Millbridge, Maine — The first snow of the year has fallen on Millbridge, Maine, a pretty village almost all the way up the coast to Canada, flocking the evergreens and making the old gingerbread houses look even cuter. The ocean is a silver tray on which fat little gray islands, dredged with fully snow and topped with pine trees, float like imaginatively decorated desserts.
The important thing about the scene, however, has nothing to do with being picturesque. It is invisible and mysterious, and it's called needleset.
Sometime around the first good frost, somethingm happens to set the needles on the pine boughs. It is thought the pine tree goes into a dormant state and hangs onto its needles so they won't get knocked off by the winter storms. Whatever it is, it doesn't happen until the first cold spell, and pine boughs gathered before then -- or Christmas trees, for that matter -- will shed like cats in spring.
Now that it's cold, there are trucks pulled off US 1, and bundled figures can be seen struggling urgently through the pine woods. They are not deer hunters, they are brushers. Later, in front of wood stoves in the tiny houses on the back roads, the hands of these seasonal workers will fly. They have put down clam shucking, sardine cleaning, and blue-berry raking -- jobs of other seasons -- to take up the work of November and December -- making Christmas wreaths.
Front rooms are heaped with glossy, fragrant, superbly alive-looking evergreen. And outside the front doors, stacks of wreaths grow for the dealers to pick up in their trucks. Christmas smells come early and in abundance up here, and I keep sniffing hard and getting a bit carried away with it all, but the wreathmakers don't rhapsodize much about it. Evergreen is just one of the things people take from the land to make their living.
Visiting Ethelyn Beal, a champion wreathmaker around here, I passed through her entryway hung with fresh raccoon skins from her son's traps before I saw the heap of evergreens in the kitchen. Though it's little more than a cabin, the Beals' place is stacked full of the richness of the woods.
It puts things into perspective for me. Pine boughs are more picturesque than animal skins, but the Beals probably have more use for raccoons. Mrs. Beal is taking up her wire and brush for about the 30th year, but she has yet to hang a wreath on her own house, because she associates that with a sign of mourning. She takes pride in her work, and not many people have the woods as a workplace, but it's still part of a year-round job of making ends meet. Although it might seem amazing that it can be done from the woods and the sea, to the Beals, it's just life.
Making wreaths is fine, she says, though her favorite job of all is shucking clams for her brother-in-law's clam shop. Still, it's fine if everyone else thinks it's Christmasy. She gets $9.50 a dozen for her wreaths.
"It's nice in the woods. I like to go in," she says. She goes in with any of her seven daughters and friends. They climb over stone fences and brush piles till they get to a place where no one has been to snap off brush -- the tips of the evergreen boughs. Snapping off the tips doesn't hurt the trees. Usually two tips grow in a year or two where one has been snapped off. Each of the brushers drags as much as 100 pounds back in feed sacks, scrambling back over stone walls and shrubs.
One stuffed feed sack holds a potential 6 to 8 wreaths, so they try to make a good haul. Nine or 10 sacks makes for a good wreathmaking session.
They sing as they work, but don't get any romantic image of happy woodswomen: They're keeping their voices going so they won't get shot by hunters.
When she and her daughters and friends have snapped off a little more than they can carry, they all come home, probably to Mrs. Beal's tiny house, where she and her retired lobsterman husband, Malcolm, brought up all 10 children and where 15 or 20 people still show up for Christmas dinner every year, now that there are 28 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Sitting around the wood stove, they make the wreaths.
Mrs. Beal wasn't going out brushing when I was there, because all that picturesque snow tends to get down your back and is too heavy to lug back on the brush, but "a foolish daughter of mine is out in the woods picking brush," she reported.
We are sitting in her kitchen with a couple of dogs and a cagey white cat, who is avoiding Bobby Jo, the granddaughter who, more than at 4 has a rich, fully formed Down East accent.
Mr. Beal, straddling a chair backward with a plaid shirt hung over the back to keep him snug, adds spicy comments to the narrative. From time to time he puts chunks of wood into the stove.
Mrs. Beal picks up a wire ring in one hand while the other deftly snaps off a brush tip that feathers out just the right way, and another, and another, compiling in the blink of an eye a parcel of greens which gets laid on the ring just so. While I am still thinking how nicely she does the arranging, she whips around the wire to hold the brush on just right, so I don't even see that. Each move gets made only once. There's no shifting, readjusting. It's all economical, and it just seems to happen. It doesn't look hard at all. How long does it take?
