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In the former tobacco basket-making capital of the world, Yadkin man is last one standing

Link to article and pics here ... r-2112587/

Credit: David Rolfe/Journal

Bud Miller makes a small number of tobacco baskets and says that he might be the only person in the world who still makes them. He is the son of J. Anderson Miller, who started J.A. Miller Basket Co. in 1945.

Bud Miller makes a small number of tobacco baskets and says that he might be the only person in the world who still makes them. He is the son of J. Anderson Miller, who started J.A. Miller Basket Co. in 1945. Credit: David Rolfe/Journal

A machine for dressing tobacco basket splits gathers dust and cobwebs as it stands idle in Bud Miller's tobacco basket factory in Courtney. Miller plans to run the old machine again this summer. 1

GALLERY: Tobacco Baskets

A machine for dressing tobacco basket splits gathers dust and cobwebs as it stands idle in Bud Miller's tobacco basket factory in Courtney.
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By: Wesley Young | Winston-Salem Journal
Published: April 01, 2012 Updated: April 01, 2012 - 12:00 AM
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Yadkin County was once home to as many as six factories that made thousands of baskets and shipped them to any part of the country where people were growing and marketing tobacco.

By modern standards, the factories were small, but each provided work for a dozen or two local people and extra money for the farmers who would gather wood and cut it into "splits" during the winter.

Those factories turned out baskets by the tens of thousands every year, selling them to warehouses to replace baskets that wore out.

"The construction of these things was a work of art," said Andrew Mackie, a Yadkin County historian. "The local men provided the lumber. They would use a froe — a cutting tool — to cut strips of the wood. At the factory they would soak them, and they had a machine that would bend the wood into the shape they wanted."

At tobacco warehouses, tobacco rolled into bundles or "hands" would be arranged on the baskets in a circular pattern and sorted according to grade. Holes on the side of the baskets made it possible to insert hooks and carry the basket away at the warehouse.

When people called Yadkin County the tobacco basket capital of the world, they were telling the truth, Mackie said.

"We were about the only place in the world that made these things," he said. "They are collectors items now."

An online search for tobacco baskets today turns up pictures of them hanging over fireplaces or adorning bedroom walls. Decorators hang them square or diagonally and display them face-up or bottom-up.

Some people hang them tattered and missing slats. Others get more creative, and use the basket as the center of a photo or folk-art display.

In Yadkin County, the tobacco basket factories are gone.

Almost: Bud Miller, who is 80, still makes a small number, in all different sizes, from time to time in an old building full of rusting machinery and wood splits still stacked from when they were gathered and cut years ago.

"We have not made any since the summer before last," Miller said. "There ain't anybody making these splits. It used to be just about everybody in the county would make splits. They were all rove out by hand. Up until 10 or 15 years ago, people were doing the splits."

A family tradition

Miller is the son of J. Anderson Miller, who started J.A. Miller Basket Co. in 1945.

Tobacco historian Billy Yeargin said the idea for tobacco baskets started right here in Winston-Salem about 1880 when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. decided it had to keep its product cleaner.

This was a time of dirt roads and dirty floors. Oxen or horses brought the tobacco to market on wagons.

"They had to have something to protect the product from that filth on the floor — not only from bringing it in, but the buyer had to have a way to get it out and store it," Yeargin said.

The baskets seemed the perfect solution, Yeargin said.

But why Yadkin? Some say the oak there was more pliable than in other locales and worked better for the baskets. Yeargin thinks Yadkin became the center because the early basket-makers were from that area.

Basket-makers depended on farmers to make the splits that they used to assemble the baskets, said Felix McKnight, who with his father and brother made baskets from 1947 as J.M. McKnight and Sons Inc.

A farmer would cut an oak log in half, then quarter it. The thin splits they made from the log with the froe were bought by basket makers at 2 or 3 cents per split.

"In the wintertime some farmers would do it to make a daily living," McKnight said. He and his wife would sometimes go out nights and "hunt up splits."

"We bought in a 100-mile circumference," he said. "Those that could spend a while doing it could make a thousand of them."

At the factory, the splits were trimmed. Then a machine was used to lift alternate rows of splits so that cross-rows of splits could be interwoven. The result was a square plaited framework that had to undergo soaking.

