Nestled in the tiny old seafaring New England village of Columbia Falls, Maine, lies a forest of over 5,000 acres of Balsam fir trees.
The impressive spread of vibrant green coniferous trees make the quintessential Christmas trees and wreaths. It is home to Worcester Wreath Company and is also home to the non-profit organization “Wreaths Across America.”
The idea for Wreaths Across America (WAA) started in 1992 when Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company, found his company with a large surplus of wreaths near the end of the holiday season. Worcester looked back on a childhood memory as a 12-year-old boy working a paper route for the Bangor Daily News. He had won a trip to Washington, D.C. It would be his first visit to our nation’s capital and it would leave a profound impact on Worcester decades later.
“I didn’t want to throw them away, they were nice and fresh so I thought about Arlington, because of the impact it had on me as a boy,” said Morrill, as he looked out onto the spread of trees used to make hundreds of thousands of wreaths each year.
With the help of then Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, Worcester was able to make arrangements to have the surplus wreaths placed at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. They were placed in an older section of the cemetery, one that received less and less visitors every year.
A local trucking company provided transportation of the wreaths to Arlington and volunteers from a local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars Posts paired with community members to decorate the wreaths with a traditional red, hand-tied bow. Members of the Maine State Society of Washington, D.C., helped to organize the wreath-laying, which included a special ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
This became an annual tribute that went on quietly for over a decade. Then in 2005, a photo was published of the wreaths adorning the headstones covered in snow. Suddenly Worcester found his act of kindness receiving national attention and thousands of volunteer requests pouring in from all over the country.
“We didn’t really know what had happened. That was the 14th year actually, and we placed our 5,000 wreaths,” reflected Morrill on that moment. “But then I started getting mail from people and they were sending me checks, and they were thanking me for what we did and all this stuff and I really didn’t understand what this was all about.”
“All of a sudden what we’d been doing since 1992, the cat was outta the bag and people wanted to get involved,” said Karen Worcester, Morrill’s wife, and Executive Director of WAA.
Worcester was unable to donate thousands of wreaths to each state; Worcester began sending seven wreaths, representing each branch of the military and POW/MIA service members to every veteran cemetery that wanted to participate in WAA day.
In 2007, Worcester, his family, veterans, and others who had helped with the annual Arlington wreath ceremony formed WAA to help continue and expand this event and support other groups around the country who wanted to hold the same type of ceremony.
“So in 2006, we decided that we were going to have to do something to answer the call and I think what I love about Wreaths Across America is, it wasn’t something that the family said ‘oh let’s have a 501-C3’, we were almost led by the call of what the people wanted,” Karen said of the near decade old family run non-profit. “It’s not coming from some brainstorm that the Worcester family had, it’s from listening to the families and listening to the gold star families and the veterans as to what they think is important to put out there for Wreaths Across America and how we can help with our mission.”
WAA has a simple, but powerful mission: Remember. Honor. Teach.
In 2008, over 100,000 wreaths were placed on veteran’s graves at over 300 locations around the U.S. including Puerto Rico and 24 cemeteries overseas with the help of over 60,000 volunteers.
That same year, Congress unanimously voted December 13 as “Wreaths Across America Day”
In 2014, WAA and volunteers worldwide laid over 700,000 wreaths at 1,000 locations. WAA was also able to include wreath laying ceremonies at the Pearl Harbor Memorial, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge and the sites of the September 11 tragedies. WAA was also able to accomplish covering Arlington National Cemetery, placing 226,525 wreaths.
To make this possible WAA has had help from over 2,000 fundraising groups, corporate contributions and donations of trucking, shipping and countless volunteers.
The wreath laying is held annually on the second or third Saturday of December. WAA’s pilgrimage from Harrington, Maine to the nation’s capital is the world’s largest veterans’ parade.
They stop at schools, monuments, veterans’ homes and communities along the way reminding people how important it is to ‘Remember, Honor, Teach.’