Thanksgiving at a gravel lot in Chattanooga is normal for owners of Weaver Tree Farms in North Carolina

Photography by Olivia Ross / John Weaver of Weaver Tree Farms surveys his stock of pumpkins and other fall decorations at the gravel lot on Signal Mountain Road. The lot will soon be stocked with Fraser Firs.

John Weaver and his family will have Thanksgiving dinner in a gravel lot on the shoulder of Signal Mountain Road, but they're good with it.

Weaver and his wife, Suzanne, own Weaver Tree Farms and the gravel lot next to the Baylor School entrance. That's where, from mid-November to mid-December, they sell trees harvested from their West Jefferson, North Carolina farm -- and do what they can with the Thanksgiving feast.

"There are usually a dozen of us, including six or eight guys from the farm," the 61-year-old Weaver says. "We'll have [the meal] catered, and we'll probably eat in shifts because Thanksgiving Day is busy. And Black Friday is our single busiest day -- absolute chaos."

Chaos probably isn't what most people have in mind for Thanksgiving, but Weaver's an old hand -- he and his family have been at it for 37 years now.

"I had an aunt and uncle who lived here 50 years ago, and they suggested we come here," Weaver says. "We opened our first retail location here in 1985. When my mother and father aged out, I kept going with it."

"So many folks in this town have been so good to me over the years," he adds. "When I first came here in 1985 and saw downtown, I wasn't sure I belonged here. But ever since, with all the improvements, it's just great. I'm proud of what Chattanooga's done."

Weaver says he plants 10,000 new trees each March on his 180-acre farm in North Carolina, on which 250,000 trees are growing at any one time. He also plants pumpkins in May.

Once the pumpkins are harvested in September, they're transported to Chattanooga to be sold ahead of Halloween. And once the pumpkins are gone, Weaver returns to North Carolina, where he spends a little over a week, harvesting about 1,000 trees per day.

"Basically, all we grow is Fraser Fir," he says. "Best needle retention, best color, best smell. When you walk into a home with a fresh Fraser Fir, it really starts the holiday season."

Thousands of those trees go to wholesale customers, he says, but he'll sell 2,500 to 2,700 in four to five weeks at the Signal Mountain Road lot. Last year was the best ever for the business, Weaver says.

"I was home, sitting in my chair by mid-December," he says, adding that the 2021 sales were likely due to people wanting to "get out, decorate and enjoy fall and Christmas" after a pandemic-plagued 2020.

"COVID affected us all, whether we want to admit it or not, and it's still not exactly the same as it was before."

Weaver says he used to roll out his trees in Chattanooga on Black Friday, but now opens a week earlier.

"Chain stores have Halloween up in August, and a lot of stores have Christmas up [in September]. Our busiest weekends used to be the first two in December, but now it's two weekends earlier.

"Opening a week earlier gives us more time to work the bugs out. But the thing I don't like is that we're kind of forgetting about Thanksgiving. I feel we need to take some time to celebrate and give thanks," he says.

Weaver estimates that, combining wholesale and retail, the business grosses $600,000 to $750,000 annually -- which, he's quick to add, isn't as much as it sounds.

"It takes about everything to pay the bills. There's not a lot left."

So how much longer does he want to stay at it?

"For a while," Weaver says. "I keep threatening to quit. And I don't like being away from home. But we've been doing this 37 years -- a few more won't make any difference."