HARRINGTON, Maine - In a workshop halfway down the ragged eastern edge of Maine, past narrow coastal bridges and fawn-colored winter meadows, the smell of Christmas is almost overwhelming.
Hundreds of workers tend lush, green rings of balsam here, in a pretty village off Route 1, at the headquarters of the Worcester Wreath Co. They noisily trim branches, their hands a busy blur, and swiftly add fat pine cones, berries, and red velvet bows.
The company, owned by Morrill Worcester, will ship more than half a million evergreen wreaths, centerpieces, and tabletop trees by Christmas, an enormous undertaking polished smooth by 25 years of experience filling orders for the retail giant L.L. Bean. Driven, he says, by gratitude for his success, Worcester has also undertaken another project: Donating thousands of wreaths to decorate veterans' graves in Arlington National Cemetery and elsewhere.
This week, the Maine wreath-maker will donate an unprecedented 15,000 wreaths, including 10,000 for Arlington, in Arlington, Va., 2,500 for Togus National Cemetery near Augusta, Maine; and 2,000 more for 286 other veterans' cemeteries around the country. About 70 wreaths were sent to soldiers in Iraq, accompa nied by cards handmade by Harrington schoolchildren.
"We've been very lucky here - donating 15,000 wreaths is the least we can do," said Worcester, 57, a plainspoken native of Down East Maine who started selling wreaths when he was a college student. "In this country, the harder you work, the better you can do. That's not true in a lot of other countries, and it didn't come without sacrifice."
Worcester's holiday tribute to veterans began 15 years ago with a simple miscalculation. In the holiday rush of 1992, the company ended up with too many wreaths. Faced with the fresh, piney excess, Worcester's mind flashed to the veterans cemetery in Arlington, Va. He had visited Arlington only once, as a 12-year-old paperboy for the Bangor Daily News, a trip he won for signing up the most new subscribers.
"It really stuck with me, the sheer size of it," he said. "I happened to think of it then, of putting the wreaths to good use."
In 1992, Worcester donated and delivered 5,000 wreaths. The number stayed the same until he doubled it this year. Arlington's superintendent chooses a different area for the wreaths each year, usually an older section, where graves are less likely to be decorated by family members.
The cemetery superintendent, John C. Metzler, said the wreaths are a striking reminder that the sacrifices of the service members have not been forgotten.
"Visitors are in awe when they visit the cemetery and see the vast landscape of graves with the festive wreaths laying against the stones," Metzler wrote in an e-mail. "It really is a beautiful and picturesque image that moves people. Plus, it's great to know that people truly remember all those service members who gave their all for America."
Few people knew of Worcester's annual pilgrimage until two years ago, when a Pentagon photographer snapped a picture of the snowy, wreath-bedecked cemetery and posted it, with a poem, on the Internet. Suddenly, word of the good deed began to spread.
Since then, the wreath business in remote Washington County has been flooded with letters, phone calls, and visits from veterans and their families. Some send gifts and thank-you cards. Others want to help.
A few call to share the stories of troops who have been killed, said Karen Worcester, who takes the calls with a couple of helpers at the company's busy shipping center, under a wreath adorned with tiny American flags.
Just off the phone with one such caller on a recent afternoon, she wiped away tears before introducing herself to a reporter.
Downstairs, workers slapped address labels on neatly boxed wreaths and tossed them on conveyor belts, bound for waiting trucks. As his business has grown more profitable, Worcester has built several modern facilities, including the shipping center, expanding his operation from the century-old schoolhouse where he started, where wreaths are still made in rooms with creaking wooden floors.
He owns 4,000 acres of balsam trees, where workers trim the tips, which are made into wreaths. Worcester shuttles between the woods and warehouses in a cherry-red Hummer, quietly overseeing a staff that grows at this time of year to more than 700 employees, a mix of locals and migrant workers from Haiti and South America. In the offseason, about 50 workers spend months preparing bows and decorations to prepare for the holiday rush.
In the company conference room, where the walls are covered with rows of framed letters, photographs, and newspaper clippings about the wreath donations, the couple struggled to explain their mixed feelings about the response. Karen Worcester pointed to a photograph of a handsome young man in uniform who was killed in Iraq. His parents sent the picture, with a note of thanks.
"We don't know what to do with that," she said. "They say 'Thank you,' and we say, 'No, thank you.' "
Moved by surging public interest in their gift, the couple established a nonprofit organization this year with a website where wreaths can be purchased and donated for $15 apiece. Almost 20,000 wreaths have been donated through the new venture, Wreaths Across America, they said. Altogether, volunteers across the country will decorate about 35,000 veterans' graves during simultaneous gatherings Saturday morning, to be followed by ceremonies at noon.
The Worcesters will accompany the wreaths to Arlington this week, as they do each year. They plan to travel more than 700 miles down Route 1 to join 1,000 volunteers who are expected to lay wreaths, the largest turnout yet. The couple say they want to make the most of the attention, and they have scheduled a series of stops at schools, malls, and town halls along the route to talk about the importance of honoring veterans.
Escorted by carloads of supporters and members of the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle brigade, the caravan of wreaths - which the Worcesters fondly call "the world's longest veterans parade" - is scheduled to make stops tomorrow in Massachusetts at Salisbury Elementary School and the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford.
"Who are we? Nobody," Karen Worcester said. "All we wanted was to quietly be grateful, and we don't know what happened. But somebody said to us, it doesn't matter why - you've got their ear, now talk to them."
The wreaths help people connect to distant events, said Larry Ross, a teacher in Skowhegan who travels to Arlington every December to help lay wreaths with a busload of fifth- and sixth-graders.
"You can walk around and not even know, unless you pay close attention, that the country is at war, and every day somebody's family is getting the worst news of their life," he said. "I think what [Worcester] does resonates with people because they know they should be paying attention."
This year, Ross had his students research the lives of 50 troops who have died in Iraq, one from each state, and arranged for them to meet the troops' families at the cemetery. The students made 50 clay stars to lay at the graves with the wreaths.
Morrill Worcester says he can imagine that some day, there will be enough donations for wreaths to cover Arlington's more than 300,000 stones.
"It may sound ridiculous," he said. "It may be going out on a limb. But there may come a time when we do every grave."
More information about the wreath donations is available at wreaths-across-america.org.
Jenna Russell can be reached at email@example.com.