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Wreathmaking Time in Washington County

Wreathmaking Time in Washington County
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November and December are when the wreaths are made in Maine’s Washington County, an undulating landscape of spruce and fir forests, bogs, heaths, and blueberry barrens. Pickup trucks laden with brush roll along the narrow back roads to the factories: Kelco Industries and Sunrise County Evergreens in Milbridge, then to Worcester Wreath in Harrington and Maine Wreaths in Jonesboro, on to Whitney Wreath in Whitneyville and Gay’s Wreaths in Machias and Flo’s Wreaths in Marshfield, and to dozens of other companies along the way. And from there, all through the season, trailer trucks filled with finished Christmas wreaths, thousands at a time, millions in all, roll south to market.

The overpowering scent of balsam greets visitors to Flo’s Wreaths on Ridge Road in Marshfield, but Raymonde Houde can’t smell it. Like the six other veteran wreathmakers hard at work in the shop’s barnlike interior, Houde has become insensitive to the sweet, spicy aroma.

Wearing gloves and an apron to protect against pitch and bristles, she works briskly, snapping balsam boughs from the pile of brush on the table beside her, tucking them artfully around a metal ring, and binding them tightly with wire, as the rapping of the spool on the tabletop keeps time with her progress. Snap, tuck, wrap, rap-rap. Snap, tuck, wrap, rap-rap.

At the height of the company’s productivity in the 1970s, some 150 workers turned out 350,000 wreaths a year here. Flo Hanscom passed away in 2008, but her husband, Herbert, a vigorous octogenarian, still oversees his blueberry barrens in addition to Flo’s company, which creates close to 100,000 wreaths now a year.

“We used to be elbow to elbow in here,” says Houde, who has been making wreaths here for more than 30 years. She could be making wreaths at home in Machiasport. Flo’s employs close to 30 at-home wreathmakers, most of them an hour away in the Lubec area. But Houde values the seasonal fellowship of the shop. A couple of her co-workers have been working at Flo’s longer than she has and have taken vacations from their year-round jobs to make wreaths here. “We have a good group,” Houde says, “and it’s the only time we can all get together.”

“We’re a small crew, but we put out a lot of wreaths,” says fellow employee Lisa Johnson.

A veteran wreathmaker can produce between 150 and 200 wreaths a day, earning around $2 per wreath. Between raking blueberries in the summer and making wreaths, Houde says, she can make enough money to buy Christmas presents and pay her taxes. “Flo used to say, ‘We live by the seasons,'” Herb Hanscom says.

As in the blueberry harvest, however, a growing number of migrant workers from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador make up Maine’s wreath-factory production crews. “Local people don’t want to do hard work anymore,” Houde says. “It used to be generation to generation.”

Just up Ridge Road in Machias, Gay’s Wreaths, doing business out of a former chicken barn, employs a combination of locals and migrant workers to help turn out some 3,000 items a day. Owner Steve Gay, who has been in the wreath business since 1969, says the tight local labor market is the result of a combination of factors, including competition from so many wreathmakers and current economic demands. “Families now need two incomes year-round,” Gay notes. “There aren’t that many women who don’t have first jobs.”

Gay’s biggest problem this season, one shared by his competitors, is getting enough brush, the balsam tips that are the raw material of Christmas wreaths. “It’s been a trying season,” Gay says. “There’s been so much rain. Brush is like hay: It’s not good if it gets wet.” Although Gay has resorted to importing brush from as far as 300 miles away in Canada, he still buys all the balsam he can get from local tippers.

Blake Olsen, a young lobsterman, arrives at Gay’s Wreaths with his pickup truck full of tips he has gathered on family land in Machiasport. Olsen explains that this is his first season tipping. Forty-mile-an-hour winds have kept him from hauling his lobster traps for a few days, so he needs spending money.

Olsen’s “sticks”–bundles of balsam tips stacked around five-foot poles–are noticeably larger than the others Gay has on hand. Gay explains to the enterprising fisherman that his balsam boughs are a little too big. What he’s looking for are 16- to 20-inch tips. Still, Gay weighs the tips in at 583 pounds, and at the going rate of 35 cents per pound, writes Olsen a check for $204.05. Not bad for a morning’s work.

Balsam harvesters take to the woods in November once the tips have “set,” the needles’ pores acquiring a protective waxy coating as the trees go dormant for the winter. In the boggy woods around Columbia Falls, stretching all the way from Route 1 north and west to the Great Heath, Robert Tenney works the 50-acre family woodlot he’s been tipping since he was a boy. By all accounts, he’s one of the county’s best and most prolific tippers. A lean, hard, sinewy man with bright eyes and a stubbly beard, Tenney looks like a man who has been living off the land all his life. He rakes blueberries, digs bloodworms, picks “wrinkles” (as periwinkles are called Down East), coaches basketball at a local high school, and, this time of year, goes “brushing.”

“I absolutely love picking brush,” Tenney says, as he snaps off 18-inch tips nonstop. “There’s nothing better than getting out in the woods.” When his arms fill with tips, Tenney jams the brush down over the sharpened stick he’s stuck in the ground. When the stick is full, he binds it up with twine, places it on his four-wheeler, and eases his way back along a bucking, rutted ATV trail to Route 1, where his pickup truck and trailer are nearly full.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

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