"I could make a wreath in five minutes if I wanted to," says Mrs. Beal in her gravelly country voice. She glances down, eyebrows raised, as, having laid and wired the tips along both sides of the ring, she gets to the end. "The worst part on the wreath is getting those ends in there where they belong," she says, but she doesn't finish saying it before the ends have disappeared, leaving a seamless, fat, fluffy green wreath, with tips feathering out at the same angle all the way around.
She also tells Bobby Jo where her doll's clothes are; poses for the photographer, admonishing him not to break his camera; and prevents a neighborly retriever, who lopes in on his way past the house, from going any farther than the kitchen. Undistracted, she picks up another ring. "I can't use scraps.There's no way I can do it." She means the little bits she breaks off as she goes. She just uses the tips, that's all there is to it. That's why she wouldn't want to work for Doug Kell in Millbridge. Kell has a small-scale factory in an old school-house. Since he buys the brush for 15 cents a pound from local brushers, he doesn't like those scraps wasted.
The Beals have known Kell since he first drove up to Millbridge 28 years ago to buy his first truckload of trees and wreaths, and they think he has done fine and brought work to a lot of people.
"He's made a . . . a goin' thing out of it," Mr. Beal says. "There were times when he was just starting out when he'd sit right here and eat beans and biscuits and be glad to have it," Mr. Beal recollects fondly, if not mischievously. Mr. Kell's business has quadrupled in the last four years, since he retired from running sport fishing trips in New Jersey and went into wreaths and Christmas tree supplies full-time. Just the same, Ethelyn Beal prefers to make her own, without his ingenious wreath-tying machines.
She sympathizes with the dealers smaller than Kell who still come up in their trucks, stopping at the homes of their "ladies," as the women who make wreaths are calleD, to pick up their produce. Some of the dealers don't know what they're buying and end up with dry wreaths they can't sell.
"People make wreaths nobody would buy. They make them shabby. I have never been refused yet on a wreath." This gives her work a certain eclat, and ensures higher prices. This year she has an order for 113 dozen from a discriminating "feller in Connecticut," who will sell them in his shop. Outside her house, they are stacked in the snow.
She has had a request from as far away as Kentucky, when someone who read about her in Yankee magazine found out her phone number and called to order a wreath. "I got madder and madder," she says. Finally she told him her price was $25, hoping he'd give up, because she didn't want to bother packing and shipping one wreath. "Do you know I got the check before I got the wreath made?" She has a laugh over that one.
Meanwhile, she and her daughters have to make quite a few dozen to fill out the Connecticut order, but she's not worried. They all work fast. By the time all the daughters and at least one daughter-in-law and other allies pitch in, there will be 10 or 15 sets of hands getting covered with pitch and wiring the pine with the dexterity born of lifetimes of clam shucking, blueberry raking, and sarding cleaning.
Doug Kell's warehouse is stacked with an abundance of wreaths, rows and rows deep and as tall as a man, the rich green of the needles shining faintly, darkly beautiful against the concrete floor and tin walls. The "ladies" of Doug Kell's operation, Kelco, get there at 7:30 a.M. and spend all day tying wreaths on foot-pedal-operated machines. Assistants break and hand over tips, and, indeed, one assistant is in trouble with Kell for not using all the scraps.
Everyone wears aprons and at least one glove. Uncovered hands are black with pitch. In general, though, it's a jolly group, no grimmer than, say, the elves in charge of electronic games at the North Pole are around Dec. 15.
I ask Marie, the fastest wreathmaker, how she likes the pine smell. Fine at first, then she gets tired of it. "I put up a wreath with artificial fruit at home," she says. You can't really blame her. She makes about 120 wreaths a day , which averages out to about one wreath every four minutes.
Doug Kell can't talk to us until everyone has gone home, and even then, the phone keeps ringing in the upper room of the schoolhouse vacated by those who only work by day. He is working Santa Claus hours these days, sleeping in a trailer, tinkering, taking orders, and worrying about snags in his operations.
"My wife says I'm a trap builder, I go around building traps for myself," he says happily as he sits at a desk under a deer head, reaching a long, powerful arm out for the phone every few minutes and talking with gruff humor to whatever cohort is on the other end of the line. Kell is a long-limbed, friendly man with a few pine needles caught in the fluff around his bald spot and a laugh that goes "haw-haw-haw" when he's humoring his callers or talking about his mistakes.
