If you think outside of the box—or barn in this case—you’re likely to meet someone who will tell you that your idea is nuts!
Such a tale has become a rite of passage from one generation to another running the family business at Pine Tree Barn in Wooster, Ohio. It all started three generations ago with an idea seeded in Bob Dush’s mind. The sapling was nourished, a family raised, and a multigenerational business branched from that strong trunk. The offshoots formed what may at first glance seem to be an eclectic array of retail offerings, but upon closer look, it makes sense how each business grew together quite naturally.
Here’s how it happened.
Bob and his wife, Betty, simply wanted to send their children to college. They realized it wouldn’t be easy to save for their three children to get their degrees. They needed to earn extra income beyond Bob’s job as a soil engineer in Wayne County, Ohio. Hard work was in their genes. Bob grew up on a farm without tractors, leaving fields to be farmed by horse, wagon, and hand. Having just bought an abandoned dairy farm to grow their family, the two entrepreneurs envisioned planting a crop that just wasn’t popular at the time – Christmas trees.
In the 1940’s, most consumers went into the countryside and cut down their own Christmas trees. Although the first known Christmas tree farm was established around the turn of the 20th century, such places were few and far between and were almost always in densely populated places like Cleveland or New York City. Still, Betty and Bob felt that if he grew them, people would come and buy them. They hoped this side-business would generate enough extra income overtime to send each of their kids to college. First, they needed enough money to get this venture off the ground, so Bob sought a loan at the local bank.
“The banker asked Bob what he wanted to do with the loan,” said third-generation Pine Tree Barn co-owner Matt Kilbourne, who runs the business with his wife, Julie (Dush) Kilbourne. “Bob said, ‘Grow Christmas trees.’ The banker laughed in his face and said, ‘you’ll fail, and we’ll be taking back that farm. But hey, good luck.”
Having received the loan, Bob improvised to work within his modest budget by using the family sedan as a makeshift tractor, hauling farm equipment or breaking up soil in the fields. His determination paid off. Within a few years, he was back in front of the doubtful banker, but this time Bob was the one smiling. He paid off the entire loan, early.
Bob ran the Christmas tree farm in addition to holding down two other jobs. One was at the county soil conservation service, helping farmers to get more production out of their fields by mitigating erosion, managing rainwater runoff, and identifying how the topography of the land and water-use interacted there. He became well-known throughout the county due to the many farmers he worked with over the years. Once Bob and Betty’s kids were all in grade school, Betty became a teacher. She had an education degree from The Ohio State University, which is where she and Bob originally met.
“Grandma knew everybody that Grandpa didn’t,” said Julie with a laugh.
Their son, Roger Dush, had moved away, started a family, and then hit a rough patch that redirected his life. He returned home. Before long, he found himself on a blind date with a lady who was also recently divorced with children – Julie’s mom, Rita.
Roger and Rita formed a strong team in marriage and as business partners. They both brought different skill sets to the farm that blended well. Their goal was to transform the seasonal business into a year-round store.
The first spark of innovation struck the new couple as they stood in the basement of the old bank barn. This style of barn was known for its accessibility. These barns were typically built into a hillside allowing access at ground level from two different floors, one at the top of the hill and the other at the bottom.
“It was a lovely old bank barn that hadn’t been used much,” said Julie.
Beyond Betty and Bob using it to sell hot cocoa, popcorn, and Christmas ornaments during holiday season, it wasn’t used for much more than storing tractors the rest of the year.
However, Rita and Roger saw much more potential for the barn.
The natural progression was to dovetail the Christmas tree business by opening a gift shop. Early on, they sold German nutcrackers, smokers, and a variety of other Christmas ornaments. This store remained open throughout most of the year, much like the year-round Christmas store today, but on a smaller scale.
“My parents were collectors, and that’s what led them to nutcrackers and such,” said Julie. “People who enjoy these are very passionate about it.”
The barn wasn’t conveniently located at a population center like downtown Wooster, so they quickly learned to engage in the concept of destination shopping. This meant enticing customers to go the extra mile and stay for an extended time, enjoying the experience of a place that wasn’t just another bland cookie-cutter store with limited selection. The amenities snowballed during this second generation of ownership, and in recent years, Pine Tree Barn has been rated Wooster’s #1 attraction and one of the top destinations in Northeast Ohio by Trip Advisor.
But that’s putting the cart before the horse.
Rita and Roger figured that people might feel more inclined to shop at their stand-alone store if food was a part of the mix. Therefore, they introduced a cafeteria-style restaurant inside the barn where Roger’s parents used to offer hot-cocoa and snacks to their Christmas tree customers.
“In those early days of the restaurant, we were lucky to serve 30 people per day,” recalled Julie.
Word spread quickly about their home-prepared lunches featuring a variety of sandwiches, delicious French onion soup, quiche, and lemon crumb muffins, just to name a few. of the recipes cooked up at what would later be called The Granary Restaurant at Pine Tree Barn. The talk of the town was all about their sour cream fruit pies with hand formed crust made from scratch.
