31W Basket Makers Project--Comprehensive Report
May 9-July 3, 2001
Tony N. VanWinkle, Folklife Fieldworker
Introduction to Project
From May 9 through July 4, 2001, I conducted intensive fieldwork and research on the basket making traditions of the greater 31W-corridor area. This project was made possible through a grant awarded to the city of Park City, Kentucky by the Kentucky Folklife Program (KFP). Under the direction and supervision of Brent Bjorkman, folklife specialist with the KFP, and the advisement of Beth Hester, independent folklorist and basket maker, the 31W Basket Makers Project was conceptualized with some specific immediate and long term goals and objectives in mind.
The most immediate goal of this project was to identify a group of individuals representing the traditional basket making enterprise distributed historically throughout communities along the greater 31W corridor, who would present their crafts skills at the 2001 Kentucky Folklife Festival. The Kentucky Folklife Festival, now in its fifth year, has employed a regional thematic approach based on a few of the states major transportation routes to streamline the scope of content and the interpretive organization of the event. This years Festival will focus primary attention on that region of Kentucky traversed by Highway 31W with a sampling of the cultural traditions occurring therein. Quite prevalent among this region's more visible cultural traditions is the long standing cottage industry of white oak basket making.
In addition to identifying and selecting those individual basket makers who would participate in the Festival, the project also sought to document the historical, cultural, and socio-economic contexts, individual and community perspectives, and contemporary conditions of the tradition more generally. To achieve this goal, informal and recorded interviews, photographic documentation, and research based on other primary and secondary documents were utilized throughout the course of the project. Interviews were conducted with as many traditional basket makers, or other persons with some connection to basket making as was possible. This documentation can be found under the general file code, BM31W. All photograph logs, tape logs, field notes, and a selected bibliography will accompany this report to aid in future research.
There are also several long-term goals to which this project was intended to contribute. First, this is one of many possible research topics that has received only brief attention in past surveys of the general folklife resources of the area. The survey and report composed by Dale Johnson in 1999, "Folklife Report of the 31W Heritage Corridor," was conducted to provide a generalized baseline for more intensive surveys of specific folklife expressions and resources occurring within this region. This survey and study of basket making is one such intensive effort. It is hoped that through this project we can lend more insight and recognition to this special regional resource that is in many aspects unique to Southcentral Kentucky.
Another of the long-term goals for this project will be its contribution to the development of the proposed Cultural Heritage Center in Park City, KY. The center will be a valuable regional institution and educational center focusing on various forms of regional cultural expressions, both historical and current. Supported by the efforts of this project, a featured component of the Heritage Center's permanent exhibition and interpretive area will be the local historical and contemporary basketry tradition. The Center will also provide an important marketing outlet for the work of basket makers along with other regional artisans and craftspeople. This report and the accompanying documentation is intended to serve as a primary resource in developing the exhibits, interpretive content, and marketing agreements of those Cultural Heritage Center programs related to the area's basketry traditions.
Basket Making Traditions--A General Overview of History, Materials, Forms, and Functions.
Throughout virtually the entire course of human history, and through much of what we know of human pre-history, in societies of all levels of complexity, the craft of basket making has arisen out of a need for practical containers used for various utilitarian purposes. In simple mechanical terms, basketry is the art and craft of weaving together fibrous elements in interlocking patterns, ultimately forming a singular object with the ability to hold smaller items within a central cavity, easing the processes of gathering, transporting, and storing those items. The choice of raw materials used in the production of baskets is as varied as the cultural contexts in which they are produced; it was historically dictated both by what materials were naturally available within the immediate physical environment, and by specific cultural preferences.
In Southcentral Kentucky, the materials of choice were the hand rived splits, and whittled ribs of the white oak tree, as well as the young shoots and vines of willow and honeysuckle (though the latter two are much less common). The reasons for the predominate choice of white oak is not explicable through environmental determinism alone--as there are certainly other materials available in this environment that require much less time and effort in the way of preparation. Nonetheless, white oak (quercus alba) was chosen as the primary basket making material in this area for its inherently superior qualities--workability, durability, aesthetic appeal--and as a result of the influence of cultural antecedents.
The various types and styles of basketry produced in south-central Kentucky, at least in terms of materials and certain general techniques, had been produced much earlier in the colonial settlements of the eastern seaboard, preceded in turn by similar old world traditions. The use of oak splits in the production of basketry had been, and in certain areas still is, practiced in northern England and Scotland. English colonists most certainly brought this knowledge with them to the "New World" and simply adapted to the available native materials most similar to those used in the British Isles. As early settlers began pushing their settlements westward toward the Appalachian Mountains, basketry went with them, and would soon become a prevalent handicraft tradition in many parts of central and southern Appalachia. White oak basketry traditions are well documented in the Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and slightly later in the eastern parts of Tennessee and Kentucky. It was most likely migrants to Hart County from these same areas who brought the white oak tradition to Southcentral Kentucky.
