The Historian: Oak Splint Baskets

Sturdy and inexpensive, oak-splint baskets were used in almost every kitchen and barn on the old homesteads. Prized now by collectors, these plain, undecorated, utilitarian forms tended to fall by the wayside in the twentieth century when inexpensive imported baskets, commercially made bushel and “peach” baskets, and all sorts of other containers came on the market.

The Pennsylvania Germans brought with them the ancient European craft of “karreb” (basket) making. They wove plenty of coiled rye straw bread baskets and other rye straw containers of all sizes from bee skeps to sewing baskets. But the oak-splint was the basket work-horse in field and garden.

Perhaps because it’s somewhat akin to weaving cloth, which was exclusively a male occupation, oak splint basket weavers were usually men. But more likely the reason basket making was a men’s craft was because preparing the splints and ribs required the axe, splitting wedges, and “schnitselbank” — all men’s domain. The majority of basket makers were farmers or tradesmen who practiced their craft part time in the off season or when the weather was bad.

Not only plaiting the baskets but preparing the splints and ribs from a piece of white oak took strong hands and considerable skill. The Germans were very particular about selecting the tree to be used. It had to be a sapling no larger than ten inches in diameter, perfectly straight and free of knots or branches for the first eight or ten feet. It needed to be cut before the sap went down in the fall. After it was felled and carried home it was kept moist until ready for use.

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To prepare the splints and ribs for basket making, first the bark was stripped off. Then the log was split in half, then quartered and then the quarters were again quartered and so on until they had pieces about stave size [an inch or two wide]. A pocket knife was then inserted into the end between growth rings and strips peeled away that were about an eighth of an inch thick and up to eight feet long. Green white oak has the quality of “delaminating” at the growth rings, so each strip is one year’s growth. The resulting strips could easily be split to the desired width.

While seated at the “schnitzelbank” the basket maker smoothed the long, thin strips with a razor sharp draw knife. Splints were usually a quarter to a half inch wide while the ribs were as much as two inches wide in the middle but they gradually tapered to a point at each end. These points were tucked into the weavings where the handle joined the rim. The splints were then laced around these ribs so that when dried the whole construction was bound together. White oak being an exceptionally tough, hard wood when dried, these baskets lasted for decades of rough usage: gathering potatoes, corn and other field crops, carrying silage and feed to barn animals, carrying produce to market and so on.

Commonly, oak splint baskets were made with or without handles. The more common handle type started with a frame made of two long, more or less round, strips of oak which were tapered at each end. These were bent into circles and the tapered ends overlapped and tacked together providing two equal size hoops. These hoops were assembled at right angles to each other and tacked at the joint. The one hoop made the basket rim, the other the handle and center frame for the plaiting.

Basket making was so common and unremarkable that little record of makers was kept. But locally we know of two brothers who lived on Grebe Road and made oak-splint baskets until the early 1950’s. Grebe Road is at the end of Faust Road near Fagleysville. The Limerick Township history “Limerick Township: A Journey Through Time” by Muriel Lichtenwalner notes that: “Frank Krause and his brother Milton, who lived along Swamp Creek in Neiffer, were basket makers. …In the community of Neiffer these baskets were known as the ‘Speck Annies’. They traded at the Roth store in Neiffer and were a familiar sight, walking back and forth for supplies. They would buy a slab of bacon, put it in a burlap bag and sling it over their backs. The grease would come out on their clothes. [the Pennsylvania German word for fat is “speck”]. Frank Krause made sixteen different styles of splint baskets. These splint baskets, from the 16 quart size down to the pint size, have arched handles that span the basket from side to side and reach as high above the rim as the woven work extends below the rim.”

“Frank and Milton Krause could be seen regularly carrying their baskets along the roads toward Saratoga to board the trolley to Pottstown. There they sold the baskets on the street for a small fee. On Saturday afternoons they walked or accepted rides to the Gilbertsville Sale to sell their baskets. Both Frank and Milton died in 1953 and were buried in the Herstein Chapel burying ground.”

Anyone interested in pursuing the basket making craft today would have trouble, I fear, in finding good white oak saplings to use. I’ve lately observed the oak trees in our immediate region are more or less affected with oak decline or oak dieback. Due apparently to diseases and fungi as well as environmental stresses brought on by drought and soil acidification, the trees become blighted and die over a period of two to five years. However in areas where there is good limestone soil the trees seem healthier.