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Retiring the farm

Keel's Tree Farm ends pumpkin,

Christmas tree sales

LAWRENCEVILLE - This season, Keel's Tree Farm will be quieter than usual.

After serving nine years as a local tradition, Keel's Tree Farm will no longer supply pumpkins or Christmas trees. The family will continue to sell landscape trees.

Hundreds of children remember October field trips to Keel's Tree Farm and Pumpkin Patch. For the past nine years, busloads of children from local day care centers and kindergartens have toured the 7-acre farm. Young children learned about planting seeds, fertilizing and the different varieties of pumpkins from the vantage point of Dick Keel's tractor.

"We tried to encourage their minds," said Yvonne Keel, a former employee of Central Gwinnett High School.

The children passed under ghosts in trees and runaway pumpkins in the branches.

"I told them, 'If you see a runaway pumpkin up in a tree, holler and tell it to come back to the patch,'" she said. "They'd just make a ruckus."

Every child left with their own small pumpkin, and each class received a large pumpkin.

Keel's Tree Farm remained an exciting, busy spot through November and December. A Keel tree appeared on the cover of the December/January 2005 issue of Country Living magazine.

Family tradition

The day after Thanksgiving was a big day for the Ray and Sheila Milsap family. Every year since 1997, the Milsaps, their children and grandchildren have made an annual pilgrimage together to Keel's Tree Farm to select each household's Christmas tree.

The day was always quite an event. The adults scrutinized the merits of each Leland Cypress while munching boiled peanuts and downing cups of hot cider. The children wandered through the petting zoo and rode on bales of hay behind Dick Keel's tractor. With the perfect trees loaded in truck beds and on car roofs, the whole Milsap family gathered around the decorated Christmas tree in the Keel gazebo for a picture.

"It's a lot of work and it just got to be too much," Yvonne said. "The trimming and shaping take some time. But from the first of October until the end of the year, it was constant work. You don't even get to catch your breath."

All the adult Keel children gather at the farm each weekend to help with the weeding, fertilizing, trimming, tractor driving and decorating required to run the business. Extensive Halloween decorations went up the first of October. It usually fell on a Keel son to plant runaway pumpkins in tree limbs. Grass stayed trimmed, fences were repaired and the grounds were

treated for fire ants to accommodate the tours that ran every weekend and through the week.

Christmas decorations replaced Halloween festooning on Nov. 1, and another round of grass trimming, ant treatment, peanut boiling, cider making, touring and demonstrations began. Clean-up started Dec. 26 and continued through the final week of the year.

"For landscape trees, all you have to do is weed, spray and fertilize," Yvonne said.

Debbie Hannon's family has chosen trees and pumpkins from Keel's since they opened. Petting the African pygmy goats, puppies, chickens, cat and the lone pony was a yearly tradition for her grandchildren. Hannon has several years of pictures of the children sitting on big Keel pumpkins.

"It is a very unique place," Hannon said. "Part of its charm is that it's a home and very festive. The Keels talk to the children and they just love them. It is an oasis; a little bit of the past still intact."

Taking root

The Keels' farm has been in Yvonne's family about 150 years. Her grandfather, William Jackson Peeples, purchased 107 acres shortly after the end of the Civil War. Peeples fought in the Confederate Army from age 15 to 17 and later served in the Georgia Legislature.

Over the next century, 100 acres were sold. Yvonne grew up in the original two-room farmhouse on seven acres, which the Keels purchased from her brother in 1970. They restored the house and grew it to six rooms, two bathrooms and a sunroom. A couple of cows in the pasture kept the grass down.

"My daughter, Lea, went with her dad to a tree farm to pick out a tree and she said, 'This is what we ought to do,'" Yvonne said.

When Dick Keel retired in 1997, the Keels planted some Leland Cypresses and imported some grown Frazier firs from North Carolina to sell the first year.

"People in their mid-40s to mid-50s tend to get into the business looking for something to do when they retire," Yvonne said.

When fully planted, the farm holds about 3,500 trees. A Leland Cypress grows to six feet tall in about two years and sells for around $60.

"It cost about $15 in materials to grow one," said Dick Keel. "If you added in the man hours, we'd be in the hole. It was certainly more work than I thought it was going to be, but I liked growing them. So many little children came out looking for those Christmas trees."

The Keels have big plans for the future that include travel and cruising, in addition to spraying, weeding and fertilizing. Still, they will miss the annual festivities, especially the children.

"We met so many nice people that let us be part of their Christmas and start a tradition," Yvonne said.