by Nori Gale
A long history in the United States of honoring the graves of soldiers
Our collective desire to show gratitude to those who served our country and fought for our freedom drives us to commemorate their sacrifices in a variety of ways. Honoring veterans is an age-old practice, and in America, we have decorated the graves of war heroes since the Civil War:
“On the sixteenth of April, 1862, some ladies and a chaplain from Michigan were chatting together at Arlington Heights. They were talking about the horrors of the war and one lady said: ‘How lonely and cheerless the bare graves of the soldiers look.’ Another proposed gathering some flowers and laying them on the graves of the Michigan soldiers that day. They did so, — and the next year they decorated the same graves. The third year  the same chaplain and ladies were in Fredericksburg, and they decorated the soldiers’ graves there. So the beautiful custom grew and spread its influence with its flowers each year.”
- W. A., “Memorial Day,” The Teachers’ Institute 18 (April 1896): 191.
This tradition of decorating soldiers’ graves was designated a national holiday called Decoration Day, which is now known as Memorial Day.
A newer commemorative practice is the annual wreath-laying pilgrimage every December to Arlington National Cemetery and other cemeteries across the US. Every year soldiers’ graves are bestowed with a wreath on National Wreaths Across America Day. It begins out of a small operation in Maine where millions of wreaths are constructed and from there hundreds of fleet truck drivers load their vehicles and take the wreaths to cemeteries far and wide, sometimes thousands of miles away.
What is the history of wreath delivery to Arlington National Cemetery?
National Wreaths Across America Day started in 1992, when Morrill Worcester, owner of a balsam farm and wreath company in Harrington, Maine, had a surplus of merchandise. He didn’t want his wreath-making supplies to go to waste, and when he learned that there were graves at Arlington that didn’t have many visitors, he shipped the extra wreaths there. As word spread about what Worcester had done, others volunteered to participate. It wasn’t long before the trucking industry caught wind of the practice and started turning out in force to help Worcester deliver wreaths annually to Arlington.
Who oversees wreath delivery now to Arlington?
Now located in the sleepy downeast town of Columbia Falls, Maine, Worcester’s original vision lives on through a non-profit organization he founded, Wreaths Across America (WAA). Don Queeney, Director of Transportation and Mobile Educational Exhibit for WAA explains why he values the work, “Being able to expand Morrill Worcester’s original vision has been fulfilling and gratifying to all of us. It’s also given me the great good fortune of having a job where I can come to work each day knowing that I’m doing something meaningful and impactful to a lot of people.”
How many wreaths will Wreaths Across America place on veteran graves this year?
This year, WAA will be placing 2.4 million veterans’ wreaths at more than 3,100 locations in the US and beyond, including more than 253,000 wreaths in Arlington National Cemetery. “Every year men and women in every part of the trucking industry donate time and trucks to make this event possible. We wouldn’t be able to successfully move this mission to remember, honor and teach without the good men and women from over 500 US carriers who’ve stepped up to help us this year,” shares Amber Caron, Director of Communications at Wreaths Across America.
How does National Wreaths Across America Day feel to participants?
WAA volunteers MaryGay and Tom Kennedy traveled 571 miles from their home in Brunswick, Maine to Arlington National Cemetery, to help place wreaths on grave sites in December of 2018. MaryGay is a superior court justice for the Cumberland County Superior Court in Maine and Tom is a fine artist and sculptor. Both descendents of WWII veterans, they described the event as a memorable and moving experience for them. Tom’s dad flew bomber planes out of Tinian Island in the Northern Mariana Islands in the South Pacific in a squadron just adjacent to the Enola Gay and then later flew bombers out of Italy. MaryGay’s dad was stationed at Pearl Harbor and was there during the attack in December of 1941. Tom describes arriving at Arlington the day of the wreath laying: “The first thing I think of is 400,000 little white graves. How moving it was. It brings me to tears thinking about it. The day we volunteered it was pouring rain, it was cold, it was miserable but it was an incredible, moving experience.” and MaryGay adds, “I have never been in so wet an environment, ever.” According to Queeney there were three and a half inches of rain recorded that day and still 30,000 people came out to lay wreaths at Arlington.
