West: White Oak Fair nearly here

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The White Oak Craft Fair, coming Sept. 12-13, is one of those events that triggers some old memories in my noggin.

My late mother, Sara West, collected white oak baskets which prompted an occasional trip to the hills and dells surrounding Short Mountain to visit folks like the late Ida Pearl Davis and her daughter Thelma Hibdon.

Ida Pearl was the most renowned basketmaker of her time. This distinction was marked by various honors like the Tennessee Folklife Heritage Award awarded to Ida Pearl and Thelma in 2001. They shared that award with John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn.
Ida Pearl and Thelma made white oak baskets at home and on the road at events like the Governor's Regional Conference on the Arts and at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife held on the Mall in Washington D.C.

I've got to confess that white oak baskets weren't all that unusual to the West brothers. Our grandmothers had them and used them. We all had our turn going to the hen house and collecting eggs in a little, hand-made basket.

But when it came to actually hunting for baskets, the West brothers had to wait in the car.

At the time, sitting in a hot car seemed so unfair. (NOTE: The windows were all rolled down and the car was parked in the shade.) The only "brutal" thing about those visits was not getting to see what was going on inside the house. And yes, it could be a tad boring.

My Mother would hem and haw when asked why we had to wait, but the answer was obvious. We were fidgety boys and constantly looking for "stuff" to get into and ask a million questions about.

She didn't have time to "shoo" and "shush" us. So, we were stuck in the car and yes, we knew better than to even think about getting out. In other words, we were lucky to get to go along for the ride.

Dang, if we could have only been still and kept the whining to a minimum, we would have a better story to tell.

In later years, I learned about the prominent basket maker families in the Short Mountain area. It was an art handed down through the family. Back during the 1930s, white oak trees provided much-needed income to a number of Cannon County families. Some families split the oak into fine, thin splits for baskets. Others made white oak chairs.

As you know, those baskets and chairs were transported up North to places like Detroit where they were sold on street corners generating spending money for hard-pressed families.

In the early 1970s, there was a resurgence of basket making with folks like Ida Pearl and Thelma turning them into art.

Ida Pearl had learned to make baskets when she was a little girl but dropped the practice because she could earn a regular wage at the Colonial Shirt Factory. It was only in her later years that she returned to white oak baskets as the public began to appreciate the delicate, tedious, handwork.

Fortunately, the Arts Center of Cannon County has helped keep these white oak arts alive with events throughout the year. The annual White Oak Crafts Festival is the highlight of those events with basketmakers of incredible skills on hand.

You should come and see them in action.

The White Oak Crafts Festival is set for Saturday, Sept. 12 and Sunday, Sept. 13 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's located in a nice, shady spot along Stones River next to the Arts Center and it's perfect for fidgety kids like the ol' West brothers.

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Mike West, White Oak
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