REDCLYFFE, Pa. - Each November, Ron Songer takes a long walk through the vast former Christmas tree farms that surround his Forest County home. Once he makes his choice, the tree is cut, placed on a tractor, and maneuvered inside by six men.
Rope hoists and a block and tackle are used to stand up the 22-foot evergreen in the sunken living room of a timbered retreat he shares with his wife, Marie. The 60- by 40-foot building is a former livestock barn that the couple disassembled, expanded, and rebuilt because they love rustic homes.
"It was just a labor of love for 10 years," said Ron Songer, who owns National Forest Products, a kitchen cabinet company that employs 18 people. "We wanted to keep the barn structure."
The home's high ceilings and open floor plan are perfect for a Rockefeller Center-size tree, a tradition that began in 1999, the year the couple celebrated their first Christmas here. Arranging 17 strings of lights and hanging ornaments is a three-day event that involves a 14-foot stepladder, hooks, and wooden extension poles. That's one reason the tree stays up through March.
"It drinks about three gallons of water a day," Ron Songer said.
He drives two hours to Pittsburgh, about 100 miles to the southwest, to attend Steelers games, but he prefers Forest County. The couple's home, on a hill, overlooks a level yard with large evergreens and a stone fence. Regular entertainment includes an acrobatic bear who becomes a contortionist to dine at their bird feeder. There's a regular parade of wild turkeys, deer and elk.
Inside, the house is a toasty Christmas card with extra-large felt stockings draped over a wooden staircase. Near the tree and dangling from the ceiling is a stuffed, full-size Grinch, a bag of stolen presents in hand.
Maintaining the tree tradition has its challenges. One year, after wrestling an especially large evergreen through the back door, the work crew wore a substantial bare spot into the tree's side. Undaunted, Songer built a tree stand - the type used by deer hunters - and anchored it to the evergreen. Upon it he perched the Grinch, armed with a hunting rifle.
The couple could have built a new home but opted to recycle after seeing many dilapidated barns, some on the verge of collapse, on frequent business trips across I-80.
"To breathe life back into a barn was a real inspiring challenge," Marie Songer said.
Her husband learned about the free barn from a brother-in-law. "We could have it if we took it down and tore it apart," he said.
The 4,000-square-foot home, which has three bedrooms and three bathrooms, retains its original hardware. Built around 1900, the barn had a second life as an antique shop.
When the couple began taking it apart in 1988 with the help of family and friends, Ron Songer's hair was dark, and he thought nothing of climbing 27 feet into the air and using a crowbar to remove the roof. "It was physically demanding," said Songer, whose hair and beard are now flecked with gray.
The logs had to be numbered, stacked, and covered. From a second barn, the couple salvaged stone they used on the first floor. With a helper, Ron Songer used boulders from his property to build a 15-foot-wide fieldstone fireplace that is 17 feet tall. For more than a decade, while the barn was still a shell, the Songers lived in a nearby 1,000-square-foot home on their 25-acre property.
"We were able to make changes because we were doing it ourselves," Ron Songer said. "It took three years to put it back up and get it under roof.
The oak flooring was rough sawed and the saw marks remain. Marie Songer recalls that chore: "I was always on the end, getting covered in sawdust and wood chips."
She devoted more than a year to staining the exterior hemlock siding, which was cut by a local Amish carpenter.
The first floor holds two guest bedrooms, two bathrooms, an office, mud room, living room and dining room. In a large kitchen with hunter green cabinets and a stainless-steel backsplash, pots and pans hang from a former tractor wheel suspended above a large island.
The third-floor master bedroom has red shutters that open onto a small balcony, affording a bird's-eye view of the Christmas tree.
Four dormers and a cupola, topped by a copper rooster weather vane, were afterthoughts. One of the dormers is a cushioned reading nook with a view of the front lawn; another is a personal chapel with a kneeler for prayer and spiritual reading. The Songers open the cupola during the summer to let in cool night air.
By 1998, 80 percent of the work was finished. Then, while trying to install a junction box for electrical lighting, Ron Songer overextended himself and fell more than 20 feet from a ladder. The fall put him out of commission for a year.
"I have a greater respect for ladders," he said.
The house was finished and the couple moved in in time for Christmas 1999.