2018-12-06 / Life in Leelanau

EVERGREEN: Bells of Christmas provide scent, sights of the season

By Chris Olson
Special to the Enterprise


JIM BELL of Bells of Christmas in Northport crafts holiday decorations from evergreens, continuing a more than 100-year family tradition. JIM BELL of Bells of Christmas in Northport crafts holiday decorations from evergreens, continuing a more than 100-year family tradition. Walking into the workshop that is Bells of Christmas Gift Shop and Farmers Market is a sensory delight.

The first step in the door the scent of fresh evergreens, balsam fire, cedar, waft through the air. The display area has wreaths, garland, centerpieces with candles and kissing balls.

Step into the main area and you will see where Jim and Dorene Bell create their pieces of art. Odds are you will hear Christmas carols playing in the background, not that the couple has time to stand and listen this time of year.

“We’re here 12 to 14 hours a day this time of year,” he said, “Tomorrow I’ll be out here at 7:30 a.m. (making wreaths) and will stay here through at least 8 at night.”

Bell said working with evergreens has been in his family’s blood lines for hundreds of years. His family is originally from the Black Forest region of Germany. There is an old wood desk that sits in the workshop. He said the desk is more than 200 years old and he uses it for measuring. The desk came with his family when they emigrated to the United States some time in the 1800s. The family lived in Detroit at first, then spent time in Creole Springs, Ill., and Marion, Ill, before moving to Kalamazoo.


KISSING BALLS hang from the ceiling in the Bells of Christmas shop in Northport. KISSING BALLS hang from the ceiling in the Bells of Christmas shop in Northport. “They (his family) opened Bell’s Greenhouse and Flowers in 1923 in Kalamazoo,” he said.

His grandfather first came to the area for fishing at about that same time. Bell said his grandfather fished out of Rath’s Camp and eventually ran a fishing boat charter from there. He said his father, Leonard, and his uncles would come from Kalamazoo, go fishing, then cut bales of evergreens while they were up here and take the bales back to Kalamazoo. The evergreens would become wreaths, garlands and even grave blankets.


DORENE BELL works on an evergreen centerpiece, one of many crafted at the Bells of Christmas in Northport. DORENE BELL works on an evergreen centerpiece, one of many crafted at the Bells of Christmas in Northport. When his grandfather died in the 1950s, Bell’s father took over the charter fishing boat. His father did so well at fishing that he decided to move him and his family here and started making wreaths in the Northport area and ship them to Kalamazoo.

Bell said he gets his evergreens from the same properties his father and grandfather did, including a parcel close to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. He spent some time in the service and when he returned home, Bell said his father was getting tired of the work.

“I helped him out a little, then I took it (the business over),” he said.

Bell grew up making wreaths, garlands, rope and other evergreen pieces. He said when he took over for his father he started making wreaths in the basement of his home, which is next door to the Bells of Christmas. Later on he built a garage and made the wreaths and garlands in there, as well as run the farm market out of there.

He bought the property next to his house and built the existing farm market out of which Bells of Christmas is run, between 30 and 40 years ago.

“We’re so swamped with business, we have to turn people away,” he said.

With the greens Jim and Dorene are busy most of November and December. In the spring they get flats of flowers and hanging baskets for the farm market. In the summer and fall they sell vegetables they grow in their own gardens and fruits from local growers.

While Bell may grumble about the hours, he said he can’t imagine doing anything else.

“I like wreath making,” he said. “I’ve always liked wreath making. To me, it wouldn’t be Christmas without it.”

Dorene said the work they do keeps them busy and in a holiday mood.

“It wouldn’t be Christmas without it,” she said about the work and the business.

Bell said none of his children are able to take over the business once they retire. He said he doesn’t see them stopping anytime soon.

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