NEAR GREENBUSH, Minn. – They’re hard at work on a crisp November afternoon, this crew of five, crafting holiday beauty from balsam boughs, harvested both nearby and in Beltrami Island State Forest about an hour or so to the east.
It’s wreath-making season, and the pleasant scent of balsam fills the heated shop.
The work goes on – the snipping, crimping and decorating – just as it has every fall since 2003, when Wayne Hanson and his wife, Dena, bought the wreath business and began selling the holiday ornaments to area school and community groups, who in turn sell the wreaths as fundraisers.
This year is different, though, and the man his family called “Papa Elf” isn’t hard at work. He isn’t telling jokes or listening to the ’80s music he always played on the radio. Wayne Hanson died unexpectedly in late October while doing what he loved: harvesting balsam boughs.
He was 58 years old, and the outdoors was his playground.
“It was the first day he went out to get balsam,” Dena Hanson said. “That’s the part Wayne liked to do.”
Sharing the workload with Dena on this sunny afternoon are son Zack of Newfolden, Minn.; Wayne’s sister, Anita Laurin, of Badger, Minn.; and Dena’s sister, Robin Washburn, and boyfriend Ben Johnson of Grand Rapids, Minn.
The photos they share show a man who liked to have fun.
“When we first started to do the wreaths, I started calling him ‘Papa Elf’ because of his quirky personality,” Zack Hanson said. “Coupled with the wreaths, it was perfect.”
The spray of flowers on Wayne’s casket even read “Papa Elf” instead of "Dad." Amid the grief, the stories and memories offer comfort.
The season begins
Harvesting balsam boughs usually begins in late October after a couple of hard frosts, and the family starts making the wreaths in early November. By the time they wrap up in early December, they will have made some 1,200 to 1,500 wreaths.
Each wreath gets a red bow, tied with a machine. Two large decorative pine cones are hand-painted and wired to each wreath.
Wayne’s mom, Sonja Hanson, fastens the wire to each cone, and Zack’s sister, Janna Lorenson of Grand Forks, helps out when she can. Janna used to do all of the decorating, Dena said, earning the nickname “Eddie,” as in “Edward Scissorhands,” for her decorating skill.
There have been some long days in the shop over the years, Dena Hanson said.
“It used to be, we’d go morning until late night,” she said. “Wayne and I would be out here until 10 o’clock lots of nights. We spent many nights out here making wreaths.
“This year, we just haven’t had the energy.”
While the rest of the crew trims the boughs and passes them down the table, Zack is the “crimper,” fastening the boughs into a circular frame with a crimping tool he operates with a foot pedal.
It’s a whir of work and motion, sprinkled with stories about Wayne.
“He used to (harvest) every load of balsam by himself, basically,” Zack said. “I would come on the weekends, but most of it he did. He would do about a load a day. He used to do about 30 to 40 pickup loads a year by himself.”
When it came to stacking the boughs, everything had to be just so, Zack Hanson said; Papa Elf was a perfectionist. He had just finished his first load of the season when he died in the woods; the boughs, of course, were stacked perfectly.
“I have pictures of the back of the pickup,” Zack Hanson said. “He was very particular on how it looked.”
After Wayne died, a crew of friends and neighbors pitched in to harvest boughs, Zack said, mostly from Beltrami forest.
“About 10 to a dozen people went up and got it for us, and that was super nice,” he said. “It helped us out tremendously because we’d always have to stockpile before deer hunting because you’re not going to go out there and take a chance then.”
For the Hanson crew, making wreaths has always been a family affair, and Anita Laurin shared the story about the time she and her brother hauled a load of about 300 wreaths to Hallock, Minn., more than 40 miles away.
They hadn’t finished decorating, she recalled, so Wayne set up a lawn chair in the back of the enclosed trailer to work on the wreaths en route.
He also was prone to motion sickness, which provides a hint of where this story is going.
“I brought sandwiches that day, and they were tuna fish,” Laurin said. “There is no suspension on that trailer and we’re driving 40-plus miles to Hallock, and I figured I better check on him.”
She stopped and opened the back of the trailer, only to find Wayne “white as a ghost.”
“I said, ‘Wayne, what's wrong?’” Laurin said. “He goes, ‘Oh, I think it’s those sandwiches you made.’
“So anyway, I said, ‘Seriously Wayne? Why wouldn’t the rest of us get sick if it was those sandwiches?’”
They all got a good laugh out of that misadventure.
“He just really had a fun personality,” Laurin said.
This year has been hard, Dena Hanson says, but they’ve still managed to produce about 60 wreaths a day.
She’s hoping somebody buys the wreath business and carries on the tradition.
“I want somebody that’s going to work with the fundraising groups and be more of a family thing,” she said. “I don’t want a big operation to buy it.”
Balsam industry quick facts
Harvesting balsam boughs on state land in Minnesota requires a permit, and the Department of Natural Resources has sold an average of 57 permits statewide in the previous five fiscal years, according to Chad Jacobson, Northwest Region timber specialist for DNR forestry in Bemidji.
Some other quick facts about the industry, courtesy of the Minnesota DNR:
Each year about 750,000 pounds of balsam boughs are harvested from state forests between late September and early December.
A good day's picking can yield up to 1,000 pounds of boughs – enough to make 200 wreaths, each 25 inches in diameter.
As a home business, families can earn up to $20,000 a year harvesting and assembling basic wreaths.
It is estimated that companies producing wreaths in Minnesota have total sales exceeding $23 million and growing.
More info is available on the DNR website.
– Herald staff report