Tree farm’s award-winning wreaths bring a touch of co-op to the state capital
Pictured at the top: Barb Cook (left) oversees the wreath-making operation at Cooks’ Woods Christmas tree farm. Designers Judy Behncke (center), Jolene Rech (right), and Vicky Case (not pictured) created the wreath that won the grand prize in the 2020 contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association.
Dave and Barb Cook have been spreading holiday cheer from their Fennimore Christmas tree farm for 25 years. This season, that reach extends past Grant County and into Wisconsin’s capital, where two of their wreaths are among the holiday decorations adorning the Executive Residence, more commonly known as the Governor’s Mansion, in Maple Bluff just outside of Madison.
Located on Scenic Rivers Energy Cooperative lines, Cooks’ Woods Christmas tree farm earned this honor in January by winning the annual wreath contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association (WCTPA). Christmas tree growers throughout the state participate in this friendly competition for pride, but also for the coveted prize of creating a pair of wreaths for the Governor’s Mansion the following Christmas.
Holiday decorations at the Executive Residence are not just for the governor and family to enjoy. The residence is the official home of the governor, but it’s also a public building belonging to the people of Wisconsin, and as such serves as the site for numerous receptions, dinners, and public tours. In a typical year, the doors are open on select dates during the holiday season for free public tours, during which visitors can see the main rooms on the first floor and take in the theme-decorated trees and other special decorations.
This year, due to COVID-19, the public tours are canceled, but wreaths created by Cooks’ Woods’ award-winning design team will still be a special part of the Executive Residence’s holiday decor.
“We are thrilled to have the Cooks’ Woods wreaths from Fennimore featured at the residence this year and we congratulate them on their win from the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association,” said Gov. Tony Evers. “While we are doing things a little bit differently this year, we are glad to have the opportunity to showcase and recognize the growers, designers, and small business owners, including Barb, Dave, and their team, that help make Wisconsin great.”
With more than 250 acres and six different varieties of trees, Cooks’ Woods has a tree to fit just about any taste or need. However, the perfect tree is not all you’ll find here. Cooks’ Woods is also known for the decorative greenery made and sold right at the farm, including garland, swags, porch pots, and especially wreaths—lots and lots of wreaths, all beautifully decorated by a team of talented designers including Jolene Rech, Judy Behncke, and Vicki Case.
Judy Behncke (left) and Jolene Rech (right) begin decorating Christmas wreaths at Cooks’ Woods tree farm in November. They and fellow designer Vicky Case have been creating wreaths together
at Cooks’ Woods for five or six years.
“We did a little over 1,000 pieces of greenery last year, and they decorated every one of them,” Barb Cook said of her team.
Rech and Case bring many years of florist experience to their wreath-making duties, while Behncke “is just a natural and so understands textures and colors of plants,” said Cook.
“I’m so grateful to have three decorators,” she added. “They all have different tastes, and three different specialties, and so we get a great variety of decorated greenery pieces that fit just about every taste.”
Cook has a keen eye for decorating wreaths herself, but her main role with the process these days is to follow the decorating trends on Pinterest and other sources and then make sure her designers are well supplied with a variety of materials. She begins seeking out ornaments, ribbons, baubles, and other supplies as soon as the holiday season ends and continues to gather items all year.
“I don’t think any one flower shop has the kind of variety of supplies that we have here,” Rech said. “It’s so fun here because you can use things that aren’t your ‘home’ taste to make something that you maybe wouldn’t have in your home, but you can have fun making something different.”
With their combined experience and talent, it’s not surprising that the Cooks’ Woods wreath crafters won the state contest on their very first try. Cooks’ Woods had entered the wreath contest in the past, but not with the current design team. “Everybody can learn to make a pretty wreath,” Cook said, “but an exceptional wreath takes special talent.”
What may seem surprising is that the designers had so much creative energy left for the contest after the intense Christmas tree season. To accommodate tree farms’ demanding November and December schedules, WCTPA holds the contest each year in January.
“All three of them donated their time to do this after already creating 1,054 pieces of greenery,” Cook said.
She said the designers met in January over coffee to discuss ideas, settling on a natural, woodsy look using an owl ornament as the central focus with a frame of birch twigs. All together, they put about four and a half hours into creating the award-winning wreath.
“It doesn’t normally take that long to design a wreath,” Rech admitted. “We were bouncing ideas off each other. It’s getting four women to agree on one design. That’s what took the time.”
Whatever the style, Cooks’ Woods wreaths are bringing some much-needed brightness to the end of a year filled with unusual challenges.
“Perhaps now more than ever we need to celebrate joy, hope, and the resiliency of Wisconsinites,” said First Lady Kathy Evers. “From our Tribute to our Troops tree to decorations made by students, to the Cooks’ wreaths, the holiday season at the Executive Residence is always a great way to highlight the contributions and goodwill of people from every corner of our state.” —Mary Erickson