Published: August 8, 2000
WILTON, CONN. – Baskets will overwhelm visitors to the Betts-Sturges-Blackmar House, 224 Danbury Road, where the Wilton Historical Society has assembled more than 300 examples dating from the Eighteenth Century to the present.
Basketry, one of the earliest crafts developed by man, was an essential activity and a product used by every nomadic tribe and all civilizations for the gathering, carrying and storage of goods. In the days before Tupperware and plastic and paper bags, baskets made of wood splints, grasses, cane, pine needles, vines, bark and other indigenous materials were used in every home, barn, dairy, workshop and business.
The exhibition includes “working” baskets of every type, for heavy carrying, gathering, and holding things as well as “fancy” baskets, made to be decorative rather than strictly functional. It includes baskets made in New England, New York State, Pennsylvania, Appalachia, and by Native Americans in Maine, Connecticut, New York, the Carolinas and Michigan, showing regional preferences and differences.
Of particular interest are the less well-known baskets from the local area. Basket making was a substantial business in rural north Stamford, in an area called “Dantown,” and in Scotts Corner and Pound Ridge just a few miles away across the New York State border. These basket makers made very sturdy oak splint baskets intended for the oyster and claming industry in Norwalk; for fruit picking in the orchards in Fairfield County; and coal and laundry gathering for the farms and barns and shops.
The Sellecks of Scotts Corners and New Canaan made smaller scale baskets for gathering fruits, vegetables, eggs, sewing and lighter functions, after adding color to the splints. In Norwalk, Edwin Monroe made oak and ash baskets in addition to working in his family’s business of moving buildings. (The Monroe family is no longer making baskets, but they are still moving buildings and will move the Wilton Heritage Museum to the Betts-Sturges-Blackmar site this fall.)
The exhibition includes a number of Taghkanic baskets: the finely crafted ash splint baskets made in the Taghkanic area of Columbia County. Martha Weatherbee’s book, The Bushwackers, contributed greatly to the understanding of this fine work, which is sometimes misidentified as Shaker. These are from the collection of Nellie Ptaszck.
One room of the exhibition is packed with baskets for every chore: feather baskets, laundry baskets, textile baskets, gathering baskets, picnic baskets, an eel basket, cheese baskets and drying baskets, several monumental in scale.
Woodland Indian storage baskets are well represented with a variety of shapes and sizes, paint and stamped decoration.
The exhibition also includes dramatic groupings of Native American fancy baskets. Penobscot and Passamaquoddy women, such as “Molly Molasses” made fabulously complex baskets for the Victorian tourist trade. A number of Cherokee baskets add a different dimension to the show with color, shape and material. Also of interest are the sweet-grass baskets from Walpole Island, and the coastal areas of South Carolina, and the birch bark baskets by Tomah Joseph (Campabella Island) dated 1906.
The earliest documented basket in the exhibition is attributed to Nathan Wooster of Huntington, Conn., circa 1766. Others are dated in the 1820s and 40s. The unusual bottom designs of Harry “Hen Pen” Harris a Schaghticote who worked in Stratford and Kent, Conn., are very striking. Miniature baskets are also well represented in this collection, made of a variety of materials in a wide range of shapes.
Of special interest are the contemporarily made baskets by Harry Hilbert. A long time resident of Wilton, he retired in 1980 as an antiques dealer in New Canaan. An avid woodworker, he taught himself to make Nantucket style baskets, or as he calls them “Nontucket” baskets. His beautiful examples are now widely collected and are included in the Smithsonian and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston collections.
This exhibition was inspired by the large collection of baskets assembled by Dana Blackmar and acquired by the society several years ago. It has been augmented by more than 50 baskets from the personal collection of Charles and Barbara Adams, dealers in South Yarmouth, Mass. who have also helped the society organize its collection and exhibition.
John Jenner and Moira Kelly, dealers from Sherman, Conn. have added their Native American baskets, and Peter Curran of Wilton has loaned a number of early dated Connecticut baskets. Nellie Ptaszck, who probably knows more about Taghkanic baskets than anyone, has filled a showcase with examples from her huge collection.
In addition, several Historical Society members have added breadth and depth to the exhibition and the Stamford Historical Society, the Pound Ridge Historical Society, and Stratford Historical Society have added documented local baskets.
The exhibition, organized and mounted by museum director Marilyn Gould and curator Susan Gunn, is open to the public on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, from noon to 4 pm and most Sundays 1 to 4 pm. Several special programs including talks by basket specialists and demonstrations by basket makers are being planned. For information call 203/762-7257.
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