Within regional enclaves in each of these states, specific stylistic elements developed that would become differentiating trademarks for each areas basket making tradition. These differences in techniques and shapes are most highly developed in the rib basket forms produced in each area, while the pure split/stake and wicker work style baskets were somewhat more standardized. The primary differences in area variations are in the wrapping techniques and ribbing patterns, making baskets from Pennsylvania, for example, immediately recognizable as such and easily discernable from baskets produced in Tennessee. Southcentral Kentucky is no different in this respect, and the baskets produced in this region, the rib baskets in particular, have been noted for their possession of unique features and stylistic elements.
The wrapping pattern in south-central Kentucky rib baskets, universal as far as I know, is called the burr, or ear, type of wrapping, though some of the areas basket makers refer to it simply as wrapping. This wrapping technique has been documented in regions of central Appalachia as well, but has become one of the most visible trademarks of the basketry in this area, easily distinguishing it from the baskets of the nearby middle Tennessee tradition (whose makers use the "bow-tie" wrapping technique almost exclusively).
Similarly, rib placement patterns are widely varied and unique within each area's rib basket tradition. Perhaps more than any other single characteristic, the rib design and placement pattern in south-central Kentucky basket making is the most defining element in this regional tradition. The bottom-most ribs in these central Kentucky baskets are characteristically wide and flat, with the top-most ribs being smaller (both in diameter and length) and more rounded. The rib design and placement patterns also dictate the overall finished shape of rib baskets, and thus the unique rib style "Kentucky basket" shape produced in this region. There also exist in this region a great number of innovative and unique basket shapes produced by creative individuals, and then occasionally reproduced by others, that still utilize the regionally specific techniques and characteristics mentioned above. One interesting example of a whimsical basket design that is produced in this area alone is a large flowerstand modeled after a similar ceramic object. The origins of this basket form are often attributed to Aunt Let Thompson, the deceased grandmother of the highly reputed current basket maker Lestel Childress, who has himself reproduced this same form on occasion. Interestingly, in last years Hart County Fair Basket Making Contest, a basket of this same design won a first place ribbon and was produced by Mark Childress, nephew of Lestel.
In this region of Kentucky, as in most other regions, baskets were essential utilitarian items in households and on farms. Baskets were utilized as containers of all sorts--for gathering eggs, for feeding livestock, for harvesting vegetables, for packing lunches to school, for carrying and transporting items purchased at the market, and also as measuring devices. Thus baskets of various forms would be attributed the names of their primary utilitarian purposes--the egg basket, the feed basket, the market basket; or the name of their size--the peck basket and the bushel basket for example. The specific use of a particular basket would dictate its shape, thus form truly did follow function. The names of baskets, identified with specific shapes, are still used today by contemporary basket makers to identify basket forms, though they are rarely used for the purposes their names suggest.
As plastic and metal containers eventually supplanted baskets, these formerly necessary items found a new niche as sought after decorative handicrafts. With the emergence of this new market, basket forms, styles and techniques became quite refined and elaborately decorated to accommodate the demands and tastes of consumers. Many of the basic characteristic shapes and names would remain unchanged, but embellishment and ornamentation of these basic forms would characterize baskets after the inception of external markets.
Basket Making in Hart County, Kentucky--Historical Background
Exactly when the craft of basket making came to the Hart County area is uncertain. It is known, however, that the craft emanated principally from the western Hart County community of Cub Run. The area known as Cub Run (known earlier by the name of Cross Roads) is thought to have been initially settled around the year of 1790 largely through land grants from Pennsylvania and Virginia. Many early settlers also migrated from both of the Carolinas into the area. In all of the aforementioned states (with perhaps the exception of South Carolina), white oak basket making was a well-documented area of craft production. These early settlers were mostly of English, and to a lesser extent, Celtic, ancestry. The economy of these earliest settlers was of a subsistence nature, and as in many frontier and pre-industrial settlements, the population was composed mainly of farmers, housewives, community artisans, and a small professional and merchant class. The earliest census records from Hart County (formed in 1819 and previously part of Hardin County), do not show any indication of basket making as a primary occupation, though this probably has much to do with the stigma that was attached to the activity historically (a point I will elaborate on further below).
