The car doors slam, and we step into the shadow of the barn at Dull's Tree Farm, where the scent of fresh-cut evergreens washes the chilly Hoosier hillside. A V of honking geese pierces the crystalline blue sky, a pleasant echo to the post-Thanksgiving gridlock we left 35 miles south in Indianapolis.
For years at Christmastime, our family has hoisted an artificial tree or picked up one of the stacked trees in the parking lots around town. That's been fine, but this year, we want to make new memories, the kind steeped in old-time accents that begin with the farm's Burma Shave-style road signs just off the interstate.
Click ahead to read about Midwest Living®'s trip to Dull's Tree Farm. For a list of more Christmas tree farms we love, click the link below.
Before families even make it to the rows of trees near Tom and Kerry Dull's signature red barn, kids scamper away to explore the hayloft. They find a straw-bale fort honeycombed with tunnels waiting beneath hand-hewn wood beams.
Of course, there's a kitten. And a slide that carries kids in a rush down to the barn floor where there's an animal pen, warm and full of friendly sheep and a dignified llama named Bill. Family-owned Christmas tree farms throughout the Midwest know how to draw repeat visitors during their month-long season by offering simple mugs of cocoa, photos with Santa, horse-drawn wagon rides and gift shops.
At Dull's, visitors start arriving early on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Lindsay and Mallory, a pair of good-natured Percherons, stamp their shovel-size hooves, eager to pull their gray wagon, which flutters with red ribbons and fresh sprays of pine and mistletoe that riders admire (and can get made-to-order in the Wreath Barn).
At the Wreath Barn, visitors shop for holiday knickknacks, watch craftsmen cut wooden ornaments with a jigsaw and chat with evergreen artisan Jody Durham. An assistant bank manager, Jody reserves one week of vacation time every year to craft wreaths for Dull's. "It's like therapy; it gets you in the Christmas spirit," she says.
From somewhere, a tendril of wood smoke drifts in, and the laughs and shouts of families playing in the orderly ranks of trees ring as clear as holiday bells. We head out. The kids need to learn how to cut as close to the ground as possible, so we convene an impromptu family meeting on the damp earth, heads together beneath the fragrant lower branches, giggling and spitting out stray wood chips as we take turns sawing.
I lift our tree, a bushy Canaan fir, onto the handcart, and the kids alternate pulling and trying to ride as we make our way back to the barn. On our way, we meet Ann and Jason Hendricks, who started coming here 13 years ago and now bring their kids. "When we find a tree we like, we leave a child there with it and keep looking. You've got to guard them, or they'll be gone," Ann says. "It's just wonderful fun, good trees, and the kids love the peanuts."
Low-tech but tasty, the free peanuts perfectly suit the old-fashioned atmosphere at Dull's. Visitors also explore authentic log cabins; an ancient, hand-chiseled limestone trough once used to cool beer at a Hoosier tavern; retired farm equipment; and a fascinating gravity-feed corn crib that a Dull family member will brag on if you so much as glance up at it.
Later, we retreat, shivering, to Dull's Stone Cabin Inn, a bed-and-breakfast most of the year that serves as a hospitality station during tree season. We sip hot chocolate by the stone fireplace, the dancing flames rekindling life in our numb toes. Our red noses perk to the scent of mulled cider, and old memories stir as new ones unfurl.
Outside, visitors who brought their own makings for s'mores become sticky around the fire pit. It's tempting, but this hewn-beam, bough-bedecked coziness wins out. We take time for a game on the 100-year-old checkerboard. Across the way, our tree is ready after its shaking and bagging. But it can wait, lined up neatly with others whose owners, like us, are taking their sweet time warming up for the drive home.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living November/December 2011.)