Since a few days before Thanksgiving, these guys have been living out of an RV. They’ve been sitting around a grill, eating deer meat and drinking beer to help kill the time when they’re not chain-sawing tree trunks.
But Joe Dombrowski, his nephew Justin, and Corey Tourangeau aren’t in the middle of the North Woods of Wisconsin. They’re camped out at the bustling northeast corner of Madison Street and Oak Park Avenue, right here in Oak Park, and they’re selling Christmas trees.
Three generations of Dombrowskis have been hawking pines in the Chicago area, busing hundreds of firs about 320 miles from their farm in Powers, Mich. The tradition started back in the 1950s, when Joe’s grandfather sold trees out of a shack at Western and 95th in Chicago.
Joe’s dad, Cleo “Dooley” Dombrowski, 73, said it was about 25 years ago that the family started selling Christmas trees in Oak Park, starting off at a lot on Roosevelt Road across the street from an old Italian restaurant in Berwyn. His brother had a lot nearby, and business was booming, so he gave the village a try.
“He did real well there, and it seemed like it was a good neighborhood for trees. I guess that’s how we got started,” Dooley said by phone from Michigan. He’s beem semi-retired since 2000, but occasionally drives down to Oak Park during the Christmas season to check up on things.
After 37 consecutive years of RV trips, “it was just time for me to turn it over to the boys,” he said. But does he miss it? “If I’m not down there, I’m like a fish out of water. I have to be down there amongst the trees,” he said Monday after returning from a trip to Oak Park.
Nowadays, Joe Dombrowski, 42, runs the lot in Oak Park, while his brother Marty tends to similar ones in Lombard and Elmhurst.
The season gets going in early fall, when they start selecting and marking the trees to be picked. Around mid-November, the Dombrowskis harvest their 400-acre tree farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, about 90 miles north of Green Bay, Wis.
“It’s just like raising a crop, growing corn or whatever, except it takes 15 years to harvest,” Joe Dombrowski said.
They hire a local Michigan trucking company, Graham Transport, to ship hundreds of trees down to Oak Park. Meanwhile, the Dombrowskis ship themselves to the village by way of the RV, a trip that guzzles about $150 worth of gas each way.
Dombrowski and company arrived in Oak Park on Nov. 22 and started setting up the trees in a village-owned parking lot, kitty corner from Walgreens, where they’ve been for three years. Joe Dombrowski said they drive this far from Michigan because they need a large enough market for their product.
Joe, Justin and Corey spend the month living out of their camper while working to unload their trees and wreaths.
“It’s our little home away from home. One camping trip a year I always say,” said Tourangeau, 29.
Each morning they wake up about 7 a.m. and have coffee and breakfast before turning on the lights and sweeping up loose needles around the lot, blocking off a couple of parking spots so Fenwick students don’t take up all the spaces. They try to keep the parking lot meticulously clean, saying they want to be a good neighbor during their brief stay here.
Trees are priced based on size and can run anywhere from $20 for a small one to $140 for the giants. A tent that Dooley built years ago from particle board and burlap has a small hole in it, which they use to peek out and spot customers. The kerosene heater in there helps to thaw out the trees for purchase.
Susan Beach of Forest Park hasn’t bought a real tree in 25 years. But she has a 15-month-old granddaughter, Cole, and wanted the tyke to experience a real tree. Beach did some research on Facebook and landed at the Dombrowski lot, where she found the “perfect” tree.
She was born in the Upper Peninsula and got a kick out of talking fish fries and “all up der in da nort,” she said, referencing the tree salesmen’s thick accents.
“It’s kind of like deer hunting,” Beach said of their long campout in Oak Park. “I hope they see it as an adventure; otherwise it’s kind of a drudge.”
People trickle in during the day, with business spiking when the workday lets out and slowing a little during supper time. Things generally die down after the post-dinner rush.
“That’s when we start drinking,” Joe Dombrowski said with a laugh.
They eat late, occasionally dining on deer they brought from Michigan, but often ordering from their favorite takeout spot, Dino’s Pizza down the street at 132 Madison. Other times, they go visit Joe’s aunt, Lorraine Johnson, who lives in Oak Park, for a shower and a hot meal.
Playstation and TV help kill the time, too, but the extended stay and small living space does start to wear on the trio.
“It gets to be a long season after awhile, you know?” Joe said. “We look forward to going home. Three guys living in an RV gets to be tight quarters.”
On Dec. 23, they pack things up and head back north to Powers. The Dombrowskis pay to have any leftover trees mulched, which Joe said are used for bedding at the zoo.
Despite the bad economy, business seems about on pace with past years. People may skimp on certain things when money is tight, but they splurge on tradition.
“You still want to spend for Christmas, I guess,” Joe Dombrowski said.