Sunday, December 2, 2007

Colonel Stephens' Christmas Trees and Catfish

You know it’s almost Christmas when it’s time to cut the Christmas tree!

Around Selma, this tradition often becomes a family outing to Stephens Christmas Tree Forest. A child’s fantasyland of cypress and cedar, the farm is just 15 miles from town along a winding, wooded road.

Boughs of Carolina Sapphire and Blue Pyramid steep with fragrance that only live greenery can give, and the temptation to cut a tree that’s too tall for the ceiling is…hmmm… overwhelming!

Check Stephens, the Christmas Tree Man, is well known. His trees have not only sheltered gifts in our homes but created majesty at the state capitol and governor’s mansion. Active in civic clubs, church, the Army Reserve, politics and agriculture, many honors have come Stephens’ way.

But there is one thing that a lot of his customers don’t know. The gentleman who grows their trees also pioneered the industry that brings pond-raised catfish to their plates!

Stephens resided in Greensboro and was selling feed for Ralston-Purina back in 1960 when he and a company scientist had a chance meeting with a local dairy farmer. The farmer mentioned a fish kill in his bass pond and asked the specialist for advice about restocking.

“Stock it with catfish!” was the reply. But no one had fingerlings for stock. That’s when Stephens and the farmer, Richard True of Newbern, “decided that since nobody was hatching them, we’d start!”

They formed a corporation with another dairy farmer and began hatching fingerlings and stocking ponds. As the fish grew, they needed processing. So a few more people joined their effort, and Alabama’s first catfish processing company was born.

By the new Millennium, Alabama had nearly 25,000 acres of food-fish ponds and catfish sales of more than $80 million, most of it in the Black Belt.

Stephens later moved to Autauga County where he groomed his Christmas tree farm and continued growing fingerlings. Now, at 86, he declares the time has come to “hang up” the catfish operation. But this former Army colonel can never quit anything…perhaps just retire it.

Photograph: Check Stephens at his Christmas Tree farm


rpm said...

Thanks for stopping by over on at my blog... I lived in Montgomery from birth until 24 years old. I've been in Gulf Breeze now for 20 years. I love the thought of the Christmas tree forest you showed here. I bet it smells wonderful there. I love to stop by Priesters for pecans and candy on my way back up to Montgomery. My parents LOVE catfish but I have never tried it. How can that be when I'm from Alabama??

GardenGoose said...

thanks for stopping by to say "howdy" lovely article on your post.
so..when are you going to submit an article to STL? you know you are welcome to.
Our readers would love some good ole catfish recipes.:0)

Sandi @the WhistleStop Cafe said...

Janet~ that is a great little write up. I hope you send the Colonel a copy!
I miss the fresh tree we always cut when the kids were little... but I don't miss the mess~=D

JANET said...

Hi and thanks for all your comments.

RPM, you grew up close by! I have never been to Priesters Pecans, and you have never tried catfish...maybe we need to have a swap here!

Garden Goose, Thanks for your howdy and invitation to submit and article with catfish recipes!

Sandi, I liked the article you wrote for STL about the Whistlestop Cafe. I did not realize that the main character in the movie was based on a relative. I will send a copy of the Christmas tree post to the Colonel!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for coming by.Hope you will check in again.Great info on the blog.

Penny @ Lavender Hill Studio said...

That was an interesting tidbit! Seems like we both had tree chopping on our minds this weeked :-).

Nunnie's Attic said...

Well God bless him, huh. Sounds like he's still going strong. It's only 7:21 in the morning. But I've been up for a few hours so I could go for a big plate of cajun catfish right now!


Kathleen Grace said...

Oh, I want that kind of Christmas tree! We always end up with a spruce and, although it is very pretty, the needles are very sharp! I would love to find a beautiful cedar. I got some cedar roping last year and the scent is so nice!
Thanks for stopping by my blog and saying hello! Hope you have a wonderful Christmas:>)

cammyk said...

Having a cedar Christmas tree must smell heavenly! Our tree is usually fresh-cut Fraser Fir. They smell good and they have strong, sturdy braches. I can most definitely relate to the "too tall for the ceiling" Christmas tree....made that mistake more than once!

Thanks so much for stopping by my blog. I look forward to visiting with you again.

JANET said...

We always had cedar trees when I was growing up in a house with 12 or 14-foot ceilings. The tree was so big we had to tie them with fishing line to a nail in the wall! We used two or three stepladders to get the tree decorated. It was always in the living room, which we didn't use much so didn't always keep heated. That way, the tree lasted longer.