Gus Ruetenik has raised and sold everything from red pines to Scotch pines to concolor firs on his 80-acre tree farm near Zoar.
"At first the red pines were popular," he says. "Then the Scotch pines and the white pines. Now people want firs. It changes about every 10 years or so."
Ruetenik will turn 90 in January. He started growing trees in 1947 on some well-worn farmland not long after he got out of the Navy.
"We've made all the mistakes," he jokes. "The key to growing good trees is good soil. I have some of that in our bottomland, but mostly the top soil on our farm is about 1 inch deep. In the bottoms it's about 3 feet, but there you have to make sure you have good drainage."
Ruetenik is a retired engineer for Ohio Bell. While working he lived in Cleveland and traveled to the farm to take care of trees. He has been a member of the Ohio Christmas Tree Association since 1953 and has served on the organization's board since 1970. Last month he joined 30 or so other Ohio growers in shipping trees for the troops in the Middle East.
"It's great to send the guys something from home. It's expensive but it's worth it," he says. "I'm a veteran of the Big War. So I know."
A few years ago Ruetenik received a letter with a picture of the tree he has sent to troops in the Green Zone of Iraq. The picture had signatures of the soldiers on it. "It was a big picture poster with a long list of names. At the top were the colonel and the captain, and way down at the bottom was a young gal's signature. After her name it said 'private.'"
He's happy to know the trees raise the spirits of Americans so far from home. "I'm sure the tree stays at the headquarters, but the ornaments get out to the trenches," he says. "And I'm sure it gives them a boost."
Ruetenik says his personal favorite tree is the concolor fir. He likes that it doesn't lose its needles and has a citrus aroma. "It's hard to trim," he notes. "The branches grow parallel to the trunk."
His first concolor was given to him by his daughter in 1969. It did not grow well and it wasn't until about 15 years ago that he tried them again.
"People don't realize all that goes into growing a tree," he says. "It takes at least ten years to get them to a size that will sell. It may be 12 feet tall in the field and 7 feet tall in the home."
Ruetenik relies on a Gravely mower to keep the weeds under control around his trees. "I'm organic in that way," he says. "It just the way I've always done it."