Who brought the tradition of white oak basketry to western Hart County is also perhaps unknowable with any degree of certainty, though some have suggested that it could have been the Jaggers family, one of the earliest families to migrate into the area. This claim seems to be rather unsubstantiated, however; and it is the theory of the author that the tradition may have been brought to the area by more than one individual or family from different areas of origin. There are after all numerous other family names of the Cub Run area associated in historical documents and living memory with basket making: Childress, Thompson, Waddell (or Waddle), Trulock, Cottrell, Logsdon, Strange, Stith, Sims, Dennison and several others. When considering the stylistic elements that emerged and came to characterize this region's white oak basket making tradition, it could be conjectured that these features were perhaps a synthesis of preexisting forms and techniques originating from the disparate areas from which the areas settlers came originally. This theory could be supported by a historical cross-regional study of local styles and techniques that is unfortunately beyond the scope of this project. In some of my secondary research materials, however, it has been noted that the wrapping technique employed in south-central Kentucky, thought of as one of the identifying features of this region's style, has been documented elsewhere in central Appalachia, particularly prevalent in Pennsylvania (Law/Taylor, 1991), from which at least a portion of the early settlers to western Hart County came. Similarly, the wide, flat bottom rib design of the this region's baskets can also be seen in photographs of baskets from certain areas of Virginia, where again, a large of number of settlers to western Hart County came, though the prevalence of this element in Virginia baskets is not known to the author.
Regardless of who brought the tradition of basketry to the area, it is clear that it proliferated within this one community, and in some other outlying areas of Hart County, as in no other location in the larger region. The reasons for this proliferation in such a geographically specific area are yet another aspect of this story about which we can only speculate. Perhaps it was the isolation of the community combined with high rates of intermarriage between relatively few families that resulted in both the geographical stability of the local basket making tradition and its spread throughout such a large portion of the community's population. Factor in the average family size, having been quite large, and it is conceivable that in just a few generations the esoteric knowledge and skill involved in basket making would have spread widely throughout the community.
The family was also the primary institution through which the tradition was perpetuated in these early years (and still is today, though one can just as easily learn the craft from classes and books). There are numerous accounts wherein basket makers remember working as a large family unit in a sort of basket making production line. Fathers and mothers, and quite often grandparents as well, would usually "split out" the timber and construct the skeleton framework of handle, hoop, and ribs that children would be responsible for filling out with thin oak split weavers. In this way, the family served as a trade school while also maximizing levels of production. The familial orientation of the craft also insured that the esoteric nature of the production processes would be guarded as such (which would be critical when baskets became a vital source of income for cash poor families--in such a context, minimizing competition through internalization was obviously advantageous). It should be said, however; that some individuals did learn the craft from persons outside of their own families, as indeed many persons would learn from neighbors or through some other intimate relationship with basket making families.
At some point in the early history of basket making in Hart County, the production of baskets turned from something done in the home to fulfill purely domestic needs for containers (if indeed it ever served in purely this fashion) into a full blown cottage industry, wherein baskets were produced by families as marketable trade items. Basket making is a curious area of craft production in relation to its economic function. Basket makers never acquired in historic times in Hart County the same status as other specialized community artisans such as blacksmiths or coopers or stone masons. This probably had much to do with the relative proportion of practitioners in each of these areas, and the fact that while esoteric to a degree, basket making was a more common and transferable skill than was, for instance, cooperage.
This brings me to the central themes that I have sought to uncover through the course of this project and wish to address in this essay. Studies on basket making conducted in past years have focused almost exclusively on process. While process is certainly inseparable from any form of art or craft production in technical terms, it often overlooks the socio-economic contexts that should be of central concern if we are to reach any meaningful level of understanding of a specific folkloric expression. The making of baskets, as in any cultural performance, is not an isolated activity that can be analyzed outside of the cultural context in which it occurs without obscuring the influences that give it shape and texture. Thus it became clear to me that an understanding and analysis of basket making in this region would have to include the concomitant marketing circumstances that have, as much as than any other single factor, influenced the evolution and perpetuation of this tradition.
The Economy of Baskets, Part I--The Formative Years
Probably by the middle of the 19th century, the trade networks that accompanied the production of baskets in western Hart County were well established. Families who engaged in the production of baskets did so to supplement what meager income could be earned from raising tobacco, which was invariably next to nothing. Cash was rare at this time and trading was the principle means through which people acquired those goods that they couldn't produce on their own--sugar, coffee, etc. In the pre Civil War era, there were several general stores located in Cub Run, and by one account, the first to accept baskets in trade was a store owned by Bud Logsdon (exact date unknown).