Tom goes on to describe the day in further detail, “You showed up at the park, there were so many people, and there were 18-wheelers backed up and you just walked up to the 18-wheeler and took a few wreaths and went out and found some bare headstones to place them on,” and MaryGay added, “When you place each wreath down at a headstone you read the name of the person buried there, to honor them. By the time you’re finished the whole cemetery is greens and red ribbons. It’s an incredibly beautiful experience.”
“To see the trucks, all driven by volunteers, pull up with donated wreaths made far away in our home state of Maine was very emotional for us.” shared Tom, and MaryGay added, “At the end of the day, what stayed with us was the aroma of balsam fir, and the beauty of the scene: a sea of artfully crafted Maine-made wreaths placed in honor of our veterans was a breathtaking sight for us both as the day came to a close. It was really quite remarkable.”
Does Wreaths Across America deliver to cemeteries other than Arlington National Cemetery?
Wreaths Across America provides wreath laying services to cemeteries in every state in the Union, including in Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico. They lay wreaths in every national cemetery but four. They grew by over 500 locations in 2021 alone and this growth only comes by volunteers signing up their local cemetery. Three employees of WAA coordinate all logistics for this massive event. As Queeney puts it, “We just pull up our bootstraps and get it done.”
Are Wreaths Across America wreaths all from Maine?
Each wreath that Wreaths Across America creates is from Maine. The wreath making process starts at the end of October, and every finished wreath is shipped directly out of the WAA warehouse in Washington County, Maine. “Our first set of wreaths for the season are loading into a 40 foot refrigerated container in Tacoma, Washington today to head out to Guam. And everything tied to this Guam delivery comes from donations. The cross dock work, the containers are a gift from Matson Navigation, I have a company donating their time in Guam that will receive the wreaths and hold them until retake. So our first wreaths have already left and are on their way to Guam, and every piece of the delivery is made possible by donations.”
Are Wreaths Across America wreaths all made by hand?
Every WAA wreath is handmade, starting with the materials being hand-tipped from Washington County balsam fir trees. “Today alone we have 180 people in the woods tipping trees, and they’ll still be tipping until days before Wreath Day. When tipping you only cut six inches off the end of a branch to make a wreath. When you cut that, that’s called a tip. When you have a lot of tips piled up, that’s called brush. We have 45 equipment operators working various pieces of equipment to pull the brush out of the woods and to the wreath-making factory. There are 450 workers in two shifts hand making the wreaths. We average about a quarter million pounds of brush a day in our operations. We currently have 1.2 million wreaths already built.”
Tipping is the first step in wreath making and an old Maine tradition with wisdom and knowledge passed down every time a new generation takes over for its elders. “There’s a timing to the tipping that I learned from Morrill Worcester. You have to wait for the needles to set before you can tip the balsam fir trees. There’s a point when the needles lock onto the stem and you don’t want to tip before that happens. Just when the leaves are starting to turn in an area is the same time that the needles will set. The setting changes the consistency of the needles - it’s almost like the tree is preparing itself for the long, cold winter ahead. So the wreaths made post-setting are going to be heartier and last longer.”
Who are the volunteer fleet drivers for Wreaths Across America?
Fleet drivers who donate their time, trucks and equipment to Wreaths Across America span a cross section of people: “It runs from the individual who owns one truck, he’s got his own authority, he’s an independent operator, and they come up here to grab a load of wreaths. It’s usually very, very personal for them. They’re not looking for any glory, a lot of them are veterans, many are taking wreaths to some location where friends or family have been buried. These individual drivers are using their own equipment and volunteering their time and gas money, which is not insignificant.”
Large companies also participate and it’s the combination of these bigger donations and the single driver donations that make the event really sing. Tyson Foods, Purdue and Walmart are a few of the bigger operations who regularly participate in WAA. “Tyson Foods, a private carrier, will haul 28 tractor trailer loads every year for us.”
