Wreathmaking Time in Washington County
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.”