To celebrate its 100 years in business, the Van Yahres Tree Co. will provide an Arbor Day Eve makeover for a cluster of 150-year-old oaks in Charlottesville’s McIntire Park.
The family-owned business, which has been caring for area trees since the 1920s, is prepping the stand of mighty white oaks to serve as a memorial to three community leaders, including the company’s late owner, Mitch Van Yahres.
Company crews plan to attend to the trees on Thursday.
“We want to celebrate Arbor Day ahead of time, and we’ll have all of our guys up there to take care of the trees on the top of the hill,” said Mike Van Yahres, Mitch’s son and the company’s leader. “The grove will sort of serve as McIntire Park’s Central Park.”
The trees are part of the memorial planned to honor Van Yahres’ father and Jim and Bunny Murray. Both families spent much of their lives working to better the lives of those in the community.
The memorial grove will be the destination point of a proposed McIntire Park tree-lined promenade. Trees will be planted to honor past and future winners of the Paul Goodloe McIntire Citizenship Award, which is presented annually by the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The crews will work on the trees’ health and safety, Van Yahres said.
“We’ve got two goals. The first is to do some careful pruning so they better survive ice, snow and windstorms,” he said. “The second is to install lightning protection because they sit up on the hill. Some of them have already been struck but have healed.”
The trees are old, but they’re not old forest.
“We speculate that they were left over from outbuildings left on the property when it was a farm long before it was parkland,” Van Yahres said. “White oak are not forest trees. They are slow growing, long-lived and almost bulletproof when it comes to resisting disease and parasites. They grow from acorns that are usually carried about by squirrels and blue jays.”
The trees will be the centerpiece of the memorial to both Murrays, who owned Panorama Farms. Jim Murray was a farmer, environmentalist, university professor and industrialist. He served in the Virginia House of Delegates and was both a community activist and philanthropist.
Jean “Bunny” Murray served on the boards of the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Rivanna River Basin Roundtable, the Albemarle Garden Club, Martha Jefferson House and the Hospice of the Piedmont.
The trees also will honor Mitchell Van Yahres, who died in 2008 at the age of 81. He was a member of the Charlottesville City Council from 1968 to 1976, serving as mayor from 1970 to 1972.
In 1981, he won a special election for the 57th District of the Virginia House of Delegates, where he served for 24 years. He retired from active political involvement in 2005.
Aside from his love of his community, Van Yahres loved his community’s trees. He learned it from his father, George, who started the company in New York in 1919.
George Van Yahres would drive his crews up and down the Eastern Seaboard, working on trees, and wound up consulting and caring for the trees at Monticello.
“It was sort of an itinerant business. Granddad would go from Maine to Florida doing work,” Mike Van Yahres said. “They were called tree surgeons back then, and the idea was to keep the trees living longer.”
From its service at Monticello, the company found work consulting and pruning trees on area estates.
After Mitch Van Yahres graduated from Cornell University, he came to Charlottesville and founded the local office.
“He loved taking care of trees and he loved telling people what they didn’t need to do,” Mike Van Yahres recalled. “He’d say, ‘the bad news is the tree has aphids. The good news is that it won’t impact it in the long run, although it may not look great for a little while.’ Others may have used that to sell a service, but he wouldn’t.”
The business has changed since the elder Van Yahres’ time, his son said.
“It’s more complicated. There are a lot of mountain-climbing techniques used and we have lifts and cranes and a lot more mechanized work,” Van Yahres said. “The machines are expensive, but they make it less expensive for clients and less dangerous for employees.”
Computers also make a difference.
“Dad would have a big stack of invoices on his desk and about once a month or so he’d finally get around to writing up the bills and sending them out,” he said. “Now, all of that’s generated at the time of service.”
If the business has changed, Mitch’s ideals, including pro bono work and treating employees like family, continue with the company, his son said.
“Mitch believed in paying for health insurance for all of his employees and we used to pay 100% for their families. That’s become expensive in the past few years, but we still cover 100% of the employee and most of the family,” Van Yahres said.
“We do a lot of work in the community and we try to follow his legacy any way we can,” he said. “We consider our employees our family and we know they need to make a living wage to raise a family. That, in turn, instills loyalty to the company. We don’t lay people off.”
The company has been able to retain well-trained employees, keeping it competitive with national companies that compete for business in the area, Van Yahres said.
“We’re pretty excited about making it to 100,” he said. “We hope to be here for another 100 and maybe keep taking care of those oak trees in the park for another 100.”