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Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016

Legion selling trees to send students to Boys State

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Tessa Long and father Jim Long of Benton, pick out a Christmas tree.
BENTON -- It isn't the biggest Christmas tree lot around, but it's large enough to hold the American Legion Post 369 trailer and the 100 trees its members hope to sell before Christmas.

And while there are no neon lights or marquee, there is one sign that seems to draw customers from miles away to the tree lot. It reads: "Proceeds go toward to sending a boy to Boys State."

"People come because of that sign and only because of that sign," Post Commander Sterl Kline said.

For the past 15 years, the Legion Post in Benton has sold real Christmas trees as a fundraiser to send a Scott County high school junior to Boys State -- a weeklong leadership conference held each summer in Warrensburg. (The Legion's Ladies Auxiliary sends a Scott County girl to Girls State.)

Full of a mixture of Douglas firs, Scotch pines, Fraser firs and balsam firs, the lot located north of the Scott County Courthouse opens every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The lot remains open until Christmas or until all the trees are sold, whichever comes first. Tree prices range from $22 to $50.

"We've been lucky. We've been getting good trees the last couple of years," said Jim Shelton of Blodgett, Legion member and chair of the Christmas tree project.

The Legion purchases its trees from a St. Louis company, where they pick up their tree order in one load. When Legion members set up the lot on the Friday after Thanksgiving, they add their own special touch to please customers.

Instead of leaving the trees bundled in netting, Legion members fluff them out and bury them in the ground, Kline said.

"This gives customers a good idea of what the tree will look like when they get it home," Kline said.

Most customers who visit the lot look for a certain size, typically a tree that is 7-foot tall, and they want the tree to be full with little or no gaps, Kline said.

Once a tree is picked for purchase, a Legion worker will cut off a portion of the stump; then customers have the option of having their tree bagged for the ride home.

Customers come from the Benton area, Dexter, Sikeston and Cape Girardeau, Kline said.

"Ninety-five percent are repeat customers," Kline said.

Kline recalled one family who came for several years from Tennessee.

"They were visiting family in the area during Thanksgiving and would always stop by here and get a tree before they went home. They liked that it benefited students to go to Boys State," Kline said.

It was 15 years ago when Shelton and Legion member Paul Welter teamed up with the late Blodgett resident Jim Bula, who offered to purchase the trees if the Legion would sell them to send a local student to Boys State.

"We started out with two chairs in an empty lot. Then we went to a tarp and then a 4-by-8 shop," Shelton recalled.

The shop roof was flat and leaked when it rained so a rubber roof was added, Shelton said. Now a trailer -- complete with electricity and heat -- built by Legion members sits on the lot, which was donated for use by Benton resident Joe Stuckey.

Throughout the month-long fundraiser, the Legion's 48 members take turns working one 2-1/2-hour-shift each week.

While weekends are often busy, sales during the week can also pick up, Kline said.

"Our biggest sale during a weekday was eight or 10 trees on a Monday night," Kline said.

Typically when the weather is colder and it gets closer to Christmas, that's when more people buy Christmas trees, Kline said.

"But you never know when they're going to show up. If they're going to look for a tree, they're going to look for a tree," Shelton added.

Shelton and Kline predicted next week and the weekend that follows will be the busiest time of their season.

"People have been really good to us," Kline said. "We always make enough money to send at least one boy to Boys State -- and sometimes three boys."

Any money left over is used to purchase trees for the next year, Kline said. The Legion also conducts other fundraisers throughout the year to finance the trees before they're sold to the public.

The Legion's Christmas tree lot is open from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

When asked if the Legion would ever quit the fundraiser, Kline said: "As long as we have members who will work, and as long as we can get trees, we're gonna be here."