His main concern is needleset. Or failure of needleset. Last year was a warm, wet year, he says.Needles didn't set, florists wanted credit for mangy wreaths, and "the dealer took a lickin'." So this year, instead of starting the wreath operation -- buying brush, having wreaths made, and buying homemade wreaths as well -- on the first of November, he waited till the 10th.
Another problem is that if you stack wreaths indoors right away, they get hot like green hay will. So Kell keeps them stacked in crates outside at first, then moves them in. "We're going to construct a building especially for the keeping of wreaths, and this is something which I have discovered after many years. It's not a science. What we do is something that hasn't gone on for 200 years, like potato farming, we're in really the first, second generation of the industry."
Industry is right. According to his figures (and he should know, since he sells about 90 percent of the wire rings used to make wreaths in the Northeast), 1,364,080 wreaths were made in Maine last year. He also sold about one fourth of the rings used in the United States and Canada, he figures. He estimates that the US and Canada make about 3 million wreaths a year, with Maine making half.
"The only way I got that information is stumpin' for it," he says, asking his contacts in Michigan, Wisconsin, California, Oregon, and Washington.
Figures are sketchy, he feels, because wreath dealing, being a one-month-a-year proposition, is still "an underground business." Canada is tough competition, Kell says. The Canadian dollar is worth less, and dealers are able to sell Canadian wreaths cheaper than Maine wreaths. He is encouraging Maine dealers to demand higher quality to keep Maine competitive.
He got into the business on a much smaller scale, however. It all started 28 years ago when he came up to Maine looking for something to do in winter when there was no sport fishing.
"I bought a tractor trailer and I was going to earn some money, and somebody said, 'Gee, let's go buy some Christmas trees.' And I came here and I bought some Christmas trees, which was a difficult experience."
Why, I wanted to know.
"Haw-haw-haw," he says sadly but wisely. "Because I didn't know anything about Christmas trees, and a man who buys something that he doesn't know anything about and intends to sell will have his first difficult experience."
Kell and other dealers have had their share of wreaths that fall apart, made from evergreens gathered too early. They have gotten together to set standards for the first time this year. Aside from manufacturing the wreath rings, he makes and sells a line of supplies for Christmas tree salesmen. No wonder he calls the business an industry. Including himself and smaller dealers, "I have seen this grow, in 27 Christmases, from a quarter of a million wreaths to what'll probably be a million and a half wreaths this year that are made in the area." And it's still growing.
The problems he has are problems of expanding from a cottage industry to a larger-scale industry. He finds his workers are unwilling to supervise one another, for one thing. Take, for example, the scrap waster.
"The lady that's floor boss down there should never have allowed that condition to exist. She can't very well get on the back of somebody that she's a neighbor of and that she plays bingo with and so it's very hard to develop supervisors around here."
And besides, the work force is seasonal, preferring, like Mrs. Beal, to do some clam shucking or housework when they're done with wreaths, rather than develop a career with Kelco. Mrs. Beal, in fact whitewashes her kitchen ceiling , which gets dingy with woodsmoke, when the wreaths have been made.
Mr. Kell ends up hiring people "from away" to be supervisors, which he doesn't like. He'd like Millbridge residents to make the higher salaries. He has a lot of respect for the workers.
"In the summertime they gather blueberries, they pick potatoes in the fall, they work in the sardine canneries, and especially the ladies working in the sardine canneries are very fast with their hands. Very adept, and also they're a very hardy, hardworking lot. They're not a bit afraid of hard work, because that has been what they've done for their lifetime for generations."
But they won't blow the whistle on one another, and they seem to be happier working for him for a month every year. What makes sense in a cottage industry doesn't necessarily work in a factory-size industry. Mr. Kell understands this, though you feel he aches to change Kelco into even more of a "goin' thing." And his efforts have indirectly helped every home wreathmaker, by enlarging the market and thereby the demand for evergreen wreaths. Still, "I'm from away and I'll always be from away. . . . I enjoy the people and the friends that I have here and one thing and another, but at the same time, I know who I am."
Mrs. Beal's industry is a "goin' thing" in its own right. I can't imagine that any of her daughters get away with making shabby wreaths. And having picked her own brush, she can afford to throw some away. She also seems like an ideal supervisor. She knows which dogs should stay in the kitchen.