Wreaths have long been known to symbolize the strength of life overcoming winter or other challenges. Over the centuries, they have been created using a variety of materials for a variety of purposes, from laurel leaves used to crown winners of Olympic games in Greece to golden wreaths adorning the heads of Etruscan rulers and Roman magistrates. Today, they occupy a role as a prominent decoration for the Christmas season.
In Door County, few wreaths have as much history in their boughs as the ones handcrafted by Joseph Lopez and Josiah Robben, both of Robbens Nest Farm. The Sturgeon Bay business offers fresh local produce, Door County farm products, and home and garden accents. Included in those accents are their unique textured wreaths, which their website touts as “Classic, old fashioned elegance,” along with the line, “Trends need not apply.” One look at the selection and it is evident that those eight words are spot on.
Wreath-making for the pair began as a hobby 10 years ago, when Josiah drew from his experience working at a Sturgeon Bay floral shop, along with his education in horticulture and floral design. The recipients of the beautiful, unique wreaths were mainly family and friends but over the past decade, it has become their business’ sole focus in the winter.
Every November as hunters map out their locations for gun and bow hunting, Joseph and Josiah prepare for a different kind of pursuit: bough hunting for wreaths.
In their early days, this commenced on Josiah’s mother’s five-acre property in Manitowish Waters. The men carved out a week to see family for the holidays while also exploring the woods for a variety of boughs they could add to their ever-evolving holiday wreaths.
As with the variety of trees making up those wreaths, the project has only grown. Today the duo has permits to cut in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest in Boulder Junction, which occupies more than 232,000 acres in northern Wisconsin, according to the Department of Natural Resources. They are permitted to cut up to two tons, though both men guess they don’t come close to that number.
This year, Joseph and Josiah extended their usual one-week trip to two weeks. They stayed in a rustic cabin in downtown Mercer, Wisconsin and spent their time visiting family, checking out the area’s myriad waterfalls, and of course, bough hunting alongside their two dogs, a Chihuahua and a pit bull mix.
“We spend a lot of time in the woods,” Josiah laughed.
This year’s trip also included a snowstorm that swept 30 inches of snow over the area along with nightly dustings of a few inches, which naturally added the necessity of snowshoes and survival gear to their packing list.
But it is exactly that type of weather that gives the duo’s wreaths the longevity and appearance they are known for.
“We wait for dormancy and the super cold temperatures,” Josiah said. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword because it gives us a much shorter time frame to get things done, but they last so long.”
Long enough that some customers are wishing each other “Happy Easter!” before finally giving into the time of the year and taking the wreaths down.
“People say that they finally have to take them down because the season’s over and it’s still green, but it’s time to move on,” Joseph said.
Their focus with cutting is to make it clean, healthy for the tree, and not noticeable. Any boughs that won’t work for the wreaths are composted into mulch for the farm.
“It’s all picked at its best,” Joseph said.
Even after all the hiking, cutting and gathering, the men return to Sturgeon Bay where the real work still looms: making the wreaths. All of the work is done in a pop-up shed in their backyard, which Josiah affectionately refers to as their “Sanford and Son shed.”
The inspiration for their lush, fluffy wreaths draws from Josiah’s childhood.
“Growing up in Minnesota, we would always see on the sides of barns these huge, billowy, fluffy wreaths, so it’s kind of what we’ve always used as a guide or a goal,” Josiah explains.
“It’s a much more classic look,” Joseph adds. “Everything now is very flat.”
This year, each wreath averages between seven and nine different types of pine, including varying types of spruce and fir, as well as cedar.
“That is what really puts them apart, the layers,” Josiah said.
Over time, they have found the types of trees that give the look and smell they desire, which makes up the “official formula” for their wreaths.
Each wreath is made up of several segments of “bough bouquets.” While Joseph cuts the varying boughs to size, Josiah layers them into a bouquet before clamping it into place on the metal wreath form.
It can take anywhere from 45 minutes to a couple hours to make one of their wreaths, depending on size. In any given holiday season, they create upwards of 150 wreaths.
As their business has grown, the duo has noticed a continual decline in the quality and art of holiday wreaths available in winter. It is a void they continue to dedicate their time and talents to fill, one wreath at a time.
“Somewhere along the line, the actual artistry and celebrating the forest is gone,” Joseph says. “It’s a tool to make money, rather than a piece of art that celebrates the forest that it came from.”
That artistry is evident in not only Robbens Nest’s final product, but in every step along the way, from the care they give the trees that are offering up their bountiful boughs to the way they adorn the wreaths with beautiful, festive bows as a final touch. Each wreath is a visual culmination of the days dedicated toward the cause.
“It’s taking that entire experience of all that awe and wonder,” Josiah starts.
“And trying to sum it up,” Joseph says.
To purchase a wreath from Robbens Nest Farm, order online at robbensnestfarm.com or pick up ready-made at MacReady Bread Company or Blue Horse Café. Robbens Nest Farm will participate in a Holiday Open House on Saturday, Dec. 13 from 3 – 6pm at MacReady Bread Company, 7836 Hwy. 42 in Egg Harbor. For more information on Robbens Nest Farm, visit robbensnestfarm.com.