Charles Paterno, the man who invented the Christmas trees business

At Christmas, Windmill Farm became the biggest distribution center for Christmas trees in the whole state. The scene was unforgettable, especially when a thin layer of snow covered the land and the treetops. A long row of trucks, big American trucks, would load the trees, each one planted in a tin vase painted red and with a wooden plaque that read: “Children, I’m your Christmas tree. Take care of me, because if you do, I will grow bigger and stronger, just like you!” And then they would head out through the streets of the county, invading the houses of thousands of New Yorkers.
And this wasn’t just a nice idea to warm up the Christmas atmosphere.
That’s right, because I have to say that in everything Grandpa invented—and God knows he came up with a lot!—imagination, a love of nature and business sense tended to go hand in hand.
Back in 1919, when he purchased the farm, which was called North Castle Farm at the time, he had just turned forty, but he was already considered one of the leading figures in the building development of Manhattan. In fact, he could boast that, in the world’s biggest metropolis, he had put a roof over the heads of 28,000 people in 75 buildings he had built on the West Side. He said he was looking for a landmark in the green American countryside, far from the city, so he could prepare his future as a gentleman farmer. And he found it here, in Armonk, the green district of North Castle in Westchester County, northeast of the Big Apple.
But even in the “gentleman farmer” version, no one—him included—would have bet a cent on his sincerity when he said he wanted to retire. “I suffer from stone disease,” he confided to his friends. “Even when I’m in the country, I can’t help but build a wall or get involved in some business.”

In effect, just a few years later the small estate with a colonial-style farmhouse had become a property with over 1,700 acres, crossed by several miles of paths that were carefully designed for enjoyable horseback rides. As soon as he had enlarged the estate, which by this time extended past Route 22 leading straight to New York, he decided to plant an incredible 1.5 million evergreens on the land he had just purchased in Bedford Hills: pines, cedars and various kinds of firs. For many years these would become the Christmas trees with the attached “environmentally friendly” message for children. He had bought them for a penny each. And for ten years he would sell them for a dollar and a half, to the tune of thirty to forty thousand a year. Doing the math, that’s five or six thousand dollars: a fortune in those times.
And the plants that survived the axe grew up to form a lush coniferous forest, with hundreds of thousands of trees that offered shade to the trails and were reflected in the water of the four artificial ponds created in the early Thirties. The expanses of water, which had changed the local geography, adding charm to an already fascinating landscape, had been formed by damming streams, whose flow was increased by the water from the numerous wells driven by six windmills, which gave the estate its name: Windmill Farm. As Grandpa Charles loved to say, this was a tribute to the Dutch ancestors of his beloved wife Minnie.

Renato Cantore, ‘The Castle on the Hudson’ (Rubbettino editore: 2016), pp- 10-11.

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