“Mom and Roger’s first love was antique furniture,” said Julie. “So early in the transition phase between the part-time and full-time operation, they spent time scouring, picking, and looking for antiques that they could bring to the store and sell.”
They liked reproductions of 18th-century style, so that led them to primitive furniture. Youngstown furniture-maker Jerry Treharn made and supplied the growing business with solid maple and cherry reproduction-style furniture.
“That was the launch of the furniture business,” said Julie.
Rita and Roger figured that people who have tables and chairs for the dining room would also need a chandelier. So they branched into offering lighting. They decided that people would also need a rug for the floor. So they began selling rugs. One thing led to another, and soon enough, completely furnished room-scenes were fully decorated and for sale.
“My parents had this great synergy, lots of ideas, and energy; all of their kids had grown so they could work 18 hours per day doing what they loved,” said Julie. “There was a time when they even delivered furniture to customers’ homes.”
Rita and Roger came to realize that everybody didn’t like primitive-style furniture, so they branched out to offer more traditional styles of upholstery, like a mahogany Queen Anne dining room with curvy legs, oval tops, and slat back chairs. Traditional furniture was mainstream during this point in the 1980s.
“High Point, North Carolina is the center of the universe as far as traditional furniture production,” said Matt Kilbourne. “So Rita and Roger had to make phone calls and knock on doors to decide whose furniture lines they wanted to carry.”
It was more difficult to become a furniture dealer then than it is now. Rita and Roger had to convince sales representatives that served as the liaison between the furniture companies and the retail shop owners.
“They talked to one of those representatives about their dream of selling more traditional furniture, and when the representative came and looked at Rita and Roger’s barn, he turned to them and chuckled, ‘You two are never gonna make it.’”
This was because he didn’t see in their store the typical setting commonly found in strip malls: a lot of fluorescent lights and big open floor plans. But these kinds of big-box stores lack intimacy and imagination. They simply lay out bed after bed after bed, a sofa or dining table, then more beds. Not to mention, Pine Tree Barn was a bit of a drive from any established retail center.
“So once again, the second generation was told, ‘You guys are nuts. You are never going to make it, but hey, good luck,’” said Matt.
But they did make it, and again, it was in spite of the conventional wisdom of the day.
Part of the reason for their success was that they were different from the typical retail stores. They embraced their uniqueness and worked hard to change things around regularly enough so that returning customers would see things that weren’t there the last time they visited. Plus, there was an intimacy to the gorgeously renovated barn; the character was built into or around the hanging beams, old brick and plaster support beams in the basement, walls of stone, and aged barn wood.
The detail-oriented arrangement of room scenes allowed customers to see how their new furniture could look in their home, right down to the wooden bird knick-knack. Wherever a sofa was placed in the store, it was likely to be near a fireplace with complementary pieces around it, not just more sofas in a row. It may have the perfect rug subtly placed below a coffee table in front of it. Next to it will be a chair, complimented by an end table and lamp. From one wonderful scene to the next, customers were bound to see just the thing for their space at home. And that may range from an antique, wooden ice chest with the paint flaking off of it, to a wooden A-frame ladder turned into shelving for the most exquisite pottery collection.
“It’s like a treasure hunt,” said Julie. “The cross-displays make it all very interesting. You can have a kids’ setting with bunk beds, books, and toys that combine to give a real sense for things.”
In between or within the scenes, the history of the barn is preserved and visible. It could be seen in the built-in bookcases against an outer wall or in the old rope hoist and pulley system hanging from the loft.
Matt added, “We offer tens of thousands of items in many different categories, so when it’s all presented in a room scene, it’s a cornucopia for the eye in terms of how much there is to see and experience.”
So with the innovations of Julie’s parents, much of the foundation for today’s imaginative shopping and dining experience was created. Still, Julie and Matt have implemented ideas of their own while remaining true to the fundamental philosophy set by Rita and Roger to remain a special experience and the reason why half of their clientele want to travel from more than 30 miles to shop there.
“We get customers who come in and say that they’ve been shopping here since birds were flying around the rafters,” said Matt.
The original mid-1800s barn has been expanded over the years and now covers 25,000 square-feet of an eclectic sort of wonderland.
So, while the year-round Christmas shop is in the same place where Bob and Betty originally offered some ornaments, the cafeteria-style luncheon eatery is now a full dining experience. Nearly everything on the menu is made from scratch, made-to-order from fresh ingredients.
The Granary Restaurant offers sweeping views of the Killbuck Valley from both inside and outside. The outside dining balcony offers an unobstructed view of the rolling hills with pine trees being cultivated for Christmas. The trees reflect off of the lakes, which stretch across the horizon. The country air is as fine as the cuisine. The two-tiered main dining room provides a vista of the same scene, framed by windows. The accents throughout the restaurant, such as carefully placed paintings, provide subtle touches that bring warmth to the occasion.
