Making wreaths for soldiers at Veterans Cemetery

Paul Clark

Tony Honeycutt drove into State Veterans Cemetery Saturday morning in an old Chevy van whose heater didn’t work. Nearly 71 years old and bundled against the morning chill, the slightly built man opened the back of the truck. Inside were most of the 200 Christmas wreaths he’d made to put on soldiers’ graves for the holidays.

Honeycutt, a farmer who chose a life in construction over using the biology degree he earned, gets some help making the wreaths at his home near Burnsville. He gets some donations to pay for the greenery and finery that go into them. But he’s spent a lot of his money on the wreaths over the years. He’s not sure how much, but it’s “not an insignificant amount,” he said last week, taking a break from a wreath he was making.

It’s a lot of work, work he begins each Halloween. “I don’t know,” he said when asked why he does it. “The country is what we make it,” he said in a voice that sounds as if he’s quiet and reserved. “I believe that people should … honor the people that have sacrificed to make this country what it is.”

This story came to The Black Mountain News in an unusual way, via an email from Nute Nicholson. Nicholson, a professional photographer who moved to the area from New York recently, was setting up his studio near Pisgah Brewing when Brandy Honeycutt, Honeycutt’s daughter, walked in inquiring about an internship. She mentioned that on Veterans Day Nov. 11 she was going to Veterans Cemetery to visit her son, buried there after having died in Afghanistan.

“She told me about her father (and about the wreaths), and I went up the next week to see him” at his home, Nicholson said. Honeycutt lives between Burnsville and Erwin, Tennessee - “the end of the world,” Honeycutt said - less than a mile from where Nicholson had just bought a farm.

“Just absolutely bizarre,” Nicholson said of the coincidence. Nicholson used to produce dance music in Paris under the stage name of Kade. Kade is also the name of Brandy Honeycutt’s grandson – Christian Kade Warriner, 19 years old when he was killed in Kunar Province while providing medical attention to his ambushed comrades in the 101st Airborne Division.

Up at Honeycutt’s farm, Nicholson made some photos of Honeycutt’s wreath-making operation and then shot in iPhone video of him selling Christmas trees at a roadside stand in Alexander, between Asheville and Marshall. (The video is on YouTube and on Nicholson’s Facebook page.)

“He’s out there selling Christmas trees and shitake mushrooms, taking time out of his life where he’s not making money” to make these wreaths for soldiers’ graves, Nicholson said. “It’s a good story. And about the best thing I could do with an iPhone, ever.”

Reached by telephone at home last week, Tony Honeycutt said he started making wreaths by making one for his grandson’s tombstone. Then he heard about Wreaths Across America, a nationwide initiative to place wreaths at service members’ graves during the holidays.

The first year he made 20 wreaths to give to the Wreaths Across America project at Veterans Cemetery. The next year he wanted to do more, so he raised the money he’d need for the materials by making and selling additional wreaths.

“I’ve got a small patch of Christmas trees. They’re not really marketable,” he said. He uses cuttings from them for the wreaths, weaving in sprigs of boxwood, juniper and doghobble. He makes 10 to 15 a day when he’s not out gathering material. “It keeps me real busy,” he said.

Parkinson’s disease laid him low last year, though this year is much better, he said. He tends what he calls “a quarter-acre farm” in which he grows shrubbery and flaming azaleas to sell. The land has been in his family about 150 years.

“My father used to say,” Honeycutt said, abruptly changing his point of view. “I’d say, ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ and he’d say ‘I’m doing nothing and a whole lot of it.’ I never want to get to that point. That’s not living. Not in my book, anyway.”

“I’m doing pretty good for my age,” he said. “This time last year I could hardly walk. They finally changed my medicine, and I’m better. It’s not easy, but I can walk a mile.”

And he can still make those wreaths.

All the work is justified on days like Saturday, when he watched all those wreaths being placed on soldiers’ graves, bringing a bit of respect and holiday cheer to each one.

“It gives me the feeling that people care,” he said.

If you’d like to get involved, Honeycutt said call his wife at 682-9869.