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Our Neighbors ... Molly and Bill Stone

Cloquet may not be the North Pole, but for the past five years, a slightly different "Santa's Workshop" has been quietly operating in the city's outskirts.

The Stone family
Molly and Bill Stone, along with Bill's mother Carole, operate The Stone Family Wreath Company from their home in Cloquet. Lisa Baumann/Pine Journal

Cloquet may not be the North Pole, but for the past five years, a slightly different "Santa's Workshop" has been quietly operating in the city's outskirts.

The Stone family doesn't make toys - instead they make holiday wreaths in a restored 1929 barn behind their home.

Bill and Molly Stone, along with Bill's mother, Carole, started the business as an Internet venture out of Bill and Molly's garage in Duluth 12 years ago. Since then, they've shipped thousands of wreaths to every state in the U.S., but this may be the first year many of their closer neighbors know about them. That's because it's the first year they've opened their barn to the public.

"We've done well on the Internet," said Bill Stone, founder and owner of Stone Family Wreath Company. "But, we've done it a little backwards - building a base online and then [taking it to] our community is not always what people think of with a business."

Before this season, traffic in and out of the family farm has been limited to a handful of employees and the nightly stops by FedEx drivers, who take a trailer truck filled during the day with Christmas wreaths to be shipped across the country.

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"During our short shipping season, we are likely the biggest shipper of goods in Cloquet," Bill Stone said.

Moving to a 40-acre farm in Cloquet in 2003, the Stones knew they wanted to expand their seasonal business and eventually branch out to the local community.

This season, customers can choose in person from about 15 different fresh balsam wreaths, from a plain balsam for the buyer to customize, to one in the shape of a candy cane to one called "American Pride," boasting a red, white and blue ribbon.

In addition to the wreaths, they sell wreath centerpieces, advent wreaths complete with candles, and Christmas garland in 10-foot lengths.

"We like to try new things, new designs and just have fun with it," Bill Stone said.

The smell of fresh balsam permeates the senses upon entering the barn, where five employees work from October through Christmas. Pruned balsam boughs are used to create all the items and the Stones make a point to explain they are a "green" company through and through.

"It has been a Stone family tradition to head into the north woods and gather balsam bows to make wreaths," Bill Stone said. "And the boughs we use for our products come from tree pruning, not harvesting. We have the necessary permits and the pruning actually contributes to the health of the tree, allowing us to prune the same trees every three years or so."

The tradition of wreath-making originated in the Stone family with Bill's mother Carole, who simply "makes everything," according to Molly Stone.

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"[Carole] is so crafty and she really works year-round on this endeavor," she said. "She makes the ribbons for the wreaths, searches for pine cones in the woods and designs wreaths as well."

When Bill was growing up north of Remer, Minn., on 20 acres of land next to the Chippewa National Forest, he remembers his mother making wreaths out of balsam they picked nearby.

They sold the wreaths on the wholesale market, and, as a seasonal job while Bill attended college, he sold wreaths door to door.

After meeting Molly at Winona State University in 1993 - Bill was Molly's flight instructor - they married in 1996, after Molly finished graduate school in Delaware and moved back to Minnesota.

When Bill brought up the idea of selling wreaths as a way to earn money for the Christmas budget, however, Molly was not immediately sold.

"I fought it for the first few years and finally joined in," she admitted.

The Stones launched their Web site and their business in the mid-1990s, and in doing so, were among the very few selling wreaths online.

"People would just mail us checks and hope to get a wreath," Molly Stone said. "Their trust was amazing and from there, it just grew."

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No doubt the Stones have worked hard to keep that customer trust.

They have built their business around customer service and delivering high-quality products.

"If one doctor bought 50 wreaths, for example, we did everything possible to keep that doctor as a customer," Bill Stone explained. "I try to respond to e-mails immediately and sometimes we get a customer's business just because of that."

Bill isn't afraid to talk to customers over the phone, either, remembering them by first name and chatting about their families or the winter weather in Minnesota.

"People tend to tell us a lot about their lives when they order wreaths for their friends and family members," he said. "It can be an emotional purchase and some want to be part of a north woods, wilderness feel."

Although this part of the year seems to revolve around the wreaths, wreaths are not all the Stones do. They also hold "real" jobs - both at Cirrus Design Corporation in Duluth. Molly is a senior materials and process engineer and Bill is director of flight standards and operations.

They also have four children, Jessica, 11, Isaac, 9, Lydia, 5, and E.J., 3. The wreath business is fun for them, too, Molly said.

"They love it and especially enjoy designing their own creations."

Although it's a side business, the Stones do have big dreams of expansion.

"We'd like to have 10-20,000 of own trees and be able to harvest," Bill said. "But it takes time."

The Stone Family Wreath Company will be open to the public this weekend, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 20 and from noon to 3 p.m. Dec. 21, selling wreaths and Christmas trees. Visit their Web site at stonefamilywreaths.com.

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