White Oak Basketmaking-A Family Tradition

Posted by on Updated Jan 3, 2012 7:35:05 PM Category: News
We spent my Mother's 82nd birthday at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia.  We had a special purpose for our visit on this day; viewing and photographing my Great-grandfather Thomas Jackson "Happy Jack" Nicholson's white oak basket on display there.  The maternal side of my family can trace our basket making roots directly back to Cumberland County, England in 1704.   Mom's Granddad "Happy Jack" passed his knowledge and skill down to her Father Landon Lee.  "Landy" as he was called received orders through the mail from all over the US and would make baskets to specifications, then walk several miles to the Edinburg depot and put them on the train to their destination.  Landon then passed the tradition down to his sons, the most well known basketmaker of which was my Uncle Irskel Nicholson.  I am proud to say that I am now continuing the family tradition of white oak basket making and hope to hand it down to yet another generation in our family.

Pictured above:

Left: Well used white oak basket made by "Happy Jack" Nicholson around 1885-1936.  (Private collection of Debbi Dellinger)

Middle: White oak basket made by Landon Nicholson around 1910-1955.   (Private collection of Debbi Dellinger)

Right: White oak basket made by Debbi Dellinger in 2007

Baskets were a necessity in the days before paper bags and plastic and metal containers.  They were constructed in all shapes and sizes for many different uses and with many different natural materials.  Each basketmaker had techniques and traditions that were handed down through the family.  Many of the methods of basket construction were also regional.  Most basketmakers sold or traded their wares for other goods that could not be made in the home.  White oak is the basketmaker's wood of choice regionally and has become increasingly hard to come by in recent years.  Disease, air pollution, acid rain and of course clearing away of timber for new construction have all taken their toll on good "basket wood".    Basketmakers who practice the old time-consuming methods are now being recognized for their craft and appreciated for the artists they are.  Current prices for true white oak baskets may seem rather high but considering the skill and time invested coupled with the scarcity of good wood, they are still a bargain for anyone wanting a basket that will hold up through generations of use and a "family heirloom" that will be appreciated for many years to come.

 Our heartfelt thanks go to the staff of the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley for allowing us to photograph Great-granddad's basket and for making my Mother's birthday a memorable one.

If you have not yet visited the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, please plan to do so when in the area.