For many St. Anthony Park residents, the first sign of the holidays is answering the door to find a Boy Scout selling wreaths for local Boy Scout Troop 17.
“When I see that uniform, I know I’d better start digging out my decorations,” said one woman, whose own kids have long since grown up. “I look forward to it every year.”
What is less well-known is that, unlike almost all troops selling wreaths across the country at this time of year, Troop 17 makes their own wreaths and they don’t have to go to the North Pole to do it.
Mark Hansen, a longtime St. Anthony Park resident and assistant Scoutmaster for the troop, is part of the now four generations that run and own the Hansen Tree Farm in Ramsey, Minn. He had been thinking about making wreaths at the farm for some years when the light bulb went on during a Scout meeting about 15 years ago.
Many kids living in the city have never experienced going out into the woods to cut their own Christmas trees. Acquiring the skills to handle oneself in the outdoors is an important component of the Scouting program. Why not have the Scouts learn how to make their own wreaths from start to finish instead of ordering them premade from somewhere else?
“At one point,” Hansen said, “we all just decided to ‘go for it’ and I ordered a wreath-making machine. We got permission from a colleague of mine who makes maple syrup to cut the balsam fir out from the sugar maple trees on her land, and we piled everyone into a couple of trucks and headed up to the range.
It was a cold October that year, Hansen said. “By the time we got there, we had to set up our tents in the dark, but it didn’t phase our Scouts. We figured it out. And the troop has been cutting our own boughs and making our own wreaths every year since then.”
No matter what the weather is, Troop 17 goes camping in late October with the purpose of cutting enough boughs over the course of three days to make all the wreaths and garlands they will sell going door to door. The campout, flipping pancakes around a campfire and sleeping out in all sorts of weather are a big part of the experience, but Scouts are also learning about how trees grow and the difference between several kinds of fir, pine and cedar.
“The trees and branches that get cut for boughs need to be thinned out to make space for other trees to grow anyway,” Hansen said. “It’s a win-win.”
For the past five years, the troop has been camping and cutting their boughs on a tree farm near Cambridge owned by Carl Vogt, a retired Extension forester who was with the University of Minnesota for more than 30 years. After an adult uses a chainsaw to bring down a tree, the scouts swoop in, drag the tree into a clearing, save the top for decorations (like the ones used in the window boxes at the St. Anthony Park Library), snip the rest of the branches off the trunk, stack them and load everything up in a truck. They do this for hours at a time. Sap gets caked on gloves, clothes and hair where it sticks for days.
“My mom isn’t so happy about it, but I actually like the smell on my jacket,” Brian Whelan, one of the older Scouts, commented. “It reminds me of the woods.”
Scouts spend October and November taking orders and assembling the wreaths, swags and garlands that they will deliver in late November. While the older Scouts have been through the process for a number of years, younger Scouts get trained on how to use the equipment safely. The Hansen garage becomes an assembly line and discussion is devoted to which station the old radio should be tuned to. Hot cocoa gets passed around when fingers start to freeze up and the stacks of wreaths in the corner get higher and higher as the hours roll by.
“We could just order them ready-made from somewhere,” assistant Scoutmaster Mike Smith says, “but here we have a complete entrepreneurial process, where we gather the raw materials, manufacture, sell, deliver and use the profits for our troop’s activities. The Scouts really learn some valuable skills.”
So the next time a Boy Scout rings your doorbell selling wreaths, ask him to make your wreath with extra sap. It will smell better longer. And if you missed a visit, email the troop at email@example.com or you can buy one at Speedy Market, 2310 Como Ave., starting Nov. 23. It’s been made by someone right in your neighborhood.