The biggest carrier that participates in WAA annually is J.B. Hunt, based in Lowell, Arkansas, which regularly hauls ten tractor trailer loads for WAA. As Queeney describes it, “Those drivers may or may not take the wreaths from origin to destination. J.B. Hunt does a very good job of what they call ‘key exchanges’ where somebody takes a truck so far and they have a bit of a ceremony - they’ll do a live facetime thing or maybe they’re recording it - where the driver hands the key off to another driver and that new driver jumps in the truck and takes it to the final destination.” J.B. Hunt, founded in 1961 is one of the largest trucking outfits in the US and an annual supporter of WAA.
Dart Transit Company, based in Eagan, Minnesota has volunteered their drivers for wreath delivery for WAA for over five years and regularly sends between 5-10 drivers to Maine to make the pick-up and from there they deliver wherever they are most needed. They make a range of deliveries, from local Minnesota cemeteries like Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, Minnesota all the way to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. This year they will drop wreaths in Arlington, Fort Snelling, Ohio, Alabama and Missouri. Dart’s brand ambassador, Jennifer Shukhratbekov shares, “I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a lot of Dart’s drivers that have participated in Wreaths Across America and the drivers that have volunteered say that it’s an incredibly moving experience for them. They describe getting to the cemetery and finding it full of volunteers all there to help lay the wreaths on veterans’ graves. We do try to send drivers who are veterans so they can experience this outpouring of gratitude from the community and the chance to help honor their fellow veterans. These drivers say it’s a unique and special opportunity to be able to participate in this annual event.”
This year, Lou Bradley, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and Dart Driver Ambassador will be driving for Dart to Arlington in his military-themed trailer for his first year participating. Bradley, a native of Pueblo, Colorado, served in the Air Force from 1970-1983 and is a Vietnam veteran.
Bradley’s family came to the U.S. originally in 1650 from England and he has ancestors who are members of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Both of his great-grandfathers served in the Union Army during the Civil War, he had two uncles who served in WWI, his father served in WWII, his nephew served in Afghanistan and Iraq and his oldest grandson is in the U.S. Army based in Germany, so he comes from a long line of veterans who have served our country. Bradley shared that he knows and understands that it’s a coveted position to be one of the fleet drivers who are able to drive to Arlington: “Of all the places you could go, that is the place. It is the ultimate. And it was an opportunity that I just could not turn down and it’s quite an honor to do it. They said we might have the opportunity to place a couple of wreaths ourselves if we choose to, which I hope to be able to do.” Bradley’s loading up today for his trip north, making stops in Kentucky and Ohio before bringing a load to Maine and getting his shipment of wreaths in Columbia Falls, Maine on December 14 for the trip to Arlington. He’ll descend on Arlington on December 17 when the weekend festivities begin.
D.M. Bowman, Inc., based out of Williamsport, MD has been gladly volunteering their drivers and equipment to WAA for over ten years. Jim Ward, President of the company shared that every year they send drivers to Maine to bring shipments of wreaths down to Arlington where a group of D.M. Bowman employees then converge at the event to lay wreaths. “We’ve been doing it for quite a while. We are a very patriotic industry. D.M. Bowman is a patriotic company and it’s just a small token of our appreciation in honor of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us and our freedom. We’re very proud to be able to participate.”
Carrier CFI and legacy Transport America, based in Joplin, Missouri, has volunteered for Wreaths Across America for over five years. This year, CFI’s drivers, all military veterans, will be bringing wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery, Fort Scott National Cemetery in Fort Scott, Kansas, Ozarks Memorial Park, in Branson, Missouri, Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas and eight smaller cemeteries across central Texas. They are also sending drivers to transport wreaths between locations for other carriers’ ease of pick up. CFI and legacy Transport America has a veterans program called True to the Troops and they have a special set of 15 trucks that are wrapped in a military theme that pays tribute to all the branches of the armed services. These trucks are used for the WAA event. Adam Sparlin, one of the driver advocates at CFI and legacy Transport America shares that “The Wreaths Across America event is an opportunity for us to give thanks and give back to people who have sacrificed so much for us whether they served four years, dedicated their whole lives, served in active combat or not. They dedicated a part of their lives to making sure that we have the ability to live in a free country. Without them we couldn’t do what we do.”
