Balsam fir Christmas wreaths is a Maine tradition alive and well

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FORT KENT — It’s not really clear who, where or when the first person got the idea to deck their halls with a Christmas wreath made of evergreen boughs.

Some say it traces back to the ancient Romans, who first hung wreaths as a sign of social status. Others credit the ancient Greeks, who were said to award wreaths of laurel for displays of athletic prowess.

For centuries, societies from Christians to pagans and everyone inbetween have hung wreaths. And their popularity has only grown over the years, becoming synonymous with the Christmas season.

“It’s tradition [and] symbolic of peace and goodwill,” said David Whitney of Whitney Wreath. “For a lot of people, it’s the smell of balsam that really does it. There are other greens that can be used, but balsam is what people think of when they think of Christmas.”

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For Whitney, wreath making has been a lifelong passion. He says that love was ignited by some roughhousing with a cousin and a love of sweets.

“In 1974 I was 8 years old, and my older cousin wrestled me to the ground that Thanksgiving,” Whitney said. “He was 16 or 17 at the time. And when he stuffed his hand over my face, I could smell what I now know was the smell of balsam fir.”

When his cousin told him his hands were covered in fir pitch from collecting and selling branches to wreath makers, Whitney said a lightbulb went off in his head.

“You mean, you get paid for branches?” he remembers saying. “Right then, I got to thinking. My mom would not buy me candy, but tips could beget money and money begets candy.”

At that moment, he said, an entrepreneur was born.

“I went home, grabbed a sandwich bag, climbed a spruce tree and began clipping the needles,” Whitney said. “I asked my mom to take me to Flo’s Wreaths because I had some tips to sell.”

Whitney’s mother took her son and his baggie of spruce needles to the Washington County wreath maker where Flo herself gave him his first lesson in what goes into a Maine Christmas wreath.

“I remember her looking at my bag of spruce needles, laughing and saying, ‘These are not quite what I want, young man,’” he said. “Then she took me into her tip shed, and the smell of balsam fir was so intense and I could hear the knocking sound of the wire spool machine used to make the wreaths. She opened the door on that world and right then and there I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Whitney started “tipping” fir trees — collecting the fragrant needle-bearing branches used in wreath making — and by the time he was in high school, he had taught himself to make wreaths.

“In 1984 my buddy and I would go tipping, make the wreaths, decorate them and go to a vacant lot near the Bangor Mall to sell them out of our pickup truck,” he said. “Then we met some girls, and all the money we made during the week we spent on girls on the weekends.”

Four years later, Whitney founded Whitney’s Wreaths. Since then the business has grown with wreaths being sold through L.L. Bean, on the Home Shopping Network and directly to customers from the company’s Machias headquarters.

Whitney Wreaths also has operations in Presque Isle, Alexander and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

“We have 15 full-time employees, but that increases to 500 seasonal workers,” Whitney said. “We are in full wreath-making crunch time right now.”

Whitney won’t comment on how many wreaths his company produces, but did say trailer loads of the balsam creations leave his factory every week.

According to Whitney, it takes about five pounds of balsam fir tips to make a standard 22-inch-diameter wreath.

“We take the ends of the branches,” he said. “A ‘tip’ is 18 or so inches, and you want to make sure you there are two to four good shoots behind what you cut from the tree. If you leave those, that tree will be ready to tip again in two to three years.”

Up in Fort Kent, Craig Morneault, owner of Pelletier Florist and Greenhouse in Fort Kent, has been tipping trees since the end of October to keep his wreath-making machine busy.

“We’ve gotten permission from various landowners to go out and collect the tips,” he said as he prepared his latest batch of fir boughs for wreath making on Sunday. “We only start tipping when the weather turns cold to make sure the tips will stay as fresh as possible.”

So far Morneault has hauled eight trailers full of tips back to his shop. He said by the end of the season, he’ll have made between 400 and 500 wreaths.

Morneault and his crew of wreath-making elves first trim down the collected branches, which are then placed on a metal form. A machine then wraps wire around bunches of fir tips, attaching them to that form.

“Everyone likes a balsam Christmas wreath,” he said. “I think it takes people back to their childhoods, (and) you can express yourself with how you decorate your wreath.”

As the holiday season gets into full swing, Morneault said it is all he and his crew can do to keep up with local demand.

It was much the same for Randy Corriveau of Corriveau Hilltop Blossoms of Fort Kent who was set up outside the annual Fort Kent craft show this weekend selling wreaths.

“I couldn’t tell you how many we’ve sold so far,” Corriveau said late Saturday afternoon. “People really seem to like the Maine wreath. It is something our state is known for.”

Back down in Machias, David Whitney said he is passing on his love of tipping to his 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old twin boys.

“They seem interested in this,” he said. “I take them out tipping, and they have come to realize that tipping begets Tic-Tacs (candy), so it is coming full circle.”

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