De Pere Knights of Columbus mark 50 years of selling Christmas trees

DE PERE — There’s only one place in northeast Wisconsin where families can purchase a Christmas tree and get Tootsie Rolls in the bargain. It’s the Christmas tree lot run by the Knights of Columbus, Abbot Pennings Council 3955, located on the corner of 8th Street and Main Avenue in De Pere.

If the free Tootsie Roll isn’t enough incentive, knowing that your purchase goes to benefit charitable projects may sweeten the tree-buying decision.

Gregg Michalski holds a Christmas tree for his wife, Joanne, and daughters, Kendra and Paige, to examine at the Knights of Columbus Christmas tree lot in De Pere Dec. 1. The Abbot Pennings Council has been selling Christmas trees as a fundraiser since 1968. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Handing out Tootsie Rolls is nothing new for members of the Catholic fraternal service organization. Knights Tootsie Roll Drives, held to benefit people with intellectual disabilities, began in Wisconsin in 1973. In 2018, the program raised $726,736 statewide, according to the Wisconsin State Council.

On the other hand, selling Christmas trees for charity is not a common K of C fundraiser. Only a handful of Wisconsin Knights councils operate Christmas tree lots, according to Jack Wrbanich, K of C state deputy. The Ashwaubenon Council 7498 has sold Christmas trees at Nativity of Our Lord Church in Ashwaubenon for about 25 years, according to Tim Randall.

The Abbot Pennings Council is likely the longest running operation. This year the council is celebrating five decades of selling trees.

According to John Mueller, who has been involved in the Abbot Pennings Christmas tree fundraiser since the early 1980s, the project began in 1968, when council members drove to a tree farm near Abrams. They cut trees and brought them back to De Pere. The first Christmas tree sale netted $375. The council sold about $11,000 worth of trees the first weekend of operation this year, he said.

The Knights continued cutting trees each year until the late 1970s or early 1980s, Mueller said, and then started buying trees from Willems Landscape in De Pere. “By 1985, we were selling 450 trees each year,” added Mueller. “After the turn of the century, we began selling 800 to 900 trees each year.”

Henry Byrne, left, helps Knights of Columbus member John Mueller hand out a Tootsie Roll to Blake Amundson, 3. The De Pere Knights distribute the sweet treats to customers at their Christmas tree lot in De Pere. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Today, the trees are purchased from North Countree Christmas of Wausaukee.

Many of the families who buy their trees from the De Pere Knights are repeat customers, said Mueller.

“Some of the people just keep coming back year after year because we have nice trees and the money goes to charity,” he said. “And we do something nobody else probably does: anyone who buys a tree gets a Tootsie Roll.”

One key to the group’s successful tree enterprise is its volunteer force. About 150 people (council members and their families) work two-hour shifts all season. The tree lot is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends.

“We start selling the day after Thanksgiving and stay open until all trees are gone,” said Mueller. “When we get down to the last 10 or 12 trees, then we just close up and donate those to St. Vincent de Paul. We also provide free trees when a family shows up and can’t afford one.”

Many of the Knights even offer customers advice on their Christmas tree purchases.

“We basically have four different styles of trees,” said Mike Hannan. “We have the Fraser firs, a very popular, sturdy tree with needles that stay on the best. The Canaan fir is a great tree. It’s a little softer needle and people like that for ornaments. We have a traditional balsam tree and some people still like spruce.”

Since the Christmas tree lot opened in 1968, more than $330,000 has been raised for charity, said Mueller. Among the programs that receive support from the Christmas tree sale are Golden House, Freedom House, House of Hope, Streetlights Homeless Ministry, St. John the Evangelist Homeless Shelter, Love Life, Eagle Scout programs and Coats for Kids.

The Knights also donate Christmas tree funds to the annual Walk to Mary, the Retirement Fund for Religious collection, local Catholic schools, seminarians and novices to religious life, and to the World Mission Services of the Green Bay Diocese for purchase of rosaries for the missions.