Yankee Classic | Bethlehem, NH: Perfect Christmas Trees
For many years and many reasons, travelers have been drawn to Bethlehem, New Hampshire. This quiet vale at the edge of the White Mountain National Forest once boasted dozens of resort hotels. Its pure mountain air gave rise to the National Hay Fever Relief Association. Signs proclaim it the poetry capital of the state. These days, in December, Bethlehem is New Hampshire’s Life-size “snow village.” The town, full of Yuletide spirit, is not only a source of distinctive postmarks for holiday mail; it is also the source for a perfect Christmas tree.
I like a freshly cut tree. I know it might sound politically incorrect, especially to my friends and kin who decorate houseplants in order to spare the poor pines. I’m probably missing the point, but a beribboned ficus looks just plain silly. I want my tree fresh — needle shedding and all. The pungent smell and springy feel of real evergreenery is why the Romans brought the outdoors indoors in the first place.
At the Rocks Christmas Tree Farm in Bethlehem even my most ecologically minded friends can enjoy (free of guilt) a real balsam fir. These are true giving trees. The dollars generated by the harvest help preserve the 1400-acre Rocks Estate and fund conservation education. The Rocks is the northern headquarters of the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the state’s oldest and most active conservation association.
On the day we set out on our Christmas-tree quest, the passage through Franconia Notch was an adventure. Seems someone had drawn a white line just below Cannon Mountain. To the south the day was gray and rainy. Pure November. To the north, it was full-blown winter — pelting snow and biting wind. Nothing like a good snowstorm to ignite the holiday spirit! We were headed north to Littleton and its Beal House Inn. The Beal House, along with dozens of other hotels, motels, and inns in the area, offers tree-and-Iodging packages. Travelers stay a night or two, eat lots of good food, work it off hunting the Rocks plantation for the perfect Tannenbaum, and head home with visions of tree trimmings in their heads.
Built in 1833, the Victorian Beal House is sumptuous but not stuffy. When we arrived the weekend after Thanksgiving, it was adorned with lights, garlands, golden horns, and angels. Giant plaid ribbons wrapped windows and doorways. We sipped mulled cider and nibbled butter cookies beside a glowing fire while checking in. The fullest tree we’d ever seen anchored a corner of the sitting room. “It’s from the Rocks,” Michael McGuinn, the innkeeper, told us.
We settled into our room with a four-poster canopy bed, plump down comforter, and pretty antique furniture. The wicked weather had triggered our appetites, so we headed downstairs where dinner is served in two romantic dining rooms. Mike’s wife, Pat, is the chef. We tried the wild mushroom bisque, filet mignon with chipotle pepper oil and Gorgonzola sauce, and roasted vegetables, and for dessert we shared a tower of chocolate mousse couched in a dark-chocolate crunch. After that delicious feast we weren’t hungry for the inn’s full breakfast come morning, but we caved in when Michael pressed upon us Pat’s baked apple. Steaming and stuffed with raisins, it was served in a pool of cream, maple syrup, and spices.
We arrived at the Rocks in time to catch the first horse-drawn hay wagon out to the tree plantation. The gray skies were still with us, but low mountains softened the horizon, and our guide pointed out where Mount Washington lurked behind clouds. Our wagon carried flatlanders and locals. We could tell the latter by their sensible boots and hats, and the former by their lack thereof. Even though it’s only two hours from Boston, Bethlehem is in the heart of the North Country. With blankets tucked on our laps everyone rode in warmth.
The stone walls lacing the Rocks’s hill sides are history’s handwriting. Originally the farm was the summer home of John J. Glessner and family. Glessner was one of the founders of International Harvester, farm equipment manufacturers. After removing all the boulders from the estate “with sweat and profanity and with oxen and with great skill,” he tested progressive farm machinery on this land. He raised Jerseys, pigs, and sheep, and though he didn’t have a tree farm, he harvested a wild Christmas tree each year to take back to his Chicago home.
Glessner was one of the first members of the Forest Society. He and other summer residents banded together to protect the landscape from the ravages of unchecked lumbering at the turn of the century. Their efforts led to the creation of the 768,000-acre White Mountain National Forest in 1911, the first national forest in the country. In 1979 the Glessner family donated most of the estate to the society.