When Dana Saulsbury started dating her future husband in 1991, she had to declare her loyalties early.
They met on Halloween, but when Christmas came around a couple of months later, she didn't hesitate. She upended tradition, moving her family's annual tree-chopping expedition to Jarrettsville Nurseries, the Christmas tree farm run by her new beau's family.
Twenty-five years later, Saulsbury owns the operation. She took over the nursery, one of Maryland's oldest and largest Christmas tree farms, after her husband, Boyd Saulsbury, died of cancer this year.
The season, though shadowed by loss was one of the farm's busiest, as volunteers turned out to help Saulsbury and her family set up and customers poured in, sharing memories of frequenting the family-owned farm through the generations.
"The love and support from customers and the community was overwhelming," she said. "It has been the most successful season we've ever had."
Jarrettsville Nurseries started in 1961, when Saulsbury's father-in-law, Charles W. St. Clair Sr., an accountant and investigator for BGE who had a fondness for Christmas trees, planted the first firs on 5 acres of rented land in Harford County.
St. Clair, a descendant of the founder of Jarrettsville, began the business as a sideline to help save for his children's college education. He was inspired by the "deplorable" quality of the trees he remembered seeing as a child, according to a letter he wrote to his children, Saulsbury said.
St. Clair eventually expanded operations to his family's property. His stepson, Boyd Saulsbury, worked on the farm as a kid and gradually took on more responsibility.
Jarrettsville Nurseries has expanded to about 85 acres today with some 60,000 trees. The operation has tripled since 2002, Saulsbury estimated.
"My husband made this business a larger-than-life operation," Saulsbury said. "His mom and dad started something and left it for him to care for, and he just ran with it."
Saulsbury said the nursery employs about four people in the off-season, ramping up to 35 between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when it typically sells between 4,000 and 5,000 trees — more than 90 percent of them to families who drive up to the farm to select the perfect holiday evergreen.
After her husband's death in February, the family considered getting out of the business. But Saulsbury said she bought out the rest of the family, wanting to leave to her children — ages 12 to 27 — the decision of whether to continue.
"He told me the farm was mine to do what I wanted with. This is what I wanted to do," she said.
Saulsbury's focus had been helping her husband with office functions at the farm and his other businesses. This year, she and her children had to figure out field operations — weeding, shearing and the like. Though it was a successful season, she said it's unlikely the Christmas tree business will ever be profitable enough to fully support a family.
"This is a true labor of love," she said.
Position: Owner and operator, Jarrettsville Nurseries
Previous job: Nurse
Education: C. Milton Wright High School; associate's degree in nursing, Harford Community College
Family: Three children: Tommy, 27, Brandon, 20, Ellie, 12