Christmas in July: At Work Making the World Smell Better with the Maine Balsam Fir Company

Christmas in July: At Work Making the World Smell Better with the Maine Balsam Fir Company

Jack Newmeyer stands in the drying room next to wooden trays of shredded balsam fir branches. Four hundred pounds of balsam are dried here each day. Photo by Chris Mackowski.

Imagine a life that smells like Christmas – that rich, deep-woods aroma of balsam that fills living rooms every December. For Jack and Wendy Newmeyer, it’s the cozy smell of livelihood. Working among the boughs of their Western Maine woodlot, the Newmeyers harvest fresh balsam and sew the scent of Christmas into little decorative pillows, draft stoppers, and other housewarming gifts. It’s their business to share the smell of Christmas all year long.

“I never get tired of it,” says Wendy. “It’s very uplifting, very energizing – it’s a stress reducer, but it’s an energizer.”

Since 1983, the Newmeyers have been packaging Christmas in hand-sewn four-by-four-inch squares, building a company literally from the forest floor up. They handle some 40 tons of balsam annually, generating a quarter of a million dollars with a product line that now includes neck rolls, trivets for teapots, and draft stoppers.

“This has become our most important product because it functions,” Wendy says, holding up one of the draft stoppers, a 42-inch cloth tube with an evergreen print on it. Handling it sends a fresh plume of balsam scent billowing through her showroom. It’s the scent of nostalgia.

“The sense of smell is very powerful. It’s tied in with memories – usually good memories,” she says. “Christmas, or spending time in the North Woods, or at camp, or at Grandma’s. I think everyone’s grandmother in the Northeast had at least one balsam pillow, and so people remember Grammy as soon as they smell the scent.”

With her silvery hair and ebullient energy, Wendy could be a cottage industry unto herself. She’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit, she says: lemonade stands and pet-sitting services as a kid, macramé as a teen. She is the driving force behind Maine Balsam’s explosive growth over the past 30 years. In 2000, the Small Business Administration named her Maine’s Small Businessperson of the Year.

Jack, with a voice as quiet and careful as a door creaking open, provides the steady guidance for Wendy’s dynamism. They make “complementary opposites,” they say. Jack manages the couple’s 123-acre woodlot while Wendy manages the store and the sales. Six employees help them stuff and sew.

The Newmeyers came to Maine in 1979 after a search that first took them to a dozen other states. “Our view of Maine was that it would be too cold and rocky, and not a lot going on,” Wendy admits. “But as we looked at other places, we couldn’t find the vibe we were looking for.”

Jack had nearly a decade in as a police officer; Wendy worked as a newspaper carrier. Together, they dreamed of a place away, out in the country, where they could work the land and grow their own food. “We didn’t know what it would look like exactly, but we knew what the elements would be,” Wendy says.

“We did know we wanted big, old trees,” Jack says. “We wanted something that hadn’t been cut over recently.”

To build their nest egg, they each plunked down $20 on the kitchen table every week. They didn’t eat out. They lived thriftily.

By the fall of 1977, they settled on a piece of property in West Paris, Maine, and in 1979, they made their move. They set themselves up in a camper, a frugal existence with no electricity and no running water, so they could invest their money and effort in their property.

“We originally thought we’d be farmers, but the property didn’t really lend itself to it,” Wendy says. “We noticed that other people in town who were making a living off their land were getting it out of the woods.”

So Jack bought a 1967 John Deere 350 bulldozer with a winch and fixtures to pull logs out of the woods, and soon he was harvesting trees for pulp. The branches, which collected in heaps on the forest floor, became waste.

Wendy soon found a use for them. She started selling the stripped branches to an incense factory in nearby Lewiston. “The branches had to be fully needled, no thicker than a pen, nothing longer than sixteen inches,” she says. “We didn’t mix in spruce or hemlock like some of their other suppliers did, either. You can’t do that. Balsam has a very distinct smell.”

Soon, she was making as much from selling the branches as Jack was making from selling the pulp. And then, Wendy says, came “the blinding flash of the obvious.”

“I realized this was more than just a nice scent,” she says. “It had a lot of potential.”

Indeed it did – so much so that, by 1995, the Newmeyers had grown their company so dramatically that it was pulling in half a million dollars and handling 90 tons of balsam annually. That forced a gut check. “Too much business isn’t really a good thing,” Wendy realized.

“It didn’t really seem like we’d accomplished what our original goal was: to come to live in the country and live a nice little calm life,” she explains. “We weren’t even gardening for a few years, and that was one of our main goals.”

Not wanting to become victims of their own success, Jack and Wendy put the brakes on their balsam boom and began to scale back. It’s hard to enjoy the scent of balsam, they realized, when you can’t even catch your breath.

Before even building a home, Jack built a multi-purpose barn, still in use today. He cut the logs, milled the boards, raised the building. They affectionately call it their “world headquarters.”

A loading door set on a metal track slides open, revealing large bins heaped full of balsam on either side of the loading area. Wendy picks up a branch and points to the flat array of needles. “This one was either young or it grew in the shade,” she says. Needles on shaded branches arrange themselves in a flatter configuration than needles that get more sun, which grow in a rounder configuration that looks more like a bottle brush. Flipping it over, she points out the two white lines on the bottoms of the needles – the balsam’s distinctive trait.

Inside, the branches will get fed through a shredder and then wheeled into a drying room where towers of wooden trays, stacked 25 high, line the walls. The scent of balsam hangs raw and thick in the air. It takes two heaters, an air exchange unit, and a pair of powerful fans working from four to twelve days to dry the balsam. Four hundred pounds of balsam come in each day; it weighs half as much by the time it’s dry.

“It really concentrates the aroma,” Wendy says. “It’s not the same as just sweeping up the needles from the floor after you make a wreath, which is how some companies do it. You have to break up the needles and the tiny twigs and stems. It exposes the oils in the bark and makes the scent stronger.”

Outside the drying room, a woman sits at a workbench and funnels scoopfuls of dried balsam into little pillows made by the company’s four seamstresses. The patterns feature what one might call the symbols of Maine – lots of moose, loons, blueberries, and pine cones.

“It’s not just how good the scent is. People love the smell, but it has to look good, too,” Wendy says. “People buy with their eyes first.”

Nearby, another employee sews the pillows shut. In this way, all by hand, the company produces several hundred products a day.

The finished products ship out to wholesale customers that range from small gift shops and museum stores to national parks, although seventy-five percent of their annual business comes from fewer than 100 accounts. They also retail their products through their store, at craft shows and country fairs, and through their catalogue and website.

“At this level, we can tightly manage the company,” Wendy says. “It’s been pretty sweet.”

The work days are still long, but they’re more manageable now than they were in the mid-1990s. The slower pace gives Wendy and Jack the time to better enjoy the business – and their woodlot. “When I’m out there with my dozer and chainsaw, sometimes I can just shut things off and sit under a tree and enjoy the quiet,” Jack says. “I can go from all that noise one minute, then total stillness. It’s like another dimension.”

They can hear the birdsong, Wendy says, and listen to the crickets. They can enjoy the fresh air and the smell of the forest.

It smells a lot like Christmas.

 
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