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N.H. family's donation preserves Christmas tree tradition

HAMPTON FALLS, N.H. -- When the Tonry family created a conservation easement on 215 acres of woods and wetlands off Route 88 in the northwest corner of town, they were doing more than just preserving the family farm.

"It's a momentous chapter in our town's long and eventful history and a milestone in Hampton Falls' effort to preserve our rural heritage," said Steve Volpone, chairman of the town's Board of Selectmen, at a brief ceremony Saturday at the Tonry Tree Farm.

Under the terms of the easement, the family will continue to operate the farm and make decisions regarding the use of the land, but development of the property will be restricted.

It was also a milestone for the Southeast Land Trust of New Hampshire, which is overseeing the agreement. "The Tonry Farm represents the 5,000th acre and 100th property we've preserved," said Brian Hart, executive director of the group.

The ceremony took place in a corrugated metal barn with tractors and a bulldozer in the background. Taking center stage was Alice Tonry, the 86-year-old matriarch of the family that has owned and operated a Christmas tree farm on the property for more than 40 years.

The sprightly Tonry still mows the grass on the property and tools about the land in a golf cart. "I have a horror of the land being split into house lots. I'd like to see it live on as a farm," she said.

It was not a spur of the moment decision. "I think it's something she's been thinking about since my parents first bought the property in 1964," said daughter Abby Tonry, who grew up on the farm and now manages the property.

Abby's father, Herbert, was a Navy aviator during World War II. Her mother was a medical doctor who practiced in Washington, D.C., before her marriage. The couple met at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Three Mile Island Camp on Lake Winnipesaukee.

After their marriage, the Tonrys lived in Wellesley, Mass., before moving to the farm. Herbert continued to commute to his job as an insurance executive in Boston until his retirement. He died 13 years ago.

They began the Christmas tree farm shortly after the family moved to Hampton Falls, when Abby and three of her five siblings got 2,000 seedlings as part of a 4-H project.

Those original trees sold for $2. The family now plants between 2,000 and 5,000 trees annually, nurtures them year round, and sells them for $50 each.

"People say how lucky we are to live here," said Abby, "but it's a lot of hard work."

The farm opens for visitors in mid-September, when buyers arrive to tag the trees they will cut down before Christmas.

"Some families have been coming to pick trees for three generations," said Louie Tonry, Abby's brother, who also helps at the farm. "They come up in caravans of cars, have barbecues, and whoop it up."

Many mark the trees they select with hats, scarves, and other adornments. "It makes them easier to find later," said Louie. "Some even have their picture taken with the trees to use as a Christmas cards."

The Tonrys have fond memories of growing up on the farm. Abby remembers getting a horse when she was 12. It was named Pepper and the horse's arrival "was the most exciting day of my life," she said.

Over the years the family has raised chickens, geese, and cattle as well as horses on the property but now it's just trees.

The family has logged other changes over the decades. Louie remembers marching along Route 88 with friends in an impromptu parade. "That was a long time ago," he said. "Now the road is practically a superhighway."

And in the spirit of trying to retain at least some of the area's rural landscape and heritage, the Tonry family decided to donate the easement. "We didn't want money from town," said Abby. "We didn't want it to be a financial thing. The town only paid for the transaction costs, such as lawyer and survey fees. The town's contribution is capped at $150,000, but I don't expect it to go that high."

She said the value of the property is unclear, but she has been told that it could be divided into 60 house lots; the current rate for lots in town is about $300,000.

The land is home to herons, hawks, coyotes, and other wildlife as well as migratory waterfowl that take a breather in its wetlands while heading north or south with the seasons.

Karen Ayers, chairwoman of the Hampton Falls Conservation Commission, helped shepherd the agreement through the approval process.

"The details were sometimes overwhelming," she said. "Now we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Thanks to the Tonrys, future generations can come here to choose their trees and bring them home, and the land will be a sanctuary for plants and animals forever."