Texas Basket Company – 100 years old and still going strong

Texas Basket Company has occupied the same site in Jacksonville, Texas, since 1919. all images by Diane Morey Sitton.

It’s no coincidence that the basket assembly floor at Texas Basket Company resembles an early 1900s factory. Here, as the family-owned-and-operated company wraps up its 100th anniversary, workers make fruit and vegetable baskets using the same techniques and types of machines as their predecessors a century ago.

Stacks of baskets await Texas Basket Company gift shop visitors.
Signs, paintings, and other gift shop items reflect Jacksonville’s tomato-growing legacy.

Martin Swanson, owner of the Jacksonville, Texas, landmark describes the factory as a “working antique.”

A worker places a flat web onto a machine that will contour it into a basket shape. Click image for larger view.
Workers position still-moist staves into jigs in exact order. A standard bushel basket requires 16 staves. Click image for larger view.
Baskets exit a dryer.

Like the region’s gently rolling hills and rich red soil, basket-making has long been part of Cherokee County’s identity. In the early 1900s, four local basket factories produced the wooden baskets and crates used to harvest and transport tomatoes, the region’s principal crop. Prior to World War II, regional growers shipped such an abundance of tomatoes across the U.S. that Jacksonville became known as “The Tomato Capital of the World.”

Produce baskets await shipping at Texas Basket Company.
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But tomato production—and the basket-making industry that supported it—waned following WWll. Plant disease, bad weather, loss of labor, the creation of cardboard were all partly to blame. Today, Texas Basket Company is the only basket-making factory still operating in Cherokee County, and it is the only basket-making company still operating in Texas.

Baskets of all sizes, shapes, styles, and colors are available at the gift shop.

These days, Texas Basket Company makes 200 different products including wooden baskets, handcrafted crates, and display racks. Besides the ever-popular round bushel and half-bushel basket, the array includes apple baskets, berry baskets, and hand-woven peach baskets. Texas Basket Company ships pickle baskets to New Jersey for cucumbers and crab baskets to Chesapeake Bay. Back home, novelty-shaped baskets – including the ever-popular Texas-shaped baskets – fly off the shelves at the gift shop.

Baskets shaped like Texas, as well as other states, are assembled by hand.
Texas Basket Company’s Texas-shaped baskets are a popular item.

In all, Texas Basket Company uses “wood, wire, steam, and sweat” to crank out up to 5,000 baskets each day. Every Texas Basket Company basket is made from start to finish on site!

Observation room visitors get a bird’s-eye view of early basket-making techniques and machinery. Click image for larger view.

The process begins each morning in the wood yard with the arrival of log trucks carrying loads of sweetgum, blackgum, river birch, and other hardwoods. After being graded, separated by species, cut into lengths, and run through a machine that strips the bark, the wood is steamed overnight to further soften it for veneering.

Strips of veneer used for basket bands soak up extra moisture in simmering vats. Click image for larger view.

Once inside a production warehouse, logs are turned on a lathe that shaves off continuous strips of veneer from 1/32 to 1/4 inch thick. Another machine chops the sheets into staves. After positioning staves into jigs to form flat webs, workers hand-feed the webs onto a machine that shapes them into baskets while almost simultaneously securing each basket with pliable wood bands. Finally, the baskets inch their way through a dryer. Much of the production here runs off steam generated from wood scraps.

Texas Basket Company baskets are made from start to finish on site.

Today, cars pass where horse-drawn wagons once carried tomato-filled baskets to market, and instead of farm produce, folks fill many of the baskets made here with magazines, folded towels, and even toys.

Texas Basket Company makes Texas-shaped baskets in various sizes and colors.

But inside the old buildings, where the sweet-sour smell of steam-saturated wood and the click-clack sounds of antique machinery fill the air, the old-timey tradition of basket-making is still going strong.

For more information, contact Texas Basket Company at 903-586-8014.

Posted by Diane Morey Sitton
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