CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

Kelco Industries: 58 years in the Christmas business

Doug Kell, owner of the 58 year-old Kelco Industries based in Milbridge, Maine.
Doug Kell, owner of the 58 year-old Kelco Industries based in Milbridge, Maine.
Posted Dec. 04, 2013, at 11:27 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 04, 2013, at 3:07 p.m.
Kelco Industries has on display some of the machines for producing bow, wreaths, and kissing balls.  Many of the machines that that use and sell were designed or improved by business owner Doug Kell.
Kelco Industries has on display some of the machines for producing bow, wreaths, and kissing balls. Many of the machines that that use and sell were designed or improved by business owner Doug Kell.
Employees of Kelco Industries are heading into their busiest season of the year.  Here they are sorting through bins of balsam boughs which will be made into wreaths, centerpieces, kissing balls and potpourri
Employees of Kelco Industries are heading into their busiest season of the year. Here they are sorting through bins of balsam boughs which will be made into wreaths, centerpieces, kissing balls and potpourri

I consulted with Jim, a Christmas tree farmer friend of mine, to ask if he had any ideas for my December column. The first guy Jim thought of was Doug Kell, who has been a supplier to the Christmas business since the mid-1950s.

“He’s 83 years old,” Jim told me. “He used to be a sea captain out of New Jersey. To make money in the off season he’d drive up to Maine to buy Christmas trees, then he’d sell them back at home.”

Eventually, Doug moved to Maine with his family to run his growing company. Kelco Industries does much of the “backstage” work behind the pageantry of the holiday season. Doug invented and improved machines for farming, producing, and shipping Christmas trees and wreaths; he opened an art gallery and Christmas shop; and he flies his plane between his Milbridge factory and the tree farm he bought in Aroostook County.

“His energy level has always been higher than almost anybody I know,” Jim said.

A few days later I was walking through the multi-building complex that makes up Kelco Industries, with Doug Kell as my guide. Doug is a colorful storyteller with a quick sense of humor. When I reminded him that I’d already heard some of his stories, he grinned.

“Ah. That means I’ve got to keep my lies to a minimum,” he said.

The most striking part of my Kelco tour was the atmosphere — heavily laden with the scent of balsam and the accelerating energy of a business on the threshold of crunch time.

“These are the Golden Girls,” he said, introducing me to a group of jovial women tucking balsam boughs into frames for kissing balls and table centerpieces.

“Most of them have been working here since the 1950s.”

The Golden Girls are only a few of the 50 year-round employees of Kelco. The number grows to about 75 during the holiday season. I saw many of them sorting boughs, assembling decorations, taking orders, filling boxes for shipping. Though busy, they had time for a friendly hello to the boss.

“My employees are all part of my large family,” Doug said.

That attitude toward his workers has a history — a small part of a very colorful history that goes back to his childhood in New Jersey.

Before the economic crash of the 1930s, Doug’s father had worked in construction. When the economy tanked, Mr. Kell took to farming.

“We raised food for ourselves, but also for some of the worker families. They’d give their table scraps to our pigs, and we shared our pork with them. That’s how things were.”

But Doug never liked farming, and he is a man who finds his own way. He got his first job on a fishing boat at age 15. Years later he got his captain’s license and spent decades leading chartered fishing trips all along the East Coast. But that wasn’t until after the Korean War.

Since he had always wanted to fly, Doug enlisted in the Air Force for his war service. His only A in high school, he said, had been in a class on aerial navigation. Though he never flew a plane during the war, his navigation expertise opened opportunities. Some older officers needed refresher training in navigation, so private first class Kell offered to teach them. That’s how Doug befriended so many officers – including one who lent Doug his uniform so he could sneak a ride on a T-33. The plane crashed during takeoff and split in two. PFC Kell walked away unharmed and undiscovered.

“I got away with more things than I’m going to tell you,” he said with a laugh

Kelco produces their own wreaths, but they purchase many more so that they can distribute maximum numbers as freshly as possible. They’ll send about 25,000 wreaths in a two-week period. One warehouse, about three stories high, was filled to the rafters with bins of greenery.

“We’ll use that up in about a week,” Doug said; “And we don’t waste a thing. All the extra gets turned into potpourri.”

In other buildings I saw machines of all kinds that Kelco both sells and uses. There are machines for making garlands, bows, wreaths, clamps and kissing balls, and there are gadgets for fitting trees into boxes for shipping. Many were either designed or improved by Doug. Though he had a year of college, most of what Doug has learned has been on-the-job and on his own.

“I’m a homegrown engineer,” he said.

He’s also good at thinking on his feet and makes decisions quickly. After his first date with his future wife, he told a friend he’d just met the girl he would marry.

“That’s how I make decisions – boom- like that.” They went on to raise six children.

Supplying Christmas machines and greens is challenging, multi-faceted work. It requires that you change every year if you want to stay in business. At age 83, might Doug be thinking about retirement?

“I plan on having a big retirement party at age 100,” he said.

The bottom line is, he loves everything about what he does. “When it’s not fun anymore, I’ll leave.”

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

 

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