COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — It wasn’t long after Morrill and Karen Worcester began laying wreaths on graves at Arlington National Cemetery in the early 1990s that the Maine couple started receiving heartfelt letters and other gestures of thanks in the mail.
Nearly 20 years later, the Worcesters’ annual tribute to former military personnel — now known as Wreaths Across America — has grown into a national event involving thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of wreaths. And as Wreaths Across America has grown, so has the scope of the expressions of gratitude for the program spearheaded by Worcester Wreath Co.
On Friday, Gov. Paul LePage joined the Worcesters and dozens of others in formally opening a new museum to display some of those items and to commemorate the wreath-laying tradition that will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year.
“We’ve gotten all of these things over the years,” Worcester said. “[They] have been in boxes and we had to protect them. When Wreaths Across America moved to a permanent location, we thought it was time to do a museum.”
Hundreds of those items are on display in a museum set up in the building that triples as the headquarters of Worcester Wreath as well as Columbia Falls’ town hall and elementary school.
There are heart-rending letters from families touched by the wreath they found on their loved one’s grave or who heard about Wreaths Across America from news reports.
One display case contains the uniform that a soldier was wearing at the time he was killed while another case displays uniforms from the various military branches. There are medals, flags flown over Iraq and ground zero at the World Trade Center, photographs from wreath-laying ceremonies around the country and countless pictures and personal tributes to those who have died serving the nation.
A theater dedicated to Captain John Williams, a Columbia Falls resident who served in Vietnam with the Coast Guard and would eventually serve as commander of the Southwest Harbor station, shows movies dedicated to veterans and fallen military personnel.
On Friday morning, Gov. LePage helped unveil a sign on U.S. Route 1 welcoming passers-by to Columbia Falls and directing them to the museum. The governor and first lady then toured the new museum along with several dozen veterans and local residents.
“This morning the minister said, ‘All gave some and some gave all’ and, to me, that’s what this is all about,” LePage said after touring the museum.
Organized annually by the Worcester Wreath Co. of Columbia Falls, Wreaths Across America has gained national and international recognition in recent years for the organization’s campaign at Arlington National Cemetery, located just outside of Washington, D.C.
What began as a modest dedication to fallen veterans has grown into a national observance of sorts, with similar ceremonies held in all 50 states. Last year, the program laid more than 150,000 wreaths on graves at Arlington and aims to decorate every grave in the national cemetery — more than 200,000 — during this year’s ceremonies. Worcester Wreaths donates a portion of the wreaths every year.
Morrill Worcester said people and organizations have been sending items to Wreaths Across America ever since he began the tradition with his wife, Karen, in 1992. But those donations increased dramatically after a 2005 photograph of wreaths on snowy graves in Arlington went viral on the Internet. That picture is featured on the two signs unveiled Friday on Route 1.
Among the guests of honor on Friday was U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Robert Coles, who was present at Pearl Harbor when Japanese fighter planes attacked the naval base in December 1941.
Dressed in his uniform, the 87-year-old Machias resident toured the new museum and watched the films in the new theater. Afterward, Coles said he was deeply touched by what he called a “wondrous” museum.
“It’s wonderful,” he said. “We shouldn’t live in the past too much, but we should always have memories of the past.”
The museum will be open during business hours. Worcester said he is hoping to attract additional volunteers to staff the museum so that it could eventually be open longer hours or on weekends.