Families would produce several baskets, take them to the general store and trade them for goods. Storeowners usually gave less value to baskets in trade than they were worth in real cash value, thus basket makers would often end up owing the store owners--a debt that was also paid with baskets. Storeowners would then write up what was known as a due bill to be paid at a later date. As more and more families began to take advantage of this basket exchange system, merchants accumulated a vast storehouse of baskets. At least by the year of 1880, these surplus baskets were being sold to peddlers, who would pay the real cash value to the storeowners, travel with enormous loads of baskets to sometimes far off locations, and mark them up considerably for a handsome profit. Some storeowners would hire an individual to peddle baskets for them and yet others went out on peddling trips themselves. This long distance peddling business would continue to fuel the basket making industry in western Hart County for years to come, though the profits realized (and for a few individuals they were considerable) were seldom seen by the basket making families themselves.
The basket peddlers would load down wagons with baskets bought from the local storeowners, and occasionally directly from the basket makers themselves, and set out on these sometimes lucrative trading expeditions. Peddlers regularly traveled to the surrounding states of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Tennessee to peddle their wares to farmers or other interested parties. The wagons would often times pull into a town-square on Mondays and sell to all interested consumers in town. As railroad transportation became more prevalent in the area, some peddlers arranged to have shipments of baskets dropped by rail in a predetermined location to replenish their supply and extend the duration of the trip. After the age of automobiles, peddling continued in much the same way it had in the days of mule-drawn wagons, simply adopting this newer and faster form of transportation to carry the loads.
The peddling era produced numerous stories and legends that figure largely in the folk narrative traditions that surround the local basket making enterprise. Among those legendary persons whose peddling exploits would be known for generations to come, perhaps the most famous was Elijah Tom Childress, known as Lige Tom by some, and as E.T. by others. In the local oral tradition, as well as in a small but fascinating body of local written literature, Lige Tom and his trusty mule, One Eyed Kate, who pulled the peddling wagons around the trade routes more than a few times, are frequent topics. So engrained was the romance and legendry of the local basket peddling enterprise that it would remain an important marketing technique and source of stories well into the 20th century.
Despite the apparent romance of peddling, the families who made baskets remained destitute and continued to produce baskets in order to feed and clothe themselves in this early marketing period, although a few of them did join in the peddling business. The culture of poverty that seemed to attend the familial basket making industry must have contributed to the social stigma that was attached to this activity historically. One of my interviewees commented that this might be true to some extent, but that all of the people in Cub Run were poor during this period of time. By modern standards of socio-economic differentiation this may be true, but the stigma had to have existed for a reason and class structure seems the most likely explanation.
Another possible explanation for social stigmatism (according to Anderson Childress, Hart County local historian--see recorded interview BM31W005TV.TAP), in conjunction with class status, may have to do with occupational expectations and gender roles. In this early period of basket trading, there seems to have emerged two types of producers--those who made baskets on the side, and those who made them full time. For those who made baskets full time, and especially for the men who did so, this activity may have been perceived as a transgression of proper occupational roles, the man's role being that of farmer, husbandman, or tradesman (basketry, as mentioned earlier, was not considered an artisinal trade at this time). Considering the sharply scrutinizing and rigidly structured nature of historical rural communities, this theory is not altogether improbable, though it would be difficult to substantiate.
Anderson Childress also offered a bit of information that supports my own theory that class status was probably the primary reason for the stigma attached to basket makers. He states that many of these families did not own land themselves, but existed in a land tenure system akin to that of tenantry. Therefore when basket makers were in need of basket timber, they would of course have to harvest that timber from land that didn't belong to them--thus stories of timber poaching, of which I heard or read several. According to Mr. Childress this practice angered the land-owners who believed that basket makers were exploiting immature timber that if left to mature could be milled and sold for lumber at a considerable profit to themselves in due time. What we have then, is a class looked upon very much like a peasantry within an established socio-economic hierarchy, and inextricably associated with this "peasant" class was the craft activity of basket making. It would be interesting in a future study to examine this aspect of basket making within a multi-regional context.
This early period of trading and peddling continued unabated for several years, and the precedents set in this period would continue to influence or directly shape the basket making industry in the area well into succeeding eras. Prices paid for baskets by merchants and peddlers at this time were anywhere from 10 to 50 cents, depending on the size and style of the basket produced, though basket makers themselves would rarely realize cash rewards. These meager prices were hardly compensatory for the considerable labor expenditures required in the making of baskets. Nonetheless, basket making families continued to produce and trade their baskets for whatever price they could get.
