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BM31W Interpretive Texts

Interior interpretive signs--the three stages of marketing

The Early Years of Basket Making in South Central Kentucky

The location that was the historical center of the basket making industry in this part of the state was the western Hart County community of Cub Run. By the middle of the 1800s, there were numerous families producing baskets in this community. Soon, baskets would become an important part of the domestic economy of many of these families. Sometime before the Civil War local stores began accepting baskets as items of trade. Families having little or no cash would trade their baskets for groceries or other items available in these stores. Store owners would never pay cash for these baskets, and would often offer the basket makers only a portion in credit of what they were actually worth in cash. If families took more groceries than the store owners would accept as even trade for baskets, the owners would write up what was known as a "due bill," the balance of which could also be paid off with baskets instead of cash.

As store owners accumulated surpluses of baskets, they began to sell them to local traveling merchants known as peddlers. These peddlers would load down mule or horse drawn wagons with baskets (photo) and set off on long trips into other parts of Kentucky or even into surrounding states where they would sell baskets to farmers or other people who needed them. Sometimes, storeowners would go on these peddling trips themselves. Other times, they would hire a peddler of their own. This system of exchange and marketing would continue for quite a long time, with some peddlers becoming local legends and the source of many stories that are still alive in the oral traditions of the area. Unfortunately, the basket makers themselves would hardly benefit at all from these marketing situations and would continue to rely on baskets to feed and clothe their families.

The Dixie Highway and Diffusion

In the early part of the 20th Century, Highway 31W, also known as the Dixie Highway, would be completed and its route would take it through the mid-section of Southcentral Kentucky. The flow of automobile traffic bringing tourists through the area would ignite a new period in the marketing strategies of basket makers in the area. As tourism grew into a thriving industry, local people established roadside souvenir shops to take advantage of the large number of tourists passing through or visiting local sites such as Mammoth Cave. Among the most common and popular of the souvenirs sold at these stands were baskets, and thus the name basket stand emerged.

The new opportunities presented by 31W would encourage many basket making families to relocate in or near communities directly along the highway corridor. Some of these families opened basket stands of their own, but others would simply bring their baskets to sell to stand operators, usually once a week. Although basket making families who did not operate their own stands would now see the cash rewards for their work, prices paid for baskets by stand operators were still quite low.

This period also saw pronounced changes in basket styles and techniques to meet the demands of external consumer markets. Baskets became much more ornamental and decorated, with the use of commercially dyed splits becoming one such decorative detail. Forms of baskets produced also changed and newer forms tended to be much less utilitarian and more strictly decorative than those produced earlier.

By most accounts, this "Basket Stand Era" was the heyday of the basket making industry along the 31W corridor. More families than ever were producing baskets for sale. Many of those families located deeper within the interior of basket making country would not see much of the profits generated in this period, however; and would continue to rely on baskets for important supplemental income.

Redirection, Revivalism and Recognition

In the year of 1965, Interstate 65 was completed through central Kentucky. With the coming of I-65, the tourism industry along the adjacent route of 31W would effectively die out, and the era of the basket stand abruptly ended. Many traditional basket makers now had new opportunities for employment, which they took full advantage of. During a period of about fifteen years, the number of basket makers in Southcentral Kentucky declined dramatically.

It was during this same period of time, however, that government arts programs and private arts and crafts guilds began to emerge. These organizations and agencies were a reflection of the growing interest among the general consumer population in regional arts and crafts. These programs had only limited benefits for many traditional craftspeople, as many guild members were formally trained and self-taught contemporary artists and craftspeople, known to folklorists as revivalists and differentiated from persons practicing an art or craft learned through more traditional family or community networks.

It was not until the early 1980s that Kentucky first lady Phyllis George Brown began to promote and market Kentucky crafts to a national and international clientele. George-Brown established the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation in 1981 as a vehicle for marketing Kentucky crafts. Marketing agreements for Kentucky crafts were established with high scale department stores like Bloomingdale's and Neiman-Marcus.

With prices paid for hand made Kentucky baskets soon skyrocketing, and the encouragement of independent marketing strategies under state crafts programs, some Southcentral Kentucky basket makers realized a new and prosperous period. Several local basket makers today continue to market their baskets directly to appreciative consumers around the country, and even the world, finally seeing their labor pay off.

Text by Tony N. VanWinkle, Folklife Fieldworker 2001