Seasonal company celebrates 40th anniversary
At age 11, Wyatt Lightsey has been in the Christmas tree business all his life and probably knows more about trees than most people ever will. Growing up in St. Augustine, young Wyatt represents the third generation of the oldest family-owned Christmas tree business in the nation’s oldest city.
“We’re celebrating our 40th season this year,” said Wyatt’s grandfather, Glenn Lightsey, whose family business began back in 1977 when he and his wife, Vivian, were first married.
Eventually, as their family grew, the name of their business became “Lightsey and Sons,” and since their two sons have moved on with their own lives, Glenn and Vivian Lightsey are looking at an alternate succession plan.
“Our daughter, Cheyenne, is a great help to us, her son Wyatt is an owner in training and we have our five-year old grandson, Sawyer, coming along, too.” said Vivian Lightsey.
The long-lived family business actually started when Glenn Lightsey sold Christmas trees as a member of Diversified Cooperative Training, a high school program designed to prepare students for the business world. As a result, Lightsey hires high school students for his tree lots. He teaches them how to be “folksy, friendly and helpful, carry the tree to the car, tie it down, smile and say ‘Merry Christmas.’” Some do such a good job that they make nearly $200 a day in tips.
“I hope the Christmas spirit in my personnel lasts long past the season. I know our trees do,” said Glenn Lightsey, displaying a brown branch from last year, still filled with pine needles.
For Griffin Tillis, now a naval nuclear power surface warfare officer, the experience of working at the Lightsey Christmas tree lot through high school and even when attending the University of Florida was inspiring.
“It’s a business built around honesty and hard work,” said Tillis. “The Lightseys work harder than most people you’ll ever meet, but they are joyous in their work. They have the Christmas spirit year-round. My family always buys trees from Glenn Lightsey and when I was deployed, they sent me a picture of the Lightsey Christmas tree lot to make me feel closer to home.”
Over the decades, the Lightsey family has had as many as 10 lots going at one time, but they have since cut back to their current three lots in order to maintain quality control.
“We’ve worked very hard, doing what we had to do,” said Vivian Lightsey, “and we’ve always sold quality trees.”
Both Glenn and Vivian Lightsey recall seasons when times were tough, prices were down, and challenges were many, but they had a long-time mentor in Wolverine, Michigan named Cliff Gearheart who advised them to “stay the course” and “weather the storm,” and they did.
The Lightsey family focuses on community service as well as customer service, hiring as many of the homeless population as they can, with the caveat that they bathe daily, wear clean clothes and come to work alcohol and drug-free. There’s something cleansing, fresh and nurturing about the scent of Christmas trees and keeping Christ in Christmas is a tangible part of the Lightsey legacy.
So, what makes a seasonal business so successful that it survives 40 years and continues going strong?
“Quality control is Job One,” says Glenn Lightsey. “Vivian and I sell Fraser Fir trees – the Cadillac of Christmas trees.”
Noting that their trees come exclusively from two tree farms in the mountains of North Carolina, where the elevation is 4,400 feet and the weather is colder longer, Lightsey points out that the close proximity of the clouds provides constant dewy moisture in the air.
“It’s God’s natural sprinkler system,” he said, “and it makes the trees greener, livelier and stronger.”
In answer to the naysayers who lament the cutting down of those beautiful, healthy trees, the Lightsey family has a battery of excellent responses, some of which were outlined in an essay written by their daughter, Cheyenne, back in 2002: 1) For every tree harvested, six more trees are planted; 2) While growing, Christmas trees supply millions of people a day with oxygen; 3) Christmas tree farms stabilize the soil, protect water supplies and provide refuge for wildlife; 4) Christmas trees are recyclable and biodegradable – for example, they can be used as mulch; 5) Real trees help the economy by providing work for many; 6) Choosing a Christmas tree is often a treasured family tradition; and 7) The Lightsey motto, “Real Trees Make Scents.”
Cheyenne Lightsey’s essay, written a few years before her son Wyatt, the new Lightsey heir-apparent, was born, ended with her family’s most important reason for buying a real tree: “The real Christmas tree represents life. The living tree is a symbol of Christ and how He is still living today.”
Lightsey and Sons Christmas Tree lots are open each year beginning on Thanksgiving Day. Lots are located on US Highway 1 and King Street in St. Augustine, State Road 16 in St. Augustine and on Race Track Road in St. Johns.
Photo by Susan D. Brandenburg
Glenn Lightsey displays last year’s tree branches — with needles still attached.