Voluntown — The options seem endless at the sprawling 185 acres of Hartikka's Tree Farms: White Pine or Blue Spruce? How about the Fraser Fir, the farm's "Cadillac," as it is affectionately known?
It may take a while to figure out the best fit, but that's OK. Part of the charm of the place, open since 1955 in this small town of about 2,600, is that it aims to offer something more than a destination to find the perfect Christmas tree.
"Generally, people buying real trees enjoy nature and what it has to offer," owner Dave Hartikka said. "They come out for the tradition and the experience just as much as the tree."
That thought seemed right on the money Friday. A day after mounds of turkey and mashed potatoes demanded everyone's attention on Thanksgiving, many decided it was time to get an early start on decorating for Christmas.
Hartikka's was one of several tree farms in the area to open officially Friday. While Dave Hartikka said the first and second weekends in December are typically his busiest, the farm's parking lot was starting to fill up just before noon.
Todd Barnhart, his wife, Kristine, and their two children, Troy and Morgan, came out for an annual family tradition of finding a tree the day after Thanksgiving. The family, from Coventry, R.I., posed for pictures by their tree before Barnhart dropped it with a handsaw. He said he prefers cutting down the trees himself because his children enjoy watching him work. And there are other parts of visiting Hartikka's that keep the family coming back every year.
"You go into that little shack by the fire with coffee and doughnuts, and the kids just love it," Barnhart said.
A steady stream of visitors also stopped in Friday afternoon at Geer's Tree Farm in Griswold. Owner Richard Geer greeted a couple in the parking lot, and a few minutes later he was whirling a small tractor through a 100-acre spread of Christmas trees to retrieve just the right specimen for his customers.
Geer said his family used to grow corn and alfalfa on the farm, which dates to the 17th century. He and his brother, Tom, started experimenting with growing Christmas trees in 1978 and have since become experts. They also attend periodic meetings of the Connecticut Christmas Tree Growers Association to stay current on new trends in the business.
Geer said tending to the trees is a year-round operation. They require fertilizer, sheering and other constant upkeep.
Customers seemed to appreciate the work that goes into the operation, judging by the bustling activity Friday. The Geer family offered tractor rides to patrons looking to cut down their own trees. Keifer's Kettle Corn and the Rolling Tomato also set up stands for people to grab something to eat.
Geer was also quick to show off a new hilltop venue the farm created that will soon host weddings. One family hitched a ride to the top of the hill to eat a pizza and enjoy the scenic backdrop.
"Most people are in a great mood when they come and get their tree," Geer said. "It's just a great time of year."