There’s another dining room to the side of the barn. Designed for special events – bridal showers, rehearsal dinners, birthday parties and so forth – the atrium dining room has a row of 12 enormous, white trimmed, picture windows that offer a toast to class. Outside looking in from the brick courtyard is a dramatic view of two rows of these white-trimmed picture windows against the barn wood. It’s framed in ivy and surrounded by a classic black, wrought-iron fence, making for a dramatic backdrop for a photo. This dining room also has stained glass windows on an interior wall next to an elegant white doorway which has a dreamy quality to it when the afternoon sun pours into the room.
The Granary Restaurant is an especially well-liked gathering place for Mothers’ Day celebrations and sweetheart dinners; so much so, that a reservation would be wise. Private space for bridal and baby showers is also booked regularly.
No matter the occasion, walking off lunch is easy. From the sprawling grounds outside to the endless hidden spaces inside, this amazing barn can be a fun-filled journey packed full of surprises. After all, it spans three floors from the old hayloft to the basement, which opens to the brick courtyard and an old water pump and towering weathervane. Another pastime at Pine Tree Barn is to find all of the staircases throughout, each one worth the climb.
The gift shop has also grown over the generations. It has a wide variety of unique offerings, including tasty food items and women’s boutique. It is an adventure shopping at Pine Tree Barn. While browsing for clever little bookends for the study, customers have been known to add an entire living room set with one unintended turn.
The well-traveled floors creak with personality as customers browse artwork, jewelry, books, candles, clothing, greeting cards, and more. The grocery area carries a variety of jellies, jams, honey, condiments, sauces, syrups, and candies that might be found in an old general store. There are artificial floral items that can be used in flower arrangements, and gifts to spruce up a garden. And if it’s a girls’ day out, bet that they have a date with the boutique. This is nestled in its own space. Here, the ladies enjoy trying on scarves, hats, scents, jackets, shoes, purses, and jewelry. And if someone is expecting, there are cute clothes and fun gifts galore for babies and children.
Oh, and the year-round Christmas shopping continues for those seeking out uncommon ornaments and décor. Kids’ toys are special keepsakes that are likely to become that favorite which is saved in a chest and opened decades later to fond memories of childhood.
“Grandma and grandpa always gave each of us a Christmas ornament every year for Christmas when we were kids growing up,” said Julie.
Now, there’s a collection of 25 years of Christmas ornaments that grandma tagged for everybody saying things like, ‘Julie – 1990.’
“Now we give our kids special ornaments every year to keep the family tradition going,” said Julie. “We are pleased that it seems every year we meet a family here that has grandparents, parents, and grandkids all together. It’s fun to be a part of people’s traditions and holiday gathering.”
As Christmas approaches, everyone at Pine Tree Barn remembers their roots. There are about 50 professionally decorated trees that light up the restored barn to the delight of the thousands of visitors who come to see the displays.
“Our goal is to have the entire building decorated for Christmas by the first of November. It sounds daunting,” Julie paused.
“And it is!” Matt finished Julie’s thought, and she laughed.
They display an estimated 50,000 – 60,000 items, starting as early as August. Yes, Christmas is in the family’s blood. Each tree has its own theme. Some themes have featured The Ohio State University, rock and roll, farmhouse, and others. Every year the trees are different, and some timely, like the Frozen tree-themed after the popular Pixar movie premiere
“To get a building this size decorated from top to bottom is a monumental undertaking,” said Julie. “We have a two-day open house to kick off the holiday season at the beginning of November. The barn is a visual feast! It’s a little nutty sometimes, but we have fun. That’s what it’s all about. Everybody is in a good mood. It’s a real celebration.”
November is also the start of Christmas tree tagging when families can explore the thousands of trees just outside. When they find the perfect one for their home, they tag it early to come back for at a later date.
“We have families who have been posing for photos here for over 40 years,” said Matt.
Pine Tree Barn is one of Ohio’s oldest and largest Christmas tree farms. Customers can either cut their tree or select from a selection of fresh-cut trees. Trees grown on the farm are Fraser Fir, Blue Spruce, Canaan Fir, Norway Spruce, and White Pine. They even grow large trees that can top 16 feet for tall rooms or foyers. And as may be expected at Pine Tree Barn, they also offer everything to go with a tree, from garland to wreaths.
It’s an immersive family experience from Thanksgiving to Mid-December. Horse-drawn wagons and the Pine Tree Express Caboose transport guests all over the hillsides for free. It’s a breathtaking setting, and everything from maps, to saws, to tree carts, are supplied. After being out in the crisp air, guests are invited to retreat into The Tree Barn for hot cocoa. While many things have changed over three generations, some things remain as they have from the beginning.
By Frank Rocco Satullo, your Tour Guide to Fun