These early formative years also set a precedent in establishing the presence of a middle-man through which baskets were marketed and sold. This inequitable wholesale pattern would also continue to attend this industry right up until (and overlapping in some instances) the fairly recent period when basket makers and other traditional craftspeople were beginning to receive the respect, admiration, and direct markets that were fostered by the revived nationwide interest in handicrafts.
What was made clear in this period as well, was the fact that baskets were a salable commodity that could support or supplement, to a degree at least, and however tenuously, a struggling family's domestic economy. This fact more than any other may explain the continued vitality of basket production on the massive scale that characterized the activity in this area. With the arrival of the next distinctive period in the economy of baskets, many of these old patterns would persist, though a few of the more fortunate basket makers would break away from this pseudo scrip system and establish successful marketing strategies and venues of their own.
The Economy of Baskets, Part II--The Dixie Highway and Diffusion
Around the turn of the 19th century, with transportation routes and methods being vastly improved and more available to affluent families and individuals, and the tourism phenomenon beginning to take off, travel into Southcentral Kentucky reached heretofore unknown levels. The main thoroughfare passing through Hart County and other surrounding counties and communities was highway 31W, also known as the Dixie Highway. This major early route took northern travelers seeking respite from the bitter cold winters of the upper Midwest to the warmer climes of the southern states. Extending from Saginaw, Michigan to Miami, Florida, the Dixie Highway would bring thousands of automobiles straight through the heart of Southcentral Kentucky basket making country, and basket makers (and merchants even more so) were not unaware of the new marketing possibilities that such traffic flow offered.
Many of the tourists who came through the region were compelled to visit the natural wonders of this vast karstland region. Mammoth Cave was already a well known and popular destination, as were numerous other caves and caverns privately owned by local citizens. The tourist destinations of the area, coupled with their proximity to centers of basket production, would result in new marketing strategies that would take every advantage of this situation.
It is not clear exactly when or by whom the first roadside souvenir shop was established along the 31W corridor, but by the 1920s or earlier, these stands, known as basket stands, would line the shoulders of the highway for miles--most prolifically from Elizabethtown south to the vicinity just north of Bowling Green. The basket stand phenomenon offered basket makers a new and more promising venue through which to market their baskets, but it also offered the same opportunity to entrepreneurial merchants. Some basket makers moved their families from the western Hart County area, removed by several miles from 31W, to communities along this route to take advantage of these new markets. So too did merchants. Lestel Childress remembers the basket stand owned and operated by his mother and father, Ellie and Bennie, the bumper to bumper automobile traffic that lined the road, and the tourists who filtered in and out of their shop regularly. The Childress family sold not only baskets, but other trinkets and souvenirs from the area, among them broken pieces of glass bottles and other vessels sold to tourists under the guise of cave country geodes.
For the Childress family, these were relatively prosperous times, but for most other basket making families the older patterns would continue. Cub Run, and also the community of Wax in bordering Grayson County, still remained the production centers for basket making, though some families were beginning to diffuse along the 31W
corridor to take advantage of the situation. Most of these families still located in the vicinity of western Hart County would produce baskets and carry them on Saturdays to the basket stands along the highway to exchange for payment, much as they had done before the highway boom although now to a different sort of buyer. The principle difference in this period of time and the earlier period was in the fact that basket makers did see the real cash profits for their products. Yet other families continued to be bound to the older trading and credit exchange system, with the store owners of the area taking the basket to the stands and exchanging them for money. Prices offered by stand operators, however; remained very low initially, and the economic dependency on basket generated income continued to be important for most struggling families further in the Hart County interior.
Most of these basket stands were owned and operated not by basket making families, but by former merchants and store owners from western Hart County and elsewhere. Two members of one prominent merchant family in particular, their father having owned a store in Wax that actively engaged in the basket exchange, relocated their operations along the 31W corridor and continued to deal in baskets quite heavily. The stores of these two individuals still exist at the present time, both actively dealing in baskets, though in much less quantity and with fewer basket makers than in years past. These merchants and others recognized the lucrative markets that tourism offered, and marketed the area's baskets with a special veracity. Many of these merchants, and a few basket makers, would also become involved in the still thriving peddling business.
