here?”
“We’re just looking around,” answered Brian, who carried 22-month-old Conner on his shoulders.
Drapala held one tree and stood next to it as the Linnehans made a family inspection. The tree wasn’t quite right, and Drapala suggested another tree in another row.
“Is this our tree?” Brian asked, as Drapala posed with the second candidate. “Conner, what do you think?”
Conner didn’t offer an opinion, just a wide-eyed gaze at the tree. Christy walked around the tree, which Drapala presented in the middle of the row. “This is the window,” she said, pointing toward one side of the tree and imagining it at home. “This is the front.”
The Linnehans decided to buy. “Beauteous!” said Brian. “Green as can be.”
It was 11:22. The tree was quickly trimmed at the bottom. Then it was placed into a small machine and secured on top of a red plate that vibrated at high speed. The 15-second shake removed all loose needles. The tree was then placed on a long board that led into a round, metal machine that resembled a jet turbine engine. The tree passed through the thick circle, instantly smoothed into a narrow cone shape and wrapped in blue.
“You guys have this down to a science,” Linnehan said. “It’s crazy how small you can bale it up.”
The finished tree was ready for a trip north. Drapala accepted a few dollars from Christy — tips are allowed at the farm.
Drapala kept working the rows. At 11:30, he met Patrice and Marty O’Connor of Clifton Park as they looked at one of the tall trees. They were sold on one of the models.
Tagging the purchase
“This one needs a tag,” Drapala said, and left the buyers for a quick walk to the Ellms office. He returned seconds later with colleague Emily Grattidge.
“This is a nice one,” she said, putting a tag on the tree and giving a matching tag to the O’Connors. It was all part of the sale and bookkeeping procedure.
Patrice O’Connor watched the shakedown and wrap-up. “It’s getting the full treatment,” she said, used to the drill. “We’ve been coming here for 15 years.”
Marty was prepared for transport.
“Do you need help bringing this to your car?” Drapala asked.
“Nah,” Marty responded, taking the tree. “I’ve got it.”
Drapala said trees are heavy. They’re full, bushy and kind of cumbersome to move. “If they’re over eight feet, it usually takes two people to carry them,” he said.
Returning to the pre-cut rows, Drapala saw Steve McIntyre of Waterford rolling a tree with one of the Ellms’ six-foot-long aluminum carts. “Mind if I take this?” Drapala asked, taking the cart from McIntyre. “Not at all,” answered the customer.
Drapala brought the tree to the surgical center. In a few minutes, it was wrapped and ready for home.
Helping people decide
People who work at Christmas tree farms often meet people who can’t make up their minds. Will it be the tall, narrow tree or the short, bushy one?
“The typical story is someone here for two hours and they end up getting the first one they saw,” Drapala said.
While hauling and cutting are parts of the job, stress is not.
“Nobody really has anything bad to say,” Drapala said. “A lot of them are out here with their families.”
At 11:50, Drapala and a few other Ellms employees — 35 high school and college students are on the job during tree-selling season — began picking up branches that had been trimmed from tree bottoms. The discarded greens went into a cart that Ellms family member Dan DiPaola rolled away. “We’ve got a whole tree right in there,” DiPaola said.
“I think we do,” answered Drapala.
A few minutes later, Drapala gathered some of the aluminum carts that people and farm employees had been using. “We usually line these all up so we can take one as trees come off the baler,” he said.
At 11:59, Drapala was back in the tree rows. He met Chad DaBiere of Rexford, who was shopping for the holidays with his wife, Coleen, and sons Austin, 11, and Luke, 8.
“I like this tree — what do you guys think?” said DaBiere, dressed in a navy blue New York Yankees cap, tan coat, blue jeans and tan work boots. “Usually the first one I pick is the best one.”
Making it fit
The family survey said the tree might be too big for the DaBiere residence. Drapala offered a solution — one foot’s worth of trunk and branches could be trimmed from the bottom. The DaBieres were sold, and Drapala made an appointment for the nine-foot tree’s makeover.
Just after noon, the Rexford family had their eight-foot tree. Drapala helped Chad bring it to the family’s SUV, and helped tie the evergreen to the top.
At 12:10, Drapala helped unload some trees that came off the Ellms trolley, a large transport with trailer attached that lets people explore the woods and cut their own trees. One tree that came off was Gerald Dawson’s — the Ballston Spa man also wanted some custom trimming, and asked Drapala to take a little off the bottom.
From there it was another shake, another bale and then another trip into the tree rows.
“On The Clock” profiles people at work in the Capital Region by spending one hour with them on the job. Nominate a friend or co-worker by contacting Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.