Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wreath on wooden door; Susan Senatori

Go wild for wreaths.
Susan Senatori

December 2012

Go wild for wreaths

A symbol of strength that lasts throughout the harshest season.

Dave Wilson

The Christmas season comes early for wreath makers in northern Wisconsin where wreath making is an established business thanks to the balsam fir. The only tree in the Northwoods that arguably smells better than a balsam fir is a balsam poplar. But the balsam poplar doesnít make a good Christmas wreath because it isnít an evergreen.

White pine, red pine and spruce are also common evergreens in northern Wisconsin and are used to some extent in wreath making. Not only does the balsam fir smell good, it grows like a weed in most parts of Price County.

I have often joked that there are 5,000 to 10,000 balsam firs on my 5.2 acres alone. A person could make a few dollars cutting balsam boughs just about anywhere in Price County where it is legal to cut. Fragrance and availability make the balsam fir the heart of the local Christmas wreathmaking business.

The wreath makers from this part of the state range from oneman garage entrepreneurs to family owned businesses that operate several wreath-manufacturing facilities and employ 20 to 30 people. Then there are bough cutters who cut the balsam boughs and sell to the wreath makers; they usually work for themselves. Add to that local wire wreath frame fabricators who supply the frames to the wreath makers.

Rose Wreath LLC is one of the larger wreath-making businesses in the area.

"Balsam fir is used because of its fragrance, durability and its dark green color," says Dave Barber, production manager of Rose Wreath. "Other types of trees are used, such as spruce, but balsam is used because it smells better. Spruce has a pungent odor; who would want something with a pungent odor hanging on their door? Rose Wreath does use red and white pine for trimming some of their products."

"We use balsam, cedar, hemlock, spruce, red and white pine in our wreaths," says Jean Baroka, of the familyowned Baroka Wreath located in Fifield. "Our wreaths are a combination of these species of evergreens. Balsam fir is the most used species because of its durability and its prevalence in the area."

A HISTORY LESSON

People in ancient Rome hung decorative wreaths as a sign of victory; some people believe that this is where the tradition of hanging wreaths on doors came from. Pre-Christian Germanic people gathered evergreen wreaths in December and lit fires as a sign of hope for the coming spring. These were called Advent wreaths. Christians kept these popular traditions alive and by the 16th century, Christians in Germany were using the wreath as a symbol to celebrate their Advent hope in Christ.

Both wreath makers agree that balsam fir is also the easiest to work with.

Rose Wreath customers include fundraising groups like Boy Scouts and churches. Both wreath manufacturers have mail order business where products are boxed and shipped. Baroka also cites deer hunters and other walk-ins as customers, but the bulk of their business is from fundraising groups.

Wreath making provides business opportunities in several different areas. There is a local business that fabricates and sells the wire forms to local wreath makers. The wreath manufacturers provide seasonal employment for local residents. Some of these people are retired, some are young people, and some people are looking for a little extra money for Christmas.

Rose Wreath employs up to 30 seasonal employees and Baroka Wreath employs 15 to 20 people during the wreath-making season, which usually runs October through November.

The wreath-making business starts in March with an inventory of what is left over from the previous year. Lists are made of wire rings for wreaths and forms for other shapes such as swags and canes. Red velvet bows are purchased outside of the area and pine cones are ordered. Flyers and brochures are sent to potential and previous customers.

Starting in October, bough cutters begin cutting balsam fir for the local wreathmaking companies. Balsam boughs are purchased in October and selected for their freshness because Christmas is still three months away. If the boughs arenít fresh the needles will be falling off before the wreath makes its front door debut. Balsam boughs with a blight that turns the needles brown are avoided because the wreath manufacturers will not pay for them.

The blight is called balsam gall midge, according to Price County Forestry Administrator Eric Holm. Larvae initiate the formation of galls, which appear as swollen oval growths at the base of needles mid–June. Galled needles turn yellow and begin to drop from the twigs in October.

"Bough cutters pay a $100 license to cut boughs on state land, otherwise if they have permission to cut on private land they do not need a license," Holm explains. "The county sometimes sells sections of roadside that are overgrown with balsam fir just to clear the roadside."

Cutters are paid around 25 cents per pound.

"Two people came in and sold Rose Wreath one ton of boughs for a dayís work," Barber says. That comes out to about $250/day per person.

Rose Wreath buys about 20 tons of boughs a year.

The wreath making itself is piecework. Wreath makers are paid by the number of wreaths made instead of hourly. Each type of wreath has a price according to size and difficulty in making. Wreath sizes vary from 20 inches to 4 feet in diameter. The best wreath makers make $100 a day, which translates to 80 or 90, 20-inch wreaths per day.

The wreath season ends around the first of December. At this time the wreaths have all been delivered and after the long days and weeks from October through December the people who run the wreath–making businesses are ready for a break.

MAKING A WREATH

"Wreath making looks simple, but to make a quality wreath takes a lot of practice," explains Dave Barber, production manager of Rose Wreath. "It also takes training from a person who has been making wreaths for a long time. Good quality boughs are also important for making a good looking wreath. Using boughs from the right part of the tree makes wreath making easier."

Boughs on work table © Dave Wilson
Attach the wire to the wreath form.
© Dave Wilson

The lower limbs of a balsam make the best wreaths because the needles are in one plane or flat.

A wire ring, or form (if making a swag or cane) is required to attach the boughs.

A swag is a straight wreath about eighteen inches long that is hung horizontally and a cane is a wreath shaped like a candy cane. Malleable wire (wire that is easily bent) is needed to attach the boughs firmly to the wire ring or form.

To make a wreath of your own, here are some simple steps:

1. Wrap wire around the wreath form several times so that the wire will not pull free when tightened around the boughs.

2. Pick up the correct amount of boughs for the size wreath that you are making and break the boughs to the correct length. This step is what takes experience. Knowing how many and what length the boughs have to be will come from practice.

Cane shaped wreath © Dave Wilson
Make sure there are no gaps and tie off the wire.
© Dave Wilson

3. Take a handful of boughs and place them on the wire ring in the same direction; the top of the needles should be in the front of the wreath.

4. Wrap the malleable wire three times around the base of the boughs and the wire form and pull the wire tight.

5. Pick out another handful of boughs and break to the correct length. Place this handful so that it overlaps the first handful and continue wrapping it with the wire. The second handful should be placed and wrapped about 3 to 4 inches from the first wrapping.

6. Continue this procedure until the wreath is complete making sure there are no gaps or holes, no wire showing and the wreath is full and even. Tie the wire off at the end so that it does not show.

7. Trim the wreath as needed with scissors. The wreath is now done and ready to be trimmed with a bow and pine cones.

Dave Wilson lives in a cabin he built on the South Fork of the Flambeau River.