Mail order was another important marketing outlet that developed during this period. There are confirming stories from more than a few contemporary basket makers that their parents, grandparents, or a close friend took advantage of these more direct marketing relationships. Aunt Let Thompson was one such individual; through her mail order basket business she would often ask for goods, rather than cash, in exchange for her baskets. Most of her customers sent secondhand clothing to her in trade for her baskets. In this way, Aunt Let was able to start her own secondhand clothing store. She also accepted baskets from local makers in trade for clothing. Ollie Childress, wife of Lestel Childress, relayed the story of visiting Aunt Let's store looking for a wedding dress as follows:
I were going to get married. His grandma ran a secondhanded store. She
would trade her baskets for secondhand clothing. One day she got a box of clothing
from Nebraska. In it was the prettiest blue crepe dress I'd ever seen. I hadn't gotten a
wedding dress, so I asked her how much she wanted for it. She said fifty cents, or just
weave me a basket. So I wove her a basket that would have been a peck size back
then. My daughters don't like me to tell that story. (From the personal collection of
Anderson Childress also stated that his own mother made baskets largely for a mail order business agreement between her and a buyer in Nashville, Brown County, Indiana. Other basket makers have attested to the thriving mail order business operated by local basket making legend, Audie Dennison (which extended from this marketing period into the most recent). Mr. Dennison would sell his own baskets as well as those of others, with whom he would place orders to fill the demand he received for baskets.
With these new and widely dispersed consumer markets for baskets, basket styles, shapes, and techniques also underwent tremendous changes during this period. Prior to these new markets most baskets were strictly utilitarian in design and function. The influence of external markets, however; and the increasingly competitive nature of the industry combined to inspire several new innovations in ornamentation and decoration. Dyed splits were one of these newer elements and became more common for some time. Another change in style and design had to do with the direct demands of consumers or buyers who would request non-traditional shapes and patterns that basket makers would promptly duplicate. This period also saw a general increase in attention to detail and precision in basket making once prices did finally start to rise. Michael Owen Jones has noted a similar situation in the production of chairs in eastern Kentucky: "if he knew [the chair maker] that he could command a higher price, the craftsman was willing to lavish greater attention on the product, thus improving the appearance and usefulness of the object" (Jones, 1972). This observation can certainly be extended to basket making during this period of expanding external markets.
By most accounts, this period of heavy tourist traffic was the heyday of the basket making enterprise. Peddling also continued to be quite important during this entire period, though it was no longer the principle means of reaching outside markets. This thriving time in the basket business would come to a rather abrupt halt with the completion of the new high-speed super highway, Interstate 65 (completed in 1965) that redirected traffic away from the slower secondary highways and would sound the death knell for the tourism industry that once thrived along 31W.
The Economy of Baskets, Part III--Redirection, Revivalism, and Recognition
With the waning of the basket stand era and the economic benefits that it made possible, the basket making enterprise would suffer through a temporary lull. While the once booming tourist industry along 31W was a casualty of the construction of I-65, this new route opened up many new economic opportunities for local residents. Whether they took jobs working with local highway crews or commuted to what were now nearby towns for steady and secure employment, basket makers were no longer dependent on basket making to feed and clothe themselves as they once had been. It is common for many of the older basket makers of today to recall living through a period of time in their lives when they abandoned basket making altogether. They had, after all, been living with the uncertain economic gains of basket making and the stigma that accompanied it for long enough.
It was also during this period that a renewed appreciation of arts and crafts emerged and spurred the creation of guilds and state arts agencies across the nation. It was the second revival of handicraft traditions we might say, following the similar ideologies extolled by the original Arts and Crafts Movement of the early twentieth century, which would not reach most rural communities in the south except by way of settlement schools and social reform programs (see David Whisnant, 1983, for a thorough analysis of this period and its implications in southern Appalachia).
Among those states implementing programs to accommodate the growing appreciation and demand for hand made crafts, Kentucky led the way in many respects. The Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen was established in 1961 as a membership organization for accomplished craft artists that would offer widely publicized marketing programs through the avenues of juried exhibits and crafts fairs for its members. The first initiative led by the Guild was known as the Art Train, a traveling museum of Kentucky arts and crafts that made stops in towns throughout the state, raising awareness and recognition of the state's talented artists, artisans, and craftspeople. Soon to follow the train would be the annual Guild sponsored crafts fairs held in Berea, KY. In addition to the efforts of the Guild, the Kentucky Arts Council was established as a governmentally sponsored agency in 1966. These new organizations and agencies would ostensibly breath new life into otherwise fading craft traditions throughout the state.
It is difficult to ascertain the impact that these early craft programs had for traditional artists and craftspeople, however. Some folklorists and other scholars of this situation (Camp, 1983) have asserted that the initiatives of the 60s and 70s worked largely to the benefit of craft revivalists, often leaving traditional artisans out of the fold entirely--quite often by their own choice. For the traditional basket makers of Southcentral Kentucky these initiatives would have little positive, and in fact mostly negative impacts in the early years of their implementation. With the lingering effects of I-65 still being felt, the years between roughly 1965 and 1980 saw a dramatic atrophy in the number of baskets being made in the area, in the number of basket makers, and in the number of available sales outlets.
