Once considered the most prolific white oak basket making region in the United States, Cannon County and neighboring Warren County now claim only a handful of remaining active white oak basket makers. Sue Williams is primary among them. She states, “I am the only white oak basket teacher in Middle Tennessee. Years ago, white oak basket making in Cannon County was one of the major sources of income.” Sue learned from legendary basket makers Estel and Gertie Youngblood. She has taught apprentice Rhonda Elkins Brown the process of locating an appropriate white oak tree and harvesting a pole that will be of the quality needed to break down to get supplies (rims, handles, ribs, and weavers) ready to make a basket. Williams has also taught Rhonda the Cannon County Tie, a special X Pattern with a vertical bar woven at the point where the basket handle connects to the rim on each side.
Rhonda states: “My love of Cannon County white oak baskets began in 1985 when I worked at Bank of Commerce in Woodbury, TN and Mr. Albert Thomas came in selling is baskets. I currently have 22 Cannon County white oak baskets made by various Cannon County artists, including four of which I made. I recently learned while reading 2012 Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin that my great-grandfather Milo Elkins’s brother John “Booger” Elkins, and sister, Docia Elizabeth Elkins Haley, and their families were white oak basket makers and sellers in the early 1900s. My husband and I currently live in the farm where Milo, “Booger,” and Docia grew up in Cannon County. I am sad that this has become a lost art, something that was at one time such an important part of my community’s life. I would like to learn this art so I can help keep it alive and pass it on.”
This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.