Bowleys Quarters man hand makes wreaths, gives profits to charity

Posted at 1:51 PM, Dec 13, 2016

When you walk into Melvin Knight's office in Roland Park, it smells like the holidays. Hand made wreaths from juniper branches, leaves and pinecones, dotted with bright red berries and adorned with a large festive bow lay across the conference room table.

Knight works for the local Coldwell Banker branch as a real estate agent, but he said it's to support his hobby and family tradition.

"About 200 years ago, my father's mother's family were German immigrants and a lot of German immigrants landed in Eastern Baltimore County, which is now plastic townhouse-ville, White Marsh," Knight said back then it was all farms.

In the winter, things got hard for farmers, so they looked for other ways to supplement their income to provide for the family.

They found cemetery wreaths.

The wreaths are smaller than the ones you see on people's doors today, were made of hemlock branches, berries, and pine cones.

"They were flat, they would put them in bundles of 12, tie them up and take them to the Baltimore City Produce Market. In the earliest days they would use a boat to get down to the harbor and drop them off," Knight said.

Merchants would sell them wholesale, 12 at a time, "I remember my parents selling them as cheap as $3 a dozen on Christmas Eve, people were still buying them."

Everyone went to the cemetery on Christmas Day to pay their respects and lay the wreaths.

Knight said his grandmother remembers her parents buying the greens from Indians. Knight said this tradition lived on in his father.

His father modernized the way he made wreaths. He created a wooden machine to help make the wreaths, cutting the time down to 30 minutes per wreath (something that would normally take 3 hours).

His mother and father would take branches of "coonberries", put them in a box, wrap them in newspaper and burry it underground in the fall. Later he would take tree trimmers up a ladder in the woods to harvest the greens as he made the wreaths. He would bundle them and haul the stacks back to his workshop at home.

When his parents dug up the berries, the leaves were gone and all that's left are the branches and berries, primed for wreath making. It was a several month process.

The couple sold thousands each year.

As the years went by, his father became too old to continue the labor intensive work, and he became sad knowing his four children didn't adore the task the way he did.

"It's not that profitable, I mean three hours to make one of these things, not counting picking the greens and all the preparations," Knight said when he was younger, he learned how to make the wreaths but would much rather play a game of football.

Knight, the oldest sibling, decided he needed to keep the tradition going in 2008.

"I made a whole bunch of them for friends and family, and clients. They make great housewarming presents this time of year. So dad was real thrilled about it," Knight said his dad loved that he continued the family craft.

His father then passed away in May of 2010 and Knight made a special box wood wreath with tractors on it for his funeral.

Now Knight makes about 60 wreaths each year, selling about half of them to coworkers and others in his circle. The rest go to friends and family to keep the tradition alive.

He decided to produce better quality and less quantity, making each wreath specifically designed with that person in mind.

Any money he makes (wreaths can go from $19 to $60+) goes to either the Manna House or the Coldwell Banker Charitable Foundation.

He gets a little stressed this time of year, knowing the materials are becoming more scarce, and people want the wreaths earlier each year.

"Some of it came from a building I have available on Moravia Road, which, not exactly climbing a tree in the woods. So, I have to scrounge around. It's not easy to find it anymore," Knight said he also worries about keeping the wreaths fresh, since people want them sooner. His days are long, staying up until 3 a.m. most nights during December to get them done on time.

Knight said many of his customers want them by the day after Thanksgiving. Now he uses things like corn starch and fake berries to try and make them last longer.

"It is amazing, I mean you wouldn't think about those details," as Knight reflected on how much effort went into his father's work, he is concerned about passing on the tradition to his great nieces and nephews.

"They just don't seem to find it interesting, and they have more important things to do. I really wish somebody would be interested in it," Knight said.

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