Decking the halls an island tradition

Gordon and Christine Wilson are more deeply rooted in island soil than the 50-year-old holly trees they harvest and sell at Christmas. Wilson’s maternal grandfather, Abraham Thompson, bought the 10 acres that are the Island Holly Farm in the mid-1890s, and the original farmhouse still stands.

  • Wednesday, December 12, 2001 7:00pm
  • News

Gordon and Christine Wilson are more deeply rooted in island soil than the 50-year-old holly trees they harvest and sell at Christmas.

Wilson’s maternal grandfather, Abraham Thompson, bought the 10 acres that are the Island Holly Farm in the mid-1890s, and the original farmhouse still stands.

The Wilsons are third-generation owners and their children Andrew and Cathy are an up-and-coming fourth.

“My other daughter, Cindy, moved to Florida,” Wilson said. “I don’t understand people who move all over the place.”

The couple’s holly shop is built from wood recycled from Olympic Union High School (1914-1927), located where the Day Road power substation stands today.

A sepia-tinted photograph of the school hangs on a shop wall, alongside pictures of strawberry pickers and horseless carriages parked on unpaved Winslow streets.

The holly shop is not a museum, however, but a functioning workplace.

In the workshop off the store, Andrew Wilson – wearing thick pink rubber gloves – wrestles prickly holly into a wreath, while the family’s golden retriever puppy tumbles underfoot.

The aroma of hot apple cider permeates the shop, while customers select the right wreath.

Holly season begins each year between Halloween and Thanksgiving, as Wilson prepares commercial orders to ship.

First, the holly must be harvested, but Wilson doesn’t hire pickers.

“They don’t do it right,” he said. “Andrew’s our picker.”

Once gathered, holly is stored in the Wilson’s cold storage area until the commercial orders are packaged and mailed.

“Shipping is always a problem,” Wilson said. “We might send out a thousand boxes. Rolling Bay post office is great – they open for us.”

Wilson’s father once shipped holly wreaths all over the world. An old map that hung for years in the shop showed where boxes of Island Farm Holly would go, countries that included New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Norway and Russia.

Frank Wilson stopped making wreaths because he couldn’t find workers who could do the difficult work.

When Gordon Wilson and his wife took over the business in 1989, they began to fabricate the wreaths again – although Department of Agriculture inspection fees levied for international shipping discouraged resumption of the foreign trade.

Prickly work

And finding skilled wreath-makers is still not easy.

“You have to have the knack to make a wreath,” Wilson said. “We hire people to make wreaths and we get help from all the friends we can capture.”

The holly is laid onto wire frames, layered so it doesn’t show gaps from stem to stem. Sprigs are held in place by bending the metal prongs with the foot-operated crimping machine.

The best workers can assemble a wreath in five minutes, Christine Wilson says. For the less capable, however, the process can be a 45-minute ordeal.

She remembers one hapless worker who took an hour to make a single decoration. The aspiring craftsperson had a short career.

Top production for the Wilsons is 55 wreaths in one day.

Today, most of the business is retail, Wilson says.

The family sell candy-cane shaped wreaths; traditional round wreaths of holly and noble fir or variegated holly; and table centerpieces and gift boxes.

Prices range from about $23 to $47, but clients often get festive for less.

Customers can buy a “swag” of noble fir and holly tied with a red bow for $14, or can also purchase holly sprigs for $2.50 per pound and make their own decorations.

The Wilsons say they are too busy helping others get ready to celebrate Christmas to think about their own holiday decorations until the last few days.

Then, as soon as holly season is over, the family prunes the trees and burns the scraps.

“We always have mountains and mountains of scraps,” Wilson said. “If we ever get to the point where we can’t burn them, then the farm is done, because spreading the shredded bark also spreads any disease the trees might have.”

Ten years ago, when a fungus invaded some of farm’s trees, shredding and mulching spread the fungus quite efficiently, Wilson says.

The Wilsons make money from the holly trees for just a few weeks, but the trees are maintained year round.

They fertilize and keep the field mowed. They must also maintain their tractor and buy gas.

Occasionally, they travel to the Oregon State University’s experimental station to get cuttings, which must be grown in pots for three or four years before transplanting.

Once in the ground, the trees must grow for 15 more years before they can be clipped for harvest.

Like most growers, the Wilsons do not make all their living from the holly farm. Gordon Wilson works for the Washington State Ferries, and Christine has worked in real estate.

But they keep the family dream alive.

The remnants of less tenacious holly farmers can be seen throughout the island Wilson says, in untended holly groves .

One such neglected grove off New Brooklyn, bought and restored by Mary and Jim Harmon in 1995 and dubbed Harmony Acres Farm, is the island’s other functioning holly farm.

“There’s also an old stand of holly trees by the new pool,” Wilson said. “It was one of the big things in the 1940s and ‘50s. Everyone was going to get rich growing holly.”

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