Of special meaning to CFI and legacy Transport America this year at Wreaths Across America is a last ride for one of their veteran drivers. “This year’s event is extra special because we are sending a driver by the name of Larry Clayman down there and this is Larry’s last ride. He’s getting ready to retire and so this is his last load. Wreaths Across America interviewed him on their radio program earlier this week. We’re picking his load up in Maine tomorrow. He’s driven long enough he doesn’t like to go north in the winter anymore. We’re going to bring his load down to Memphis for him so he doesn’t have to make that trip. After he makes that last delivery we’re going to get him up to Joplin to the headquarters where he’ll get to turn the truck in and get to say goodbye to everybody. That one’s really special this year.”
Sparlin goes on to describe how delivery to Fort Scott National Cemetery is important to CFI and legacy Transport America, being that it is their local cemetery. “We have a special relationship with them and are looking forward to making that delivery this year. It’s really neat at the end of the day to see wreaths laid out at every headstone in some of these national cemeteries where some of these memorials are from the 1800s or older depending on the age of the fort. Fort Scott has such a rich history and there will be people we’ll be honoring there that passed away hundreds of years ago in service to this country so it is really touching to see these generations of people that we get to continue to honor, and to see the families and see how much it means to them.”
There are also volunteer drivers who come from outside the fleet industry. Queeney describes a group from Massachusetts who come up to Maine every year with two 24-foot race car trailers. “They make 25 stops around Western Mass and parts of Connecticut for us - maybe only three boxes here and ten boxes there as opposed to the big trucks that might make one 720 box delivery.” Together, from outfits both large and small, the mission of WAA is accomplished every year because of the goodness and generosity of fleet drivers everywhere.
What happens to the wreaths when the fleet drivers arrive at the cemetery for drop-off?
When a driver arrives at their final destination with a truck full of wreaths, the location coordinator is on the receiving end to meet them. Queeney explains to new drivers that this is a unique kind of delivery to make because people on the receiving end are different from the professionals who typically receive them during their jobs as fleet drivers. “These recipients are not loading dock supervisors or professional consignees with experience with shipping and receiving. These are lay people who may have never received a truckload of goods in their lives.”
Queeney tells a story to illustrate this. “When I first started delivering for WAA, I pulled up to a VFW. It was six in the evening so it was dark, cold, I went in and this was one of those VFWs where the hub of activity is the bar. I went in and the bar was full and I told them who I was and the bartender screamed out and everybody got up and started unloading the truck including a WWII veteran with a walker. This gentleman came out and he insisted on putting a box of wreaths on the handlebars of his walker and shuffled it back on in. I tell that story all the time and I make sure that the fleet drivers who are doing wreath deliveries for the first time know that you could be delivering to a situation like that or an old lady with a garden club that needs to get the boy scouts in to help her unload.” Delivering a load of wreaths as a volunteer to regular people who are also volunteers completes the circle of kindness for everyone involved.
Thank you to the volunteer fleet drivers who make Wreaths Across America Day possible
National Wreaths Across America Day happens on December 18, 2021. WEX thanks Wreaths Across America and the generous fleet drivers who have volunteered this year to help get the wreaths to their destination and carry on this honorable tradition. WEX also recognizes the tireless WAA warriors like Don Queeney, passionate about celebrating and honoring our veterans and carrying on the tradition started in Maine by Morrill Worcester all those years ago.
Editorial note: This article was originally published on December 1, 2016, and has been updated for this publication.
National Public Radio
Wreaths Across America
Civil War Center
Library of Congress