Huckleberry Baskets from Bill

A “folded bark basket”, made by Bill Alexander

Bet you didn’t know such a thing (huckleberry baskets) exists.  I didn’t until about eight years ago.  It was ChristyFest time and I was in charge of Events.  That meant I was to find interesting speakers who presented interesting programs on interesting topics.  With the guidance of a Townsend local, I contacted a man in Knoxville who made baskets.  It sounded vaguely interesting…yes, there’s that word again…so I called.  Thirty minutes later I made the acquaintance of a VERY interesting man who agreed to come to our festival and present a demonstration…hopefully, it would be… interesting!

The appointed day, I nervously watched the door for his appearance.  In walked a white bearded, ponytailed guy who looked more like a hippie Santa than a basketmaker!  He grabbed me, gave me a bear hug and proceeded to convince all of us dubious Team Leaders that he was, indeed, a man of many talents!

But he didn’t show us ordinary baskets.  Oh no.  These were special.  These were made out of bark.  Yep, tree bark.  Impossible?  I thought so too.  How the heck could you do that?  Little did I know that our ancestors were extremely innovative.  They could make something out of nothing.  It helped that the Cherokees from that area were willing to share their knowledge, tools and crafts. So when Great-great-great-grandma was out with the younguns, traipsing all over the mountains, headed for Aint Eller’s place, they might stumble upon a huckleberry (kinsfolk to the blueberry) patch.  And dagnabit…they had nothing to put those luscious berries in.  There were just so many berries a feller could stuff into his pockets, and mouth.

So, Ma would send a youngun to shinny up a poplar tree to get some bark.  He’d cut a strip of bark 10-12″ wide, split it up one side and peel it off the tree.  Then he’d take his knife, with the bark spread out flat and cut a  “cat’s eye” in the middle of it, bend it to the inside of the bark, yank some leather off a shoe and BINGO, they had huckleberry basket.  They would proceed to shine up the patch and bring Aint Eller tomorrow’s dessert ingredient..huckleberries for pie. Or jam.

The baskets were considered disposable so they usually just pitched them when they emptied out the berries.  That’s why it’s a real find to latch on to one of these ancient baskets.  Which is sort of what attracted Bill to them in the first place…they were old.

So Bill set about to learn about them. And how to make them.  In fact, Bill has studied with just about every basketmaker in the US and a few “ferners”.

Bill has been a special guest ever since at ChristyFest and has donated many baskets to us for prizes and drawings.  And I have my very own Bill Alexander Berry Basket hanging in my dining room.  It’s signed. And his poetry books.

Bill also writes poetry and tells tales and makes baskets as he recites a poem.  Or tall tale.  One year, he even had all of the festival attendees make a mini-baskets.  We had a blast, although our baskets didn’t look quite like Bill’s.  I still have mine and use it at Christmas on our Hunter’s Tree.

Feel the stress of basket-making?

Even Hawaiian shirt-wearing Hollywood types can make baskets!

But the best part of the baskets is Bill. He is so much fun, has so much knowledge and is a true gentleman of the South!!

Below is a note he sent several years ago with the background story of his latest poem.

Bill Alexander, the Basket Man

Debbie, I know I am late with this. I got the idea for this on a trail (A specific trail) while hiking and there was trash and I began to pick it up. I found an old umbrella cover that had been blown off its frame and made a bag out of it to hold the trash as my pockets were full. I got to thinking about the old saw to teach people to not take and leave things from our parks and wilderness areas that says “take only memories or pictures and leave our footprints.” There was talk at supper two nights before I wrote this about ghosts and I got to thinking about how like on the beach that footprints in the sand disappear and “A Ghostly Track.” is the result. The Great Smoky Mountains are a special place in our great land and I have a special place in the Christy story so maybe you can use this. I believe that Christy would have wanted the mountains to be protected.

A Ghostly Track ©
by
Bill Alexander
A Trail Somewhere
August 11, 2009

Pack it in.
Pack it out.
That’s the way
On a proper walkabout.

If you can’t,
Then–don’t pack it in.
Otherwise, we’ll know
Where you’ve been.

So on the way in,
And on the way back
May you only leave
A ghostly track.

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4 Responses to Huckleberry Baskets from Bill

  1. Kate says:

    Thanks for sharing Bill and his talents, what an inspiration!

    Like

  2. The Queen says:

    He’s unique for sure!! I love these baskets!!

    Like

  3. Cynthia says:

    Home from the Desert SW. In the Basket. Makers Area. Forever. Homesick. I will send along. A poem ir two. Long Live NPR!

    Like

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