Though the basket stand era had past, tourists continued to visit the Mammoth Cave area in great numbers, and along interstate exchanges channeling these visitors into the park, souvenir shops began to proliferate once more. There existed in this period, several stores that regularly sold baskets to tourists, among them the Olde General Store in Cave City, owned by long time basket broker Leroy Alvey. Leroy's brother, Curtis also owned a store in Elizabethtown that he appropriately named The Basket Barn. These two merchants would exert considerable control over the local basket making industry in the early post-I-65 years, buying hundreds of baskets wholesale from local makers to sell in their stores. With the external markets for these baskets having been transformed (by the newest revival) into somewhat of a specialized collectors market, prices paid by outside collectors for local baskets soared. Merchants, knowing quite clearly that this was the case, and also knowing just as clearly that the area's traditional basket makers were not fully aware of this situation, continued to pay them minimal wholesale prices, often as much as 100% or more below market value. Although the number of basket makers in the area had declined dramatically in these years, those who continued making were bound to this inequitable wholesale pattern until recognition from the outside, in the form of government crafts marketing initiatives, raised their awareness of the value of their baskets and encouraged independent marketing strategies. This predicament was lived through by many of the older current basket makers, and the memories associated with this exploitative situation are still extremely volatile to say the least.
The state arts programs did not really begin to benefit state craftspeople in Kentucky until the governorship of John Y. Brown. It was Governor Brown's wife, Phyllis George Brown who truly adopted Kentucky crafts as a major statewide initiative of her own. Phyllis George-Brown spearheaded the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation in 1981 toward the purposes of promoting and marketing hand made Kentucky crafts to posh national and international markets. In generally achieving this goal, George-Brown was wildly successful, opening marketing agreements with such department stores as Bloomingdale's, Neiman-Marcus, and Marshall Fields. The "Oh! Kentucky" boutique, featuring hand made crafts exclusively from Kentucky, premiered at Bloomingdale's stores in the mid 1980s and was quite lucrative for some time.
While the efforts of Phyllis George-Brown are widely recognized and appreciated, just like the general revival of interest that preceded her initiative, it is difficult to gauge the positive effects it had for traditional craftspeople. Among Southcentral Kentucky's traditional basket makers, only two individuals/families received direct attention, recognition, and accompanying marketing benefits--and one of them under false pretenses. With the publication of George-Brown's (then Phyllis George) book, Kentucky Crafts: Handmade and Heartfelt, those craftspeople with whom she had worked most directly became clear. One of these persons was merchant Curtis Alvey, who is presented in George's book as a basket maker/trader extraordinaire, though Curtis Alvey was not a basket maker at all. Along with the promotional biographical text on Alvey, there are several photographs, one of which frames the hands of local master basket maker Leona Waddell working on one of her own baskets. No credit, recognition, or citation is given for Waddell or her work. Basket makers also became aware that Curtis Alvey had been buying their baskets, marking prices up astronomically, and travelling to national craft shows and exhibitions presenting these baskets as his own work. These incidents infuriated not only Leona Waddell, but most other area basket makers as well, and effectively marked the end of an era.
One certain effect of George-Brown's efforts for local basket makers was the realization that the objects of their creation were worth considerably more money than they were accustomed to receiving. Her campaign also introduced the possibility of autonomous marketing strategies to many local basket makers, most of whom would eventually began marketing on their own, finally expropriating the direct retail markets that had been dominated by merchants almost since the inception of the industry. In this period, prices paid for baskets skyrocketed, with a basket having sold for 50 cents in the peddling period, or perhaps ten dollars toward the end of the basket stand era now selling from anywhere to fifty to one hundred fifty dollars or more. Out-of-home retail businesses were now operated by individual basket makers themselves, or, more often, they would produce baskets in their homes to fill orders for customers paying top dollar for their baskets.
This final era in the economy of baskets is difficult to characterize in any singular fashion. It was both the most exploitative and, eventually, the most prosperous period for local basket makers. At the same time, this most recent period has seen the most dramatic decline in the number of basket makers still at work (though there are still quite a large number of individuals making baskets today, but fewer in relative terms). The standards set in this period continue to inform the current condition of the basket making enterprise in the area, though some newer manifestations concerning the tradition have surfaced more recently, some positive and some negative.
