Lowcountry baskets woven into the fabric of our lives

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Lowcountry baskets woven into the fabric of our lives

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Published Saturday, January 1, 2011   |  978 Words  |  

The Lowcountry basket rests silently beneath museum lights, as well it should after a long journey from the humble cabins of Beaufort County to the castles of America's economic titans and back.

Unweaving its story shows why the baskets are slipping inside galleries from the fumes of roadside stands.

The basket is a fine specimen, and a star of the "Grass Roots" exhibition at the Coastal Discovery Museum. At about 16 inches by 24 inches, it looks just the right size to cradle the baby Moses. But because its true purpose was to hold kindling wood, it's made of the sturdiest materials gathered and sewn by hand on St. Helena Island about a century ago. Its thick brown coils of bulrush are bound by tan strips from the stems of saw palmettos.

The basket belongs to Erik Stevens of Lady's Island.

He found it on eBay.

Stevens was searching for photographs of an old home he was restoring at 1307 Bay Street in downtown Beaufort. The home dates to the 1870s, and anything he could find to show what it might have originally looked like could help him to restore it properly, and to get permits to do it.

Stevens found some helpful old post cards. Then he tried a search of the name of the property owners next door. He typed in "Trask" and up popped this basket.

It was in the estate of Spencer Trask of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., apparently no relation to the prominent Trask family of Beaufort.

It was listed as a "St. Helena basket." Stevens placed the minimum bid of $195. No one else bid.

"I thought it was neat," said the 39-year-old real estate developer. "I felt like it belonged back here."

WEAVING AMERICA

Stevens learned that the basket's former owner helped shape America in the late 19th century as a financier and venture capitalist. The Spencer Trask who saw beauty in a sea island basket also foresaw the potential of inventions such as the Marconi wireless telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the trolley car and the automobile. He invested in Thomas Edison's electric light bulb. He was president of the world's first electric power company. In 1896, he became majority shareholder in the failing New York Times, and revived it with the help of Adolph S. Ochs.

Trask and his wife, Katrina, who was a poet, also were collectors and patrons of the arts. Together they planned to turn their 400-acre estate in Saratoga Springs into an artists' haven. Katrina brought to fruition a retreat called Yaddo after her husband was killed in a train accident in 1909. It still is open. Artists who have won 61 Pulitzer Prizes have worked there. Perhaps the basket was there, too.

Stevens was told that Spencer and Katrina Trask came to the Lowcountry twice, and visited the Penn Normal, Industrial and Agricultural School on St. Helena.

Most likely they were invited to Penn School by Trask's business partner and good friend, George Foster Peabody. He was a board member at Penn, established by Northerners in 1862 to educate newly freed slaves. Peabody had a keen interest in the education of blacks in his native South, and Penn School was on the front lines of that effort. It is credited with helping keep alive the African tradition of basketmaking by teaching it to boys as a way to make money and keep family land.

The baskets are utilitarian. But they artfully tell an uplifting story of liberation, endurance, ingenuity and entrepreneurialship. Surely that was appreciated by the Trasks and Peabody, who later married Katrina Trask.

The art they saw in the basket has endured uninterrupted in the Lowcountry for 300 years, and is celebrated in the exhibition that runs through Friday at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn on Hilton Head.

TWO ALFREDS

A small blurb in The Beaufort Gazette turned Stevens' basket from a toy chest for his kids into a museum piece. He responded when Coastal Discovery vice president Natalie Hefter urged people to bring in local baskets to augment the traveling exhibition sponsored by several national and state organizations.

When curator Dale Rosengarten of McClellanville saw it, she had to take a deep breath. She'd been looking for a basket like that for 25 years.

Tied to it was an original Penn School trademark tag. The tag features a photograph of Alfred Graham sitting on a chair in front of his meager St. Helena cabin, sewing a basket bottom. At his feet are a bundle of bulrush, and a child with a basket. His wife sits on the cabin porch in the background.

Rosengarten tells in her landmark book on Lowcountry baskets, "Row Upon Row," that Graham was the first basketmaking instructor at Penn, and a native islander who had learned the craft from his African father. She believes the e-Bay basket could have been sewn by Graham. She would place its value at several thousand dollars. It will be traveling to New York when the "Grass Roots" exhibition opens at the Museum for African Art, and perhaps later to San Francisco.

One stop along the basket's magical journey seems uncanny.

When Spencer and Katrina Trask lost their firstborn child, they decided to sell their mansion in the exclusive Tuxedo Park enclave near New York City. It's the same house that Wall Street tycoon Alfred L. Loomis turned into a secret laboratory that helped produce radar in time to win World War II. Loomis once owned 20,000 acres on Hilton Head Island. That included Honey Horn, and the very room where the Penn School basket is now on exhibit.