When the auction of his family's Christmas tree farm finished, Robert Thomas Custer gazed across the Brecknock Township hills behind the pole barn where the Merry Christmas banner still hung.
For a few hours on Monday, more than 100 bidders scoured his childhood home and scooped up deals on tree balers, tree shakers, wagons, a tractor, tree conveyor, planting equipment, retail tree display stands and other usual farm power and hand tools. They bid on household items, too.
Ten bidders vied for the 42-acre property that included a bank barn, pole barn and the custom ranch home built where he grew up and where his mother passed away in March.
"It’s bittersweet," said Custer, whom everyone calls R.T. "I'm going to miss the farm. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of land in Berks County."
The only thing he kept was the 1949 Ford F5 that his grandfather taught him to drive when he was 12. He hopes to teach his two sons to drive it some day, too.
The 79-year-old DeLong Christmas Tree Farm sold at auction by the Horning Farm Agency for $930,000. The buyer told Custer he planned to keep the land green. The buyer declined to be interviewed or give his name. Custer said the farm is expected to remain a Christmas tree farm. The property, which straddles Gouglersville Road, is zoned rural residential and conservation/agriculture.
"They might even keep the DeLong name, which made me feel better," Custer said. "It's a huge weight off my shoulders."
The decision to sell wasn't easy.
“Unfortunately, this last year has taken a toll on us as a family. We lost my Grandpa Tom in 2019, and then in March this year, we lost my mom, Jean DeLong Custer, to cancer. She was the last remaining caretaker of the farm,” said Custer.
Custer came back to Berks from his home in Fort Collins, Colorado, to help his aunt and uncle, Nancie and Rick Minicozzi, with the final Christmas season, which he said was the best they ever had.
Custer is founder of Vortic Watch Company, a small company that repurposes pre-WWII era pocket watches and turns them into modern wristwatches. He said some of the proceeds from the sale of the farm will go to defend the company against a trademark lawsuit from the multi-billion dollar industry behemoth Swatch Group. He won the case in September, but Swatch has appealed the ruling.
Swatch sued Vortic in 2017 saying Custer's company infringed on its intellectual property and misled customers by reusing watch faces made by Lancaster County watchmaker Hamilton, which closed in 1969. Swatch bought Hamilton in 1974.
The judge ruled that customers would not be confused by the re-used watch faces. Custer said his legal bills are in the hundreds of thousands and he expects more as the fight will continue.
The farm started in 1941 by Charles Aubrey DeLong and has been passed down through the next three generations. Charles Aubrey and Mary Eve DeLong, purchased a farm with an original barn built in 1839. DeLong learned to grow and market trees during his 18-year stint working as the forester on the nearby 665-acre Nolde Forest estate.
The first crop of trees was harvested in 1949. Since then, the farm has provided Christmas trees to the community, specializing in Fraser fir and Douglas fir.
The farm then passed to Thomas DeLong and then to Jean DeLong Custer
R.T. Custer, an industrial engineer by training, came by his sales skills and sense of entrepreneurship through his years of working at the tree farm. He learned from his grandfather, an expert forester who earned a doctorate from Duke University, that all he needed to do is educate potential customers and let them make a choice.
Custer said the farm was his family's side hustle. Everyone held jobs outside the farm. That's how he started Vortic. It was a kickstarter project that he worked on while he worked full time in logistics for Walmart.
The joy in selling a Christmas tree is something Custer said he takes with him. He described selling a tree to a young couple and learning as he tied the tree to the roof of their car that it was their first Christmas together.