Time to remember
A market downturn in the ’90s led to a downeast business’ holiday tradition that has captured the heart of America.
By Douglas Rooks
It started out innocently enough. Morrill Worcester was a 12-year-old paperboy for the Bangor Daily News, when he won a contest for new subscribers that included a trip to Washington, D.C. While there, he toured Arlington National Cemetery and said later that it made “an indelible impression” on him.
As a student at the University of Maine in Orono, he launched the first business venture that would eventually result in the founding of Worcester Wreath Co., one of Washington County’s largest seasonal employers. He was born in Jonesport, and except for a few years in Connecticut, has lived Downeast all his life.
As he now recalls it, he and a fellow business student, who were running their own roadside vegetable stands, were friendly with Boston suppliers who told them there might be a market for Maine balsam fir wreaths. They shipped off 500 that fall, and the contact proved useful when Morrill and his wife, Karen, began wholesaling wreaths in greater quantities.
From the company’s beginnings in the 1970s, Worcester has demonstrated a flair for marketing. The company’s headquarters in Harrington on Route 1 is a familiar site to travelers, with the main building appearing to be tied up in a gigantic bow.
And, like many successful entrepreneurs, he knows how to make lemonade out of lemons. In 1992, as a stiff recession took hold, there were suddenly more wreaths than customers – “We’re up to our knees in wreaths,” someone in the shipping department told Worcester. He then got the idea, harking back to that childhood trip, that they might be appreciated as decorations for soldiers’ graves. The donation to Arlington was made, with several thousand wreaths placed in the oldest section of the cemetery, and thus was born a campaign that has now brought more than a half a million wreaths to the nation’s military cemeteries.
Worcester has been featured in dozens of articles and broadcast interviews, as Wreaths Across America – now incorporated as a non-profit to permit donations – caught the imagination of countless families and communities.
He told USA Today in a 2006 interview that, “When people hear about what we’re doing, they want to know if I’m a veteran. I’m not. But I make it my business never to forget.”
The annual week-long wreath tour departs from Harrington and includes a send off in Bangor and stops in Augusta, Portland, Scarborough, and numerous other sites on the way to Arlington. The tour has become quite famous, and a good portion of that fame results from a photo taken of some of those snow-covered wreaths at Arlington. It was e-mailed around the world by military families, and includes a poem that begins, “Rest easy, sleep well my brothers.”
Along the way, a contingent of motorcyclists named the Patriot Guard Riders accompanies the procession; Blue Bird Ranch trucking of Jonesport provides the transportation. In all, this past holiday season thousands of wreaths were distributed to 384 military cemeteries and monuments, including 24 overseas and four wreath laying ceremonies in Iraq.
Wreaths also brightened the stark white tombstones at Togus, near Augusta, where thousands of Civil War veterans are buried in one of the nation’s oldest military cemeteries.
Worcester had just returned from the annual tour when a cell phone call found him out in his woodlot, which he began acquiring in 1999 and which now totals 4,000 acres – all managed to provide the fir “tips” that provide the basic material for the wreaths.
“None of the other companies manage their own trees,” he said. “They’re dependent on buying from others.” While it required a significant investment up front, the forest land is becoming productive, and Worcester has begun fertilizing the trees to produce the optimal green that produces best-sellers among wreaths.
Worcester described his forest acreage as “a work in progress,” and would like to expand it further. He sees a need ultimately for 10,000 acres of managed woodlots. Unlike Christmas tree producers, who cut what they plant after a decade or so, Worcester manages existing native woodlands for maximum yield. “Some people get the wrong idea about what we’re doing,” he said. “They ought to come out and take a look at how we’re improving the forest.”
Since 1983, Worcester has had a contract with L.L. Bean to provide all the wreaths the mail order giant sells, and the company now ships exclusively through mail order, rather than wholesaling. It employs 600 people through the two-month wreath-making season, from October to late December, and 50 employees year-round.
L.L. Bean remains the company’s largest customer, and when it was suggested that Worcester Wreath might be the L.L. Bean of wreath-makers, Morrill Worcester was flattered by the comparison. He said, “They’re very good at what they do. We’ve learned a lot from them.”
There are other wreath-makers in Washington County, most of them much smaller, and Worcester concentrates on making a better product that’s consistent in quality and adaptable to a wide variety of shapes. In addition to the traditional circular wreaths, Worcester Wreath also produces displays, centerpieces, and other balsam products – 21 in all in the current catalogue.
Among the other challenges of the business are keeping ahead of insect pests, maintaining the color of the balsam tips, and matching supply with demand. Ideally, “We like to pack the wreaths the same day they’re cut.”
Shipping – except during the annual wreath tour – is largely by commercial carriers, including FedEx, UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service, whose trucks pull up to the loading docks regularly during the busy season. About the often regrettable state of the roads Downeast, Worcester said, “We’re not totally blind to it,” but since he contracts for shipping, it’s not one of his day-to-day concerns.
Employees include about 100 migrant workers through the U.S. Department of Labor visa program, plus another 50 tree-trimmers through a separate contract. But Worcester says he hires more local people than before, who are drawn by steady seasonal employment in a part of the state where good jobs are scarce. “It isn’t high tech,” he said. “It’s labor-intensive, and we’re known for valuing good work.”
Still, wreath-making is seasonal, and Worcester has always had other businesses in an annual rotation. He has a peat moss business, owns a gravel pit and also sells concrete products as part of a paving business, working mostly on municipal projects, parking lots and driveways. Worcester has already started the sometimes tricky process of bringing the business along to a new generation. He and Karen have six children; among them, son Robbie runs the concrete and asphalt business, while another son, Michael, is general manager of the wreath company.
Of his success in the wreath business, he says, “We almost invented it.” Along with blueberries, apples and lobster, Washington County is now known as one of the nation’s largest wreath producers.
Morrill Worcester combines a quiet demeanor with a sure sense of what will work and what won’t in various business endeavors. Persistence and planning for the long-term, he said, are the keys to success. Yet shrewdness is not the only quality necessary, in his estimation. “Without the fire in the belly,” he said, “you won’t go far.”