A Kentucky Tradition is Sustained with Pride
(This first appeared in the National Basketry Organization Fall 2008 newsletter.—BRS)
Folks living in rural south-central Kentucky eagerly attend the annual Hart County Fair. The amusement rides lure children, young and old, and teenage romance has a chance to blossom amid the sounds of sideshow barkers and the sweet aroma of cotton candy. There are also several hotly contested competitions for livestock, blackberry cobblers, and even a well-attended baby pageant.
But the most unique event is the white oak basket contest. The competition features the work of the finest traditional basket makers in the area, which has a rich history of producing white oak split basketry and related styles.
On display a last year’s fair were dozens of expertly woven egg baskets, fancy miniatures, exquisite willow rod and honeysuckle vine creations, hand fans and other traditional forms. First and foremost were the white oak baskets. And the focus of much conjecture among the attendees was who will win Best of Show.
Among the likely winners were some half-dozen basket makers with more than 100 years of collective experience. The perennial favorite and past winner is Leona Waddell, whose set of three miniature egg baskets feature fanciful twill weaving so fine it appeared to be made of thread rather than hand-split oak.
There were also baskets produced by Paul Rich, who excels at traditional split oak styles, and Frances Glass, who has entered an egg basket begun by her recently deceased husband, Willard, which she completed and entered in the contest with tears in her eyes. Charles and Charlene Long’s willow and honeysuckle baskets show wonderful, graceful control over the rustic materials. All will tell you they have basket making in their blood, literally.
The roots of traditional basketry in south-central Kentucky reach back to settlers who adapted European styles and techniques to native materials. White oak became the most popular material and rib basketry the dominant form. The majority of basket making was perpetuated through family networks. So much so that it grew into a considerable cottage industry, encompassing hundreds of families in the late 1800s.
Farm baskets were the specialty, produced by the thousands, which were traded at local stores for necessities such as coal oil, matches and clothing. To reach a broader market, peddlers often loaded wagons full of baskets to sell as far away as Chicago, Cleveland and grain producing areas in the Midwest. Defining characteristics of these early baskets, still visible today, were wide, flat, bottom ribs and distinctive wrappings.
But the end of World War II brought economic and social changes; families were upended and the demand for baskets declined. While a few families persisted in subsequent years, most notably the Childresses who successfully sold their work through several craft organizations, many chose more lucrative ways to make a living — and the tradition withered.
Source of Pride
Although the dwindling numbers of basket makers in the area have received periodic boosts from state and regional arts, two key influences have helped significantly to sustain their efforts. The Mammoth Cave Basket Makers Guild was formed in 2001 to preserve and promote basket making in south-central Kentucky, along with assisting basket makers in developing markets and finding raw materials. Beth Hester and Scott Gilbert, who own GH Productions/Basket Makers Catalog (see Blogroll link), have been instrumental in developing the guild and its ongoing efforts.
The other positive force is Dr. James Middleton, an energetic family physician with a practice that serves five counties in the area. In spite of his daunting workload, Middleton developed and sponsored with generous prize money the Hart County Fair basket competition throughout its first decade. Winning baskets from each year are displayed on every available wall of his clinic. And the Guild meets there monthly, as well.
“The impetus for my involvement is simple,” Middleton says, “it’s all about pride. People look on the walls of my office and see the baskets of a family member or someone they know. It creates a sense of pride. And if they take pride in themselves, they’ll take better care of themselves. That’s my reward.”
“Basket making has helped define our culture,” he adds, “and it’s a great tradition that deserves recognition.”
Leona Waddell, 82, perhaps best exemplifies the success of this grassroots support of basket making. She grew up helping her mother, Ellar Trulock produce baskets that were bartered for family provisions.
After she began to raise a family of her own, she produced market baskets for local basket stands. In the 1980s she made egg baskets and picnic baskets for a broker who sometimes claimed her work as his own.
“I gave it up then and worked various jobs through the years,” she says, including being a seamstress and public school cook. “I took to basket making again in 1997 after I won first place in the fair.”
“I was just making baskets for extra spending money until I won that first time,” Waddell says. “Well, then I thought, I’ll try again next year, and try to improve my baskets. And every year I’ve entered, I’ve won.”
With the ensuing personal recognition, Waddell was motivated to continue to refine her technique and create a wider variety of baskets. Today, her intricately detailed and almost perfectly proportioned oak baskets, which she produces from splitting her own trees, are recognized as among the best in the southeastern United States.
And the Winner Is…
As the humidity and temperature finally begin to subside with the approach of evening at the fair, and everyone in the basket contest bleachers claims they’ve had their fill of funnel cake and corn dogs, Middleton takes the microphone to announce the winners of various classes of the competition.
Waddell sits patiently in the front row with hands cradled in her lap. Paul Rich, who won best of show in 2006, also sits calmly nearby. Other contestants watch and listen closely as Middleton scans the judges’ final decision. The moment they would never admit to longing for is at hand.
“And the winner of Best of Show,” announces Middleton, “is Leona Waddell!”
There is loud applause, hugs of appreciation, and the required grip-and-grin photo.
Soon, the shed is almost empty. Except near the entrance, where 18-year-old Matthew Childress, representing the ninth generation of basket makers in his family, lingers and eyes an exceptionally well made oak basket remaining on one of the tables.
“Some day, I’d like to make a basket like that,” he confides.
Leona can be contacted at (270) 862-9870.