Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Brothers Continue Family's Role in Wreath Making

Originally published November 26, 1987

By Cheryl Johnson; Staff Writer, Star Tribune

This is the time of year when John S. Mickman can't get away from balsam needles.

Running his fingers through his thick brown hair, he shakes free a few of the needles, which also cling to the sleeve of his sweatshirt. He curries no favor with his wife, Su, when more needles fall to the carpet as he slips off his boots.

When Mickman recounts the story of how his family began producing Christmas wreaths from balsam fir boughs, it is apparent that these ubiquitous green needles are in Mickman's blood as well.

Mickman, 36, of East Bethel, and his brother, Chris, 31, of Coon Rapids, own Mickman Brothers Nurseries Inc. in Ham Lake.

Behind their modest offices, in a greenhouse environment that is a head-cold sufferer's paradise, are the employees who make the Mickmans one of the largest producers of seasonal wreaths in the Twin Cities.

This year a record work force of 150 employees working two shifts - a mostly female crew that also includes a number of Hmong and high school students - will produce a record 100,000-plus wreaths.

The wreaths will dress doors in 36 states, raise funds for countless Scout troops around the nation and sustain a family business that began two generations ago during the Great Depression.

"My grandmother, Johanne Mickman, from Norway, is the one who actually started the Christmas wreaths," said Mickman. "During the Depression she made a wreath for her door."

Mickman's father, John V. Mickman of Andover, saw the wreath as a way to earn money to buy his mother a Christmas present.

He took the wreath and traipsed up and down Iglehart, Summit and other St. Paul avenues, trying to find a buyer, without much luck, he recalled, until he knocked at the door of Mrs. Louis Hill. For 50 cents the daughter-in-law of the Great Northern railroad magnate bought the little boy's wreath.

Elated, John V. returned home with a message for his mother: "I told her she had to make some more."

Today it's a close call as to whether he actually had his mother's permission to sell the wreath off her door. She did receive her Christmas gift - figurines of an Elizabethan couple sipping tea, which she still displays on a dressing table at the cottage where she lives near her grandson, John S.

John V. Mickman learned early and well in the environment provided by his father, the late John E. Mickman.

"My grandfather was an entrepreneur from England who never worked a day in his life for anyone else. During the Depression he had endeavors at which he was trying to make a life. It was all nip and tuck," said John S. Mickman.

"But that was the state of mind of the household then," he said. "When my dad took that wreath and sold it for money that was a great way to contribute."

And contribute it did.

It helped Johanne Mickman start her own business and a craft she practiced until her late 80s. And it helped put John V. and his children through the University of Minnesota.

"I'm really delighted and proud," the senior Mickman says of the work his sons have done since 1976, when he gave them his wreath business for the cost of equipment, about $1,000.

They have expanded their father's business. John S. is president, with specific responsibilities for wreath production and irrigation systems; Chris, the vice president, is in charge of the garden center and landscaping facets of the operation.

This year, the business, which Mickman said grossed about $60,000 when his dad ran it, will have gross sales of more than $500,000.

Joe Ahern, president of Evergreen Industries, Inver Grove Heights, said his company and the Mickman brothers are the Twin Cities' biggest wreath-producers. Ahern said his wreath-making company is probably the largest in the Midwest and one of the largest in the nation. This year Evergreen will produce more than half a million wreaths.

Wreath-making is not the Mickman Brothers' biggest moneymaker (landscaping and supplying irrigation systems are where they do the most business) but it has a psychic value that John S. Mickman says he can't put a price on.

For one thing, the wreath business is a lot less fickle than the other facets of the operation. The landscaping and irrigation business fluctuates with the state of the economy. But every year, Mickman said, the wreathmaking business has outstripped previous year's gains.

Mickman Brothers supplies wreaths to florists, garden centers and cemeteries, but the bulk of the wreath business is done with schools, Cub Scouts and other service organizations that sell them in fund-raisers.

"In all our years we've been in business we have never had a bad account with any of our fund-raiser customers," he said.

Copyright 2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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