Wreathmaking Time in Washington County
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.
By early afternoon, Tenney, who has been known to pick 1,500 pounds of brush in a day, has a full load, which he’ll haul 15 miles east and north to the brand-new 75,000-square-foot Whitney Wreath plant, employing some 700 seasonal workers, on the Whitneyville/Machias line. “A lot of people around here use wreath money to have Christmas,” Tenney says as he secures his load. He’d like to stay and chat, he adds, but he has to keep moving. The factory needs the brush, and he needs the money. It’s wreathmaking time in Washington County.
RESOURCES: Selected Maine wreath company Web sites
SLIDE SHOW: Maine Wreathmakers