Tree Train

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Passengers boarded the turn-of-the-century train Sunday morning in search of the perfect Christmas tree. What they found was a healthy dose of holiday spirit.

Dozens of families from throughout Ventura and Los Angeles counties took an 18-mile ride this weekend from Fillmore to Santa Paula on the Fillmore & Western Railway Co.'s vintage train as "the most wonderful time of the year" got into full swing.

"It's a traditional family event," said Gretchen Parker of Simi Valley, who took the trip to the Santa Paula Christmas Tree Farm with five family members. "We usually tromp all over the entire place and then pick the first [tree] we liked. But that's tradition, too."

Before the tromping even began, Parker, 57, spent the 45-minute ride chatting with her husband, two daughters, son-in-law and grandson.

Tresa Wilkinson, co-owner of the train company, said a lot of families have made a holiday tradition of taking the ride, which began again this weekend and costs $15 for adults and $6 for children.

"They can sit down and have some quality time together," Wilkinson said.

The company runs its trains year-round between Fillmore and Santa Paula, hosting murder-mystery dinners and wine-tasting excursions. In the fall and winter, special trains are run to the tree farm and a pumpkin patch.

On Sunday, as passengers took in the view of the citrus fields they passed, Santa Claus made a special appearance. He strolled down the aisle of the six-car train, brightly decorated with garland, and distributed candy canes and listened to wish lists.

When the train arrived at the farm, Parker and her family trekked through rows of trees. Her grandson, 4-year-old Jacob Green, kept his eyes peeled for a tree that wasn't too short or too tall, but was plenty fat.

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"That one's just perfect," Jacob said, pointing to a tree that met his criteria.

But as the youngster and his dad, Dave Green, made an inspection, Jacob's mom saw some problems and moved on in search of a better selection.

"There's lots of perfect ones," Dave Green, 38, of Simi Valley explained to his son. "Your mom's just a little picky."

His wife, Karen, 36, soon found a luscious green tree that met her requirements--capable of properly showing off her handmade angel ornaments.

"It's good to go on the train," she said. "You have a time limit."

Karen Green spent the last minutes of the 90-minute stop with Jacob at the petting zoo, where time was made for at least one horse ride.

The Greens' tree is one of 4,000 pines that the farm aims to sell by Christmas Eve, said Dan Roatcap, who owns the 17-acre farm on California 126.

Overseeing the farm operation for 29 years, Roatcap works year round to make sure he has enough trees ready for sale.

While he only sold a few hundred this weekend, he expects next weekend's sales will exceed 1,000.

Although there were several dozen passengers Sunday, the train company already has hundreds of reservations on the books for next weekend.

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Across the county at Stu Miller's Price Is Right tree lot in Simi Valley, manager Richard Williams said he had only sold a dozen trees by Sunday evening, from Douglas firs to grand nobles, during the first weekend of holiday sales.

He too is anticipating the customers to turn out in big numbers next weekend.

"Between the 1st and the 5th is when you get the early buyers," Williams said. "After that, they get serious."

Despite the rush every winter, Christmas tree retailers say they enjoy the season.

"The kids get off [the train] and you see the wonderment in their eyes," Roatcap said. "They're really excited."

Jonathan Tautkus, a Camarillo 4-year-old, couldn't wait to pick out his tree with his mom, Monica, and friend Debbie Curtis. But the youngster, wearing a conductor's cap, was even more excited about the train ride.

"It kind of kicks things off," Monica Tautkus said of taking a train to select a tree. "It's homier and more natural."

Train conductor Steve Phares, who works the train's four trips to and from the farm each weekend, said passengers enjoy the experience because of the "romance of the rails, the heritage of the valley, seeing Santa Claus and cutting down their own tree."

But, mostly, he explained, the day is about being with your family.

"It helps put them in the Christmas spirit because they can come together," Phares said.

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