The annual Optimist Club Christmas tree sale.
For the past 60 years, between Thanksgiving and mid-December, the corner of Dunklin and Broadway has been home to a beautiful forest of evergreen trees. Driving by the area, you’re sure to see hundreds of Fraser firs and Scotch pines.
Look closely, though, and you’ll see much more than just trees. The lot represents nearly six decades of helping families return home each year with smiles on their faces and holiday cheer in their hearts thanks to the annual Optimist Club Christmas tree sale.
Founded in 1946, the Optimist Club supports local youth through volunteer work and fundraising efforts for various community projects and local organizations. The club has hosted the Christmas tree sale since 1953. Ralph Biele joined the club in 1990 and has been running the sale for more than 20 years. He says it’s the biggest fundraiser of the year.
“It’s hard work, but it’s such a fun time,” he says. “It’s Christmas, and people are happy. They want to forget all the problems of the world and enjoy this time with their families.”
The Optimist Club first started selling trees on a service station lot owned by the club president. Only locally grown Scotch pines were sold at the time. By the early 1960s, the tree lot moved to the Carpenter’s Local Union building on the corner of Broadway and Dunklin, where it remained until 2019 before moving across the street in 2020. Today, Jefferson City locals can shop for trees while enjoying Christmas music, hot chocolate, coffee, and cookies.
“As the sale has evolved, we’ve gotten more and more variety with our trees,” Ralph says. “The trees we buy come from Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Nova Scotia, Quebec — all over.”
“Everything we do, and all the money we raise, is for young people.”– Ralph Biele
The trees have not only grown in type, but also in size. The club sells roughly 575 trees each year, nearly 200 of which are 10 feet tall or higher. And since 2010, local high school sports teams have pitched in to help customers get the trees from the lot to their vehicles.
“[The coach] wanted to teach the boys about giving back to the community, and that you don’t always have to get something for what you do,” Ralph says.
While the sale’s location and tree options may have changed over the years, the Optimist Club’s motto, “friend of the youth,” has not.
“Everything we do, and all the money we raise, is for young people,” Ralph says.
The tree sale has profited approximately $16,000 annually, all of which goes back to youth in the community. The Optimist Club currently supports 15-20 local organizations and projects, including the Special Olympics, Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City, Toys for Tots, and buddy packs for The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri, just to name a few.
After the devastating 2019 tornado, the club donated thousands of dollars to help rebuild the Special Olympics Training for Life Campus that was destroyed in the storm. The club also donated a generous $10,000 to help build the new Boys & Girls Club Railton Center — the first Boys & Girls Club in the county to be headquartered on the campus of a historically Black university.
The Optimist Club has certainly lived up to its name, providing hope and opportunity for Jefferson City youth. The club celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2021 and has no intentions of slowing down. This holiday season will mark the 69th annual Christmas tree sale.
“We’ve come a long way since 1953,” Ralph says.“However, we never forget that the money raised eachy ear contributes to a better, and hopefully more productive, life for the young people in our community.”