"You had to get up at 4 o'clock and get the water boiling," McKnight said. "There were metal tanks — two of them 5 feet by 5 feet for the basket bottoms and a 2-by-7 tank for the rims."

Soaked and ready

It was hot work, but the soaking in hot water made the wood soft and ready for the next step.

Working two at a time, workers would take a basket bottom from the vat and put it on a table with rounded sides. Pulling a lever, they would lower a frame that bent the wood down over the sides of the table.

Two workers could turn out 200 baskets in a shift that ran from 7 a.m. to noon. To make assembly go faster, "some of the boys would put a bunch of nails into their mouths and push them out with their tongues," McKnight said.

Making $2.50 to $3 per basket, he said, business was good.

Traveling in New Hampshire during a recent year, McKnight and his wife saw a tobacco basket for sale at a shop for $75.

The bottom fell out of the tobacco basket business in 1966, said Yeargin, who has done extensive research on the history of tobacco warehousing.

Warehouses changed the way they handled tobacco. Formerly, farmers would gather their cured tobacco into bundles wrapped in a leaf of tobacco. These bundles sorted the tobacco into various grades of quality.

When the tobacco came to the warehouse to await auction, the bundles would be stacked in a circular pattern on a tobacco basket.

"In 1966, the companies said: 'We don't care what the grade is. We have our own grades,'?" Yeargin said. "The farmer said that eliminated that much more in labor."

So a new system began, bringing bundles of loose tobacco tied in sheets to the warehouse. The tobacco basket was not needed.

By the late 1960s, the basket factories were shutting down or shifting production to other wood products such as pallets.

The Miller factory shut down in 1969, but it reopened in 1976 to make baskets for the burley tobacco market. By 1986, Miller's father was telling a Winston-Salem Journal reporter that the burley market was going away, too. By 1990, the business was through.

Today, Miller reckons that he might be the only person in the world who still makes tobacco baskets. He can make full-size baskets or smaller-scale models, but there's no money in it, he said. People buy them to resell as decorating pieces.

"After the big ones played out, I started making these little ones," he said.

When McKnight no longer had a market, he simply stopped making the baskets.

"We had about 300 left when we stopped," McKnight said. "Someone bought them all."

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Re: The Last Tobacco Basket Maker

Thanks for the story Jim. I remember the baskets very well but never new where they came from. I agree making the baskets would be a art form as well as the men that stacked the tobacco on them. We hand tied and took it in on the stick till they said that it would only be bought in bales but to me the baskets made a much better looking display of your crop. I see the baskets in antique stores now with some pretty hefty prices on them and one of these days I'm going to buy one just to hang in the barn for the memories.

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Re: The Last Tobacco Basket Maker

A dying art, and another piece of our heritage that will be lost forever.
Along with tying a hand of tobacco when our generation passes. :cry:

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
Here's a pic of one of my baskets and a tobacco setter.


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Very interesting post Jim . I enjoyed reading all about it. Have seen tobacco packed on those baskets in warehouse ,ready to sell. My husband has pack tobacco on those baskets.


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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
I have lots of artifacts stashed all 'round this place. Many of them wind up here cuz nobody else wanted them. Some have been in the family for generations and probably have little value, but they are paid for and help me "remember" less stressful times.

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Packing tob on a basket I loved doing it. must say and not bragging but old farmers would pick their packers. I been at 1 warehouse packing and would have them call from another to get you to come and pack it. I got a lot of tales of packing tob. Once when I didn't make it in time and someone else had put it on a basket the old farmer took it off and made me pack it over. The tob. grade lugs which was the longest was the hardest and took some doing to keep it small enough around but I knew lots of secrets to holding it on.. I have packed from 2 people handing it to me at 1 time.. ;)

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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
I understand the thinking behind going to baling tobacco. It was a cost saver for the tobacco companies, yet it forced small growers here to buy a baler, pay the warehouse to bale their crop, haul it to a neighbor who had a baler, or made some decide to quit the crop. A better description was a cost shifting instead of savings. The cost of handling sheeted or basketed tobacco was shifted from the buyer to the grower. :?
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