Traditional Basket Making in Hart County--Current Conditions and Future Considerations.
During the course of this project the interviews I conducted with traditional basket makers revealed widely varying conditions of the contemporary tradition. A few basket makers still make baskets as their primary source of income, yet most of those I interviewed were currently on hiatus from the craft tradition. Many had not produced baskets in any quantity over the course of several months, or in some cases, even years. This is partly due to the growing paucity of suitable basket timber available in the area. Lack of materials alone cannot explain the decline, however, as traditional willow and honeysuckle basket makers Charles and Charlene Long had also produced very few baskets over the last several years although the materials they utilize are relatively abundant. Whether from a decline in enthusiasm or a drop in markets, baskets are generally being produced in far less quantity than in years past.
One contemporary tradition that has re-ignited basket production over the course of the last four years is the annual Hart County Fair Basket Making Contest, conceptualized and sponsored by Munfordville physician and local craft tradition enthusiast, Dr. James Middleton. Middleton, through his contest and other forms of generous support, has made the perpetuation of the local basket making tradition somewhat of a crusade, with much support from the community at large. His office, the Family Medical Center of Hart County, is a veritable museum dedicated to local baskets and basket makers, quilts and quilters and other local crafts. Each year, Middleton purchases the winning baskets of the contest to add to the magnificent display that adorns the walls of his office. In addition, Dr. Middleton also purchases other baskets from local makers throughout the year, one of his goals being to have a basket on display from every basket maker in the area. Dr. Middleton is truly a champion of this local tradition and has done much good work to insure the continued vitality of many area craft traditions--especially basket making.
The reality of declining resources cannot be ignored, however; as this one element may be the most critical in determining the continuation of the basket making traditions of this area. In speaking of materials in craft production generally, Charles Camp asserts, "the availability of materials for use in traditional craft processes may play a greater role in the health of particular traditions than any other factor, including the recruitment of apprentices and the identification of potential buyers for craft objects produced for sale" (1983). In past considerations of this problem, researchers have proposed cooperative agreements between local basket makers and Mammoth Cave National Park and other state managed forest areas (Dale Johnson, 1999). To my knowledge, however; no attempt had been made to implement these potential agreements. It is clear that if supplementary timber resources are not made available to local craftspeople, the tradition may suffer unrecoverable losses.
As an example, local white oak basket maker Leona Waddell at the time of our initial contact had neither timber on hand nor prospects for finding any. Because Waddell cannot produce baskets without basket timber, she had decided to forego entry into the Hart County Fair Basket Making Contest this year. We were able to locate and deliver some timber to Mrs. Waddell, however; and the two baskets she produced for the contest took first and second place in the decorative basket category of this year's fair. But it is important to note that this example is not intended to be interpreted as a success story, as this was merely a temporary fix for the ongoing and ever-worsening problem of material scarcity. If timber is not made available to those older (or younger, for that matter) bearers of this tradition who have no immediate access to this resource, then it is not unreasonable to conclude that they may stop producing baskets altogether. This problem should be of central importance in conceptualizing cultural conservation initiatives related to white oak basketry in south central Kentucky in the future--though it should not be put on hold, this issue needs and deserves immediate attention!
One local institution that should make these issues central among their concerns is the proposed Cultural Heritage Center in Park City. My fear for the effectiveness of programs potentially available through the Center, however; have to do primarily with the bureaucratic channels that will inevitably delay the construction and opening of the Center--too little, too late perhaps. Other local private businesses and organizations may be more-well suited and willing to handle the immediate needs of the local basket making tradition. Among these, the "Creations From the Hart" Crafts Cooperative in Munfordville offers much promise. Dr. Middleton and others have mentioned the possibility of employing this local cooperative as a central grassroots organization representing the needs and concerns of the local basket making tradition--negotiating timber availability and offering a direct marketing outlet being chief among them.
The basket making traditions of the 31W corridor area remain a vital component of the regions cultural heritage. Through a complex set of historical and contemporary circumstances, basketry is inexorably bound to the cultural identity of this area. This survey was intended to illuminate some of the lesser addressed issues that surround this local enterprise, and it is hoped that this goal has been achieved on some level. At the same time, this project has by no means exhausted the possibilities for future research, as there remain many stories to be told and recorded. Through continuing efforts, some of which may be initiated by the work presented here, we can insure that the basket making tradition of this area remains intact and thriving.
I have submitted along with this report all of the field work documentation that attended the project. Refer to file code BM31W for all supplementary documents and recordings.
July 2, 2001
Tony N. VanWinkle