Sue Williams, of Morrison, has almost single-handedly taken on the preservation of the Cannon County white oak basket making tradition. 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 basket makers. Sue 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 her craft from legendary Cannon County basket makers. She took her first class in 1985 at the Warren County UT Extension Office from Estel Youngblood—whose work resides at the Smithsonian Institution—and Gertie Youngblood, two of the most significant makers in the basket revival of the 1970s and 1980s. While not a descendant of one of the established basket making families, Sue immediately demonstrated a knack for the craft, so much so that Gertie told Sue that basket making was “in her blood.” The following year Sue became part of a planning group for UT Extension Homemakers’ Heritage Skills Seminar. She used her contacts with Gertie and Estel, as well as basket maker Mary Jane Prater, to ensure that White Oak Basketry became a recurring annual workshop each October at the Clyde York 4-H Center near Crossville, Tennessee.
By 1990, Gertie Youngblood had begun to give Sue extra attention as an, especially promising student. Gertie presented Sue with an uncompleted basket frame in her characteristic oblong style, which Sue completed on her own with appropriately fine splits. Sue entered the basket in the 1991 Warren County Fair, where it won a blue ribbon. For Sue, though, the biggest compliment was that Gertie at first mistook the piece as being entirely her own work.
In 2003, Sue assumed full responsibility for teaching the Crossville workshops. In 2015, a spring class was added. As she became recognized for her mastery, Sue became in demand as a teacher in other venues. She has since taught at the Alabama Folk School, Monteagle Sunday School Assembly, the Arts Center in Cannon County, as well as private classes. In October 2017, she began teaching at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina.
Sue was part of the inaugural Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, along with her apprentice, Brenda Kucharski. Since 2017, she has taught three more apprentices: Michelle Hennessee, Rhonda Elkins Brown, and Brent Hewitt. She was especially excited to be a part of the 2020 Program because se hwas able to pass down white oak basket making to a member of her family (Brent is her nephew). Brent operates a dairy business in Warren County and has an interest in heritage crafts and their history. Basket making has fascinated him since childhood. “As a resident of Warren County for my entire life, I have a strong sense of community and feel a responsibility to help preserve its history,” he said. “I would be proud to be part of preserving White Oak Basket skills and techniques from our regional history and passing that knowledge to my son and future generations as well as share that heritage with others in the community and beyond.”
Sue taught Brent the full process–from tree to basket. Her apprentices have learned how to locate an appropriate white oak tree, harvest a pole, and then break the log into the rims, handles, ribs, and weavers necessary to make a basket. The completed baskets featured 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.
Recognized as a premier teacher and promoter of her craft, Sue was one of only nine recipients in 2019 of the inaugural In These Mountains: Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowships, a program of South Arts designed to highlight and support exemplary traditional bearers from the Appalachian region of Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina. In October of 2019, she received the prestigious Tennessee Governor’s Arts Award in Folklife Heritage for her basket making. Sue’s devotion to teaching this art, and advocacy on the statewide and regional level, has secured the tradition’s survival beyond the passing of the original basket making families.
Field Notes, December 2019–
The trip to visit Sue Williams and her apprentice at her home in Morrison has become somewhat of a fall ritual for Folklife staff, as Sue has participated in the Apprenticeship Program for four straight years. Sue and her husband live out in the country, where the land is flat and you can see for miles. Their home is a newer build, but across the street sits the old family farm house that has been standing since the 1800s. For the past four years, Sue has demonstrated the immense work that goes into making a white oak basket. This traditional process begins well before strips of wood are woven together. Basketmaking aligns with the seasons, beginning in the fall with the cutting down of a young tree. The tree should be about the diameter of a stovepipe, Sue has explained.
Past Sue’s house and down the driveway is a large metal barn and gravel area. A sawhorse and two cane chairs were situated there. Sue and her nephew Brent were hard at work splitting the recently-felled tree. Sue looked dubiously at the tree that appeared to have more knots in the growth rings than she hoped.“All trees are not equal,” she explained matter-of factly. “You just do what you can with each one of them.” The pole will be broken down to get the necessary components of a basket: rims, handles, ribs, and weavers.
Sue and Brent stood the tree upright. They worked together, using a froe and mallet to break apart the wood.listen Once they had smaller planks, they broke those down into even smaller planks. Sue commented,“Probably if we could have worked all this up the day we cut the tree, it would have pulled much easier. But we had to cut the tree when we could.” Eventually, after much effort, the planks began to resemble strips. The strips were broken apart on the sawhorse. At this point, Sue and Brent sat down and took out their whittling knives out. They worked with the knives to scrape the strips of wood. At the end of several hours, they had weavers for their baskets.
Sue also taught Brent 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. Sue’s work in preserving and passing on this tradition continues to grow. By carrying on this tradition, Sue has brought new meaning to the objects that once “were made to be used,” in the words of Roby Cogswell. These “symbols of a folklife past” are now appreciated as artistic objects. Their significance transcends the finished product, however. The knowledge of how to make these baskets is vastly important. It is the very act of doing, the process of making a basket, which is meaningful. Because of tradition bearers like Sue, the knowledge and technical skills that extend from tree to finished basket endure.
- 2019, TAC GAA Profile on Sue Williams, short film and essay.
- Smithson, Jacob and Evan Hatch. Handmade: White Oak Basketry in Cannon County, TN, 2011. Film on Folkstreams.net
Further Reading on Sue Williams:
- 2019, South Arts “In These Mountains” Traditional Arts Fellowship profile
- 2017, “White oak basket making demonstration set,” by Nancy De Gennaro, USATODAY.
Further Reading on White Oak Basketry:
- Alexander, Lawrence. “Basketmakers of Cannon County An Overview 1986.” A Tennessee Folklore Sampler: Selections from the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin [1935 – 2009] Edited by Ted Olson, Anthony P. Cavender, 2009.
- Arnow, Jan. By Southern Hands: A Celebration of Craft Traditions in the South. Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House, 1987. (p. 16 and 90)
- “Basket and Chair History,” The Arts Center of Cannon County website.
- Beck, Ken. “The tie that binds” Murfreesboro Post. 2011. Article about Mary Jane Prater, one of Sue Williams’ mentors.
- Bell, Nicholas R. A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets, 2013.
- Bookout, Timmy Joe. Traditional Basketmakers in the Southeastern and South Central United States. Ph.D. diss., The Florida State University, (accessed April 20, 2020). 1987, Lists basket makers in Cannon County.
- Caldwell, Benjamin H, Robert Hicks, and Mark Scala. Art of Tennessee. Nashville, Tenn: Distributed by the University of Tennessee Press for the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 2003. (p. 309)
- Cogswell, Robert, Dean Dixon, and Rich Boyd. Tradition: Tennessee Lives & Legacies. Nashville, Tenn: Tennessee Arts Commission, 2010.
- Irwin, John R. Baskets and Basket Makers in Southern Appalachia. Exton, Pa: Schiffer Pub, 1982. (p. 132).
- Law, Rachel N, and Cynthia W. Taylor. Appalachian White Oak Basketmaking: Handing Down the Basket. Knoxville (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009.
- Overcast, Roy. M. “Basketmaking,” in Tennessee Encyclopedia. Online Resource.
- Stevens, Bernice. “The Revival of Handicrafts.” The Southern Appalachian Region: A Survey. Ed. Thomas R. Ford. University of Kentucky Press,1962.
- West, Mike. “Article features basket-makers,” Tennessee Arts Commission website, featuring article in Cannon Courier. July 31, 2015.
- West, Carroll V, and Margaret D. Binnicker. A History of Tennessee Arts: Creating Traditions, Expanding Horizons. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004.