William O. Hunter and his wife Carol met at Shelton High School in rural Mason County, Washington, where William’s father had a dairy farm. William and Carol married in 1948 and they began taking the farmland into the next-generation of business development by growing and selling evergreen Christmas trees.
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At first the Hunters only grew Douglas fir trees, and only functioned as wholesalers. They shipped trees to California and gradually began to develop other retail outlets. There was a plant nursery business called Van’s Northgate Nursery, 2335 N. 110th Street in Seattle, which sold the Hunter’s trees (Maurice Van Hollebeke, proprietor). One year in the early 1950s, Van’s asked if William and Carol would come and handle the tree sales themselves, and the Hunters agreed to try it. They sold the trees at fifty cents per foot, so a six-foot tree cost $3. The Hunters made $2700 that year and they thought that they had broken into the big-time!
But Van’s Northgate Nursery was doomed, because it was in the path of the Interstate-5 freeway for which planning began in the 1950s. With Van’s getting ready to close down, the Hunters thought they would like to try another Seattle sales outlet but, not knowing the city very well, they didn’t know where to look.
At that time Carol Hunter’s brother and brother-in-law were both working as real estate salesmen for Albert Balch, the developer of the Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle. In the 1940s Balch had chosen the name “Wedgwood” for a plat of land where he built a unified group of houses. As Balch continued to build more and more houses in the area, businesses began calling themselves Wedgwood and it caught on as the name of the neighborhood.
Today the intersection of NE 85th Street along 35th Ave NE is Wedgwood’s main commercial center, with a grocery store, drugstore, banks, restaurants, coffee shops and offices. But in the early 1950s the present site of the QFC grocery store, the Wedgwood Broiler restaurant and other businesses, was vacant land. Balch had purchased this corner and knew that it was an appropriate site for commercial development, but he was not a commercial developer. In the 1950s Balch used this southeast corner of NE 85th Street just as a place to store his lumber and construction equipment.
Carol’s brother and brother-in-law introduced the Hunters and asked Mr. Balch if they might use the corner of NE 85th Street for their Christmas tree sales in the month of December. Balch readily agreed, as he knew this would be an interesting and enjoyable neighborhood activity with no “down side” as the tree sales were only for one month and did not compete with anything else in the business district. In appreciation, the Hunters gave Balch a free Christmas tree for his own home at 6850 50th Ave NE.
The NE 85th Street sales site was successful and the Hunters returned each year during the 1950s. But gradually, the available space for Hunters was getting crowded out because Wedgwood’s business district was being built up. Incredibly, up until the 1950s three corners of the NE 85th Street intersection were still vacant, and Albert Balch had been able to acquire the properties from longtime owners who had not done any development. In the 1940s and 1950s the once-empty lots at the NE 85th to 86th Street intersections began to be built up with stores, banks and gas stations.
The first business on the southeast corner of NE 85th Street was the Tradewell Grocery Store which opened in 1959. The Hunters had to move their sales area southward on that block because of the space taken by Tradewell. Then the Sir Wedgwood (Wedgwood Broiler) was built, and the space for Hunter’s tree sales became even more constricted.
Despite the problems of finding available space, all of this growth and development in the Wedgwood neighborhood in the 1950s made the Hunters even more interested in keeping a sales site there. Wedgwood boomed with young families who became loyal customers of the Hunter’s Christmas tree business.
In 1963 a lease arrangement became available on the south side of NE 80th Street where Wedgwood Presbyterian Church had bought the two lots closest to NE 80th Street. The third lot was going to be used by the Wedgwood Post Office at 7714 35th Ave NE where the Herkenrath house stood.
The 7744 35th Ave NE site has offered great advantages for the Hunter’s Christmas tree sales from the time of their first use until the present day. The site has good visibility along the arterial 35th Ave NE, there is a usable existing building which had belonged to a nursery business (Fosters, later called Wedgewood Gardens) and there is adjacent parking on the corner nearest to NE 80th, the lot owned by the church.
After leasing for about nine years, in September 1973 the Hunters purchased the 7744 35th Ave NE property from Wedgwood Presbyterian. The church retained the lot closest to NE 80th Street which today is still open space.
Hunter Tree Farm’s annual Christmas tree sales is a beloved neighborhood tradition at the holiday season. The site is used all-year-round for community events. With permission of the Hunter family, in the year 2011 site improvements were made to create The Gathering Place at Hunter Tree Farm. Community picnics and meetings are held at The Gathering Place, as well as fruit stands and rummage sales.