“We had land and didn't have anything to do with it. So, we planted Christmas trees,” he said.
That may be a bit of an understatement. Beginning in the mid-1980s in a nod to the old traditional Scotch pine Christmas tree Alwine started planting 2,800 Scotch and white pine trees. He made his first sale in December 1991 after the trees had had a chance to mature, he said.
Due to the small amount of acreage he had there was not room to rotate his crop of trees, so Alwine did the next best thing to keep his operation up and running.
“Whenever a tree was cut down I planted another one right beside it. We did that for about 18 years,” he said.
In more recent years his planting schedule has declined.
“We haven't planted any trees in five years,” said Alwine, who is 76 years old.
The need for a hobby wasn't the only thing that propelled Alwine. He is proud of his customer service and the rapport built over time with families who returned year after year.
“We were small enough that if we had five cars in here we could service them all and still have time to talk,” he said.
One of the specialties at the Pines of Leo was to take a picture of all the customers standing beside their cut Christmas tree. In picture after picture smiling families stand proudly next to the tree they are about to take home. Today some of those smiles have turned to tears.
“I've had a couple of people cry because it is their last year coming here,” he said.
During their tenure as tree sellers Alwine and his late wife Cecilia, known as Celie, bought a small camper and remodeled it to suit their needs. The camper allowed them to be closer to the trees and the customers.
“This is where we spent our time. We have a heater and a TV. We lived down here on the weekends,” said Alwine who was married for 50 years. Then Celie died in 2012. “We had planned to stop selling trees this year, anyway,” he said.
Nostalgia and camaraderie are two of the reasons people come out for a live Christmas tree, said Alwine. “It's a chance to bring the kids along and (then) take it home and decorate it. Real trees are nicer than artificial trees,” he said.
A member of the Indiana Christmas Tree Growers' Association, Alwine supported the Trees for Troops program. He donated money to pay for shipping Christmas trees to U.S.-based soldiers as well as troops stationed overseas. Alwine declined to say how much he had given the program.
This weekend is expected to mark the final days for selling Christmas trees and while there is a limited supply of trees there is no shortage of what's needed for harvesting a tree. "We have saws that shoppers can use to cut a tree down and pads to kneel on for comfort. After a tree is cut, it is loaded onto a wagon and brought to a shaker where any loose needles from the previous year are shaken out. Plus, each child receives a candy cane," Alwine said.
Though Christmas trees are not expected to be sold after this weekend, Alwine does expect to keep busy tending his Christmas trees.
“The ones I don't like I'll cut down. The others I'll let grow and kind of use them as a windbreak for the house,” he said.
Besides Christmas trees, Alwine has an orchard with apple, pear and peach trees. He also grows grapes. The harvested produce is expected to be for personal use and not sold to the public, he said.
“I have plenty to do around the house and other places,” he said.
Besides that, Alwine will no doubt reflect on his time selling Christmas trees.
“I enjoyed this. People came back year after year. It was all about customer service,” he said.