A Christmas promise never broken
For nearly 30 years, North Carolina tree grower Bob Daniels has sold his Christmas trees in a vacant lot next to Lloyd’s Restaurant on Birmingham’s bustling US Highway 280.
Daniels would never be here, however, without the kindness of Eli Stevens, the longtime owner of Lloyd’s.
When Daniels pitched his tent next to the restaurant in 1992, Stevens made him a promise that no matter what, he would always have a place to sell his trees.
And Stevens’ word was his link.
“Eli had a big heart,” Daniels says. “I think he appreciated the presence of trees here, mainly because of the family atmosphere. He walked his dogs around the tree and talked to families and children.
“He was just a nice guy – a big man with a big heart,” Daniels adds. “Why he befriended me, I can’t tell you.” But I think it was God’s will. Everything I have done here is because of God. It’s nothing that I did.
“Lots of trees to come”
Where Daniels lives – in the small town of Newland in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains – is Christmas tree country par excellence.
“The trees that I grow are called Fraser Fir, and they will only grow at an elevation of 3,000 feet,” he says. “It’s a cold-loving tree, but it grows best at 5,000 to 6,000 feet.
“And these are the Cadillacs of the Christmas trees. They smell good. They last a long time. They are not clingy. They are really soft to the touch. They are the best trees on the market.
To earn some extra cash, Daniels and his father, Bob Daniels Sr., planted their first trees in 1978, four years after Bob Jr. graduated from high school.
“I was working at another job; he was working at another job, ”Daniels says. “We continued to plant a few trees every year, and finally. it happened where we couldn’t take care of them and (yet) work other work. He was near retirement, so I started working the trees full time.
“It was a tough few years there for a while, not a lot (of money) to come,” adds Daniels. “When you plant a crop of trees, it takes you eight years to get a yield. So it was tough there for a few years.
Then Daniels met the Birmingham businessman and founder of the Shoal Creek Country Club. W. Thompson Room, who owned a summer vacation home near Newland. Thompson wanted some of his trees to decorate the Shoal Creek Lodge at Christmas.
On his trip to Birmingham to deliver the Christmas trees, Daniels searched for locations to potentially open up a tree plot here, and he found a spot he liked on US 280, next to Lloyd’s.
It turned out that Thompson was friends with Stevens, the owner of Lloyd’s, and when Daniels returned home to North Carolina he already had a message from Stevens on his answering machine.
They made a deal, and the following November in 1992 Daniels set up on the US 280, where he wanted to be, right next to Lloyd’s Restaurant.
“He allowed me to put a tree in the restaurant,” Daniels says. “It was like November 1st. We put a sign: ‘Tree lot coming soon. The next door. ‘ This is how we started.
“Where is Bob going?” “
At that time, Daniels says, much of the property east of Lloyd’s had not yet been developed commercially.
Over the years, however, as restaurants, gas stations, and malls began to appear on both sides of the freeway, Stevens received several offers from developers who wanted to buy the land where Daniels sold his trees. .
Stevens, however, never even considered selling it.
“There were a lot of people who wanted this land next to the restaurant,” says Tom Stevens, one of Eli’s two sons. “They wanted to set up a bank there. They wanted to put a Dunkin ‘Donuts in there. But he would never sell this property.
“He didn’t want to sell it or do any development on it because he said, ‘Where is Bob going? Where is Bob going to sell his Christmas trees? “
“As far as Dad is concerned, as long as Bob was selling Christmas trees, there will be Christmas trees sold on this property. . . . He wasn’t about to pull the rug out from under Bob’s foot, no matter how much money people were going to offer him for this property.
Part of their deal, Daniels says, was that Stevens would receive a percentage of his tree sales and that Daniels would provide trees and wreaths for the restaurant and for each of Stevens’ four grown children.
Daniels usually chooses these trees himself.
“If I see a good one,” he said, “I take it out and put his name on it. “
Daniels knows how fortunate he has been to have prime real estate along one of Alabama’s busiest highways.
“As a small farmer, I have to have this retail business,” he says. “You can’t talk to a farmer who once had such a good location and was able to keep it for so long. We just haven’t heard of it.
“Most of the time, if you have a good location on the road, someone will buy this property from you. And you can’t blame the owner of the lot (for selling it) for making a good profit.
“Eli could have done the same, but he didn’t. And I know he got offers. He got offers from other growers who want to plant and sell trees and knock me out.
The truth is, however, having the Christmas tree yard next to the restaurant meant almost as much to Stevens.
“He loved this time of year because it was so festive,” says Bogue Stevens, Eli’s other son. “People would come and get a tree, then come and have a bite to eat. “
‘He changed my life’
In November, when Daniels and his wife, Lisa, brought in one of their campers to prepare their lot of trees for another season, they stopped at Heavenly hamburger, on the other side of the field, for breakfast.
Stevens’ son-in-law Pete Flach owns Hamburger Heaven, and he told Daniels that Eli, who has been battling cancer for the past few years, is not doing well.
Daniels and his wife were due to be back in North Carolina the same day, so he didn’t have time to visit his old friend.
Lisa went to Walmart and got a card, however, and Bob sat down at a table and expressed his feelings right in the middle of Hamburger Heaven.
“I just wrote him a note and told him what a good friend he had been and how he changed my life,” Daniels says. “I didn’t have enough room to say (all) what I wanted to say.”
Daniels gave the card to Flach, who passed it on to his wife, Mary. She later read it to her father.
“It was one of my father’s most revealing cards,” says Mary Stevens Flach. “Bob said that if my dad wouldn’t let him come and sell his Christmas trees, it just changed the life of his whole family. “
Just five days later, on November 14, Eli Stevens lost his fierce battle with cancer. He lived 84 busy years.
Although Daniels didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to his old friend in person, he wasn’t going to miss Eli Stevens’ funeral, which was held the day after Thanksgiving.
“He probably would have gotten mad at me for going to the funeral,” Daniels says. “It was Black Friday. The busiest day of our season is Black Friday. He probably would have gotten mad at me for going to the funeral instead of working.
Just as Eli Stevens promised him almost 30 years ago, Bob Daniels will always have a place to sell his trees for as long as he wants.
The Stevens family didn’t want it any other way.
“These are my father’s wishes,” says Tom Stevens. “As long as Bob sells trees, Bob will sell trees on this land. This is exactly how my dad wanted it.
“He would come out of the grave and whip the four of us if we did anything to upset Bob.”
PLEASE NOTE: Lloyd’s Tree Lot, located at 5301 US 280 in Birmingham, is generally open from late November to mid-December each year. Due to unusually high demand for Christmas trees this year, owner Bob Daniels says he has sold trees before. The lot closed Sunday, December 6, but will return next year for the 2021 Christmas holidays.