Oak Splint Bas­kets

The Southern Berks News - - LOCAL NEWS - By Robert L. Wood

Sturdy and in­ex­pen­sive, oak-splint bas­kets were used in al­most ev­ery kitchen and barn on the old home­steads. Prized now by col­lec­tors, these plain, un­dec­o­rated, util­i­tar­ian forms tended to fall by the way­side in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury when in­ex­pen­sive im­ported bas­kets, com­mer­cially made bushel and “peach” bas­kets, and all sorts of other con­tain­ers came on the mar­ket.

The Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­mans brought with them the an­cient Euro­pean craft of “kar­reb” (bas­ket) mak­ing. They wove plenty of coiled rye straw bread bas­kets and other rye straw con­tain­ers of all sizes from bee skeps to sew­ing bas­kets. But the oak-splint was the bas­ket work-horse in field and gar­den.

Per­haps be­cause it’s some­what akin to weav­ing cloth, which was ex­clu­sively a male oc­cu­pa­tion, oak splint bas­ket weavers were usu­ally men. But more likely the rea­son bas­ket mak­ing was a men’s craft was be­cause pre­par­ing the splints and ribs re­quired the axe, split­ting wedges, and “schnit­sel­bank” — all men’s do­main. The ma­jor­ity of bas­ket mak­ers were farm­ers or trades­men who prac­ticed their craft part time in the off sea­son or when the weather was bad.

Not only plait­ing the bas­kets but pre­par­ing the splints and ribs from a piece of white oak took strong hands and con­sid­er­able skill. The Ger­mans were very par­tic­u­lar about se­lect­ing the tree to be used. It had to be a sapling no larger than ten inches in di­am­e­ter, per­fectly straight and free of knots or branches for the first eight or ten feet. It needed to be cut be­fore the sap went down in the fall. Af­ter it was felled and car­ried home it was kept moist un­til ready for use.

To pre­pare the splints and ribs for bas­ket mak­ing, first the bark was stripped off. Then the log was split in half, then quar­tered and then the quar­ters were again quar­tered and so on un­til they had pieces about stave size [an inch or two wide]. A pocket knife was then in­serted into the end be­tween growth rings and strips peeled away that were about an eighth of an inch thick and up to eight feet long. Green white oak has the qual­ity of “de­lam­i­nat­ing” at the growth rings, so each strip is one year’s growth. The re­sult­ing strips could eas­ily be split to the de­sired width.

While seated at the “schnitzel­bank” the bas­ket maker smoothed the long, thin strips with a ra­zor sharp draw knife. Splints were usu­ally a quar­ter to a half inch wide while the ribs were as much as two inches wide in the mid­dle but they grad­u­ally ta­pered to a point at each end. These points were tucked into the weav­ings where the han­dle joined the rim. The splints were then laced around these ribs so that when dried the whole con­struc­tion was bound to­gether. White oak be­ing an ex­cep­tion­ally tough, hard wood when dried, these bas­kets lasted for decades of rough us­age: gath­er­ing pota­toes, corn and other field crops, car­ry­ing silage and feed to barn an­i­mals, car­ry­ing pro­duce to mar­ket and so on.

Com­monly, oak splint bas­kets were made with or with­out han­dles. The more com­mon han­dle type started with a frame made of two long, more or less round, strips of oak which were ta­pered at each end. These were bent into cir­cles and the ta­pered ends over­lapped and tacked to­gether pro­vid­ing two equal size hoops. These hoops were as­sem­bled at right an­gles to each other and tacked at the joint. The one hoop made the bas­ket rim, the other the han­dle and cen­ter frame for the plait­ing.

Bas­ket mak­ing was so com­mon and un­re­mark­able that lit­tle record of mak­ers was kept. But lo­cally we know of two brothers who lived on Grebe Road and made oak­splint bas­kets un­til the early 1950’s. Grebe Road is at the end of Faust Road near Fa­gleysville. The Lim­er­ick Town­ship his­tory “Lim­er­ick Town­ship: A Jour­ney Through Time” by Muriel Licht­en­wal­ner notes that: “Frank Krause and his brother Mil­ton, who lived along Swamp Creek in Neif­fer, were bas­ket mak­ers. …In the com­mu­nity of Neif­fer these bas­kets were known as the ‘Speck An­nies’. They traded at the Roth store in Neif­fer and were a fa­mil­iar sight, walk­ing back and forth for sup­plies. They would buy a slab of bacon, put it in a burlap bag and sling it over their backs. The grease would come out on their clothes. [the Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­man word for fat is “speck”]. Frank Krause made six­teen dif­fer­ent styles of splint bas­kets. These splint bas­kets, from the 16 quart size down to the pint size, have arched han­dles that span the bas­ket from side to side and reach as high above the rim as the wo­ven work ex­tends be­low the rim.”

“Frank and Mil­ton Krause could be seen reg­u­larly car­ry­ing their bas­kets along the roads to­ward Saratoga to board the trol­ley to Pottstown. There they sold the bas­kets on the street for a small fee. On Saturday af­ter­noons they walked or ac­cepted rides to the Gil­bertsville Sale to sell their bas­kets. Both Frank and Mil­ton died in 1953 and were buried in the Her­stein Chapel bury­ing ground.”

Any­one in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing the bas­ket mak­ing craft to­day would have trou­ble, I fear, in find­ing good white oak saplings to use. I’ve lately ob­served the oak trees in our im­me­di­ate re­gion are more or less af­fected with oak de­cline or oak dieback. Due ap­par­ently to dis­eases and fungi as well as en­vi­ron­men­tal stresses brought on by drought and soil acid­i­fi­ca­tion, the trees be­come blighted and die over a pe­riod of two to five years. How­ever in ar­eas where there is good lime­stone soil the trees seem health­ier.

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