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WEAVER'S TALE

Tom Thompson, the basketmaker, said he was feeling ornery. He was still damp from yesterday, when the rains pelted down hard enough to strangle a bullfrog. Now it was plain hot and humid in the woods, hot and humid enough to get a man's juices flowing the wrong way. "I'm ornery," he said again.

Still, he had a job to do, even if he was feeling as feisty as a tomcat with a sore paw. He sat under the trees and selected a tool he called a froe. He hammered the froe into a dead white oak limb to split it. Then he split the oak limb further with a pocket knife. Pretty soon he had enough 6-foot strips of white oak to work. He had enough to weave a basket.

A crowd of mostly city people gathered around him at the Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center to watch and listen. White-oak baskets aren't made much anymore. The same goes for people like Thompson.

While Florida becomes more urban by the second, he's as country as a crazy quilt. As he works, he entertains spectators with strongly felt opinions about women, men, marriage, dogs, timber companies, good wood, fine tools, pickup trucks, oyster-eating, chicken coops, made-to-break products, the wonders of June bugs and the joys of a good biscuit.

"I used to be bashful," said Thompson, who lives in the woods outside the little Panhandle town of Paxton near the Alabama border. "But I ain't bashful no more."

Strenuous labor

Thompson, 45, wore bib overalls, boots and the kind of hat Pa Kettle used to wear in the movies. With a beard that dangled down to his pocket watch, he could have been one of the Hatfields or McCoys.

"What I do is a dying art," he said, beginning to strip another oak.

Basket-making is an enduring folk art in Florida. During the last century, Creek Indians used pine needles to weave elaborate baskets for carrying their possessions. Today, Seminole Indians employ wiregrass to build decorative baskets. Decades ago, African-Americans brought the art of weaving sweetgrass baskets from the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia into North Florida. Both Anglo-Americans and African-Americans for centuries hauled cotton in baskets built from white oak.

White-oak baskets, and the people who weave them, are all but gone from Florida. For openers, cotton is an insignificant crop, and white-oak baskets aren't needed. Two, white-oak basket-making is so strenuous that few people are willing to do the work.

"It's a product that can kill a man," Thompson said.

Tom Thompson doesn't buy white-oak strips at K mart. He hauls trees, by hand, out of the woods. "I don't want knots. I don't want no twisted wood. I don't want a tree the beetles has got at." He usually finds his timber in areas lumber companies have mined. They take the pine and knock down the oaks. He takes downed oaks _ and just to be ornery _ replants oaks.

"The timber companies don't want oaks," he said. "I do."

He splits the oak limbs, by hand, with ancient tools. His left arm, the one that pulls on the strip to separate it from the rest of the limb, is stronger, and larger, than the right. Twice, though, he's knocked himself out.

"When the strip comes off, sudden-like, you can't stop your momentum. Your hand comes back and hits you hard alongside the head. My uncle, he was alone in the woods, doing work for me, and he knocked himself out. Ten minutes he was addled. When he waked, he was covered by fire ants. They took him to the hospital."

An international figure

It takes hours to provide enough strips for a decent basket. White oaks, usually found in North Florida, provide wood so sturdy it was once used in shipbuilding. Yet the strips, when wet, are flexible enough to work into a basket.

Thompson builds most baskets in a day. Some of his most elaborate pieces, though, take more than a hundred hours. They cost upwards of $100. His most beautiful baskets use strips of different sizes. Sometimes he alternates a white strip with one covered with bark to create a pattern. He uses no nail or glue.

White-oak baskets are different from most modern goods in another way. While today's products seem built to break and to be replaced, white-oak baskets might last a century or more. A good basketmaker is his own worst enemy.

"I can make money at it," said Thompson, who was a newspaper printer before he took up basket-making 11 years ago. "But not a lot. But I'll tell you. I didn't know what life was all about before I made baskets. It's been real satisfying."

He has forged a reputation that extends all over the world. Last year, Germany's last white-oak basket maker came calling. Basket makers from Tennessee have visited him. People who have bought baskets from him send him appreciative letters or call upon him in person. And every summer, Thompson conducts a week-long seminar under a revival tent he rents from the Baptist Church. He's had no openings for several years. People want to learn the old ways.

Thompson lives the old ways. He avoids big cities. He pays everything with cash. Going barefoot comes naturally. He and his wife don't turn up their noses at a squirrel or armadillo supper. He has taught his children how to make popguns out of chinaberry limbs and airplanes out of June bugs. Kids don't need expensive toys, he'll tell you.

"June bugs is fun to play with," he said. He carries in his pocket a dead June bug, encased in plastic, to show, or probably to shock, gullible city folks.

"Well, when I was a kid we'd put watermelon in the chicken coop. The chickens would peck the red out and leave the rinds, and the June bugs would land on the rind. You'd crawl on your belly into the coop and slap your hand over the June bug. You'd tie strings around 'em and they'd buzz around like planes."

At an early age he learned to hunt. After dinner, which is lunch in rural Florida, he helped his Momma pick vegetables. He learned about oysters, and storytelling at his grandpa's knee.

"He was stingy about his oysters now. He'd buy himself a sack or two every year. When the kids got old enough to want to try them, why, he didn't want to waste even one oyster. So he'd tie a string around the oyster and let a kid have a taste and then pull it out so the next kid could have a taste. It was tough if you was seventh in line."

"Don't you believe a word of what he says," said another basket maker, who had heard that tall tale before.

"I can sure enough rearrange the truth," Thompson admitted. "I'm a story teller."

His ideal wife

One day his wife saw a picture of a white-oak basket in Reader's Digest. She showed the picture to her husband. He was sure he could make one. His first basket was a disaster. His father-in-law made fun of it. "Now I can make a basket he can't find fault with."

He learned fine points from an old white-oak basket maker he heard about. Thompson thinks his mentor has passed into the great beyond. So he is trying to keep the folk art alive. Every spring, he demonstrates white-oak basket-making at the Florida Folk Festival. He's taught his children. He's taught his wife. He says he has a perfect wife. Among other things, she doesn't mind hauling oak limbs by herself. She also makes the world's finest biscuits.

"A good woman knows how to make biscuits," he announced, though feminists would surely disagree, and several in the crowd did. He ignored them. He had a story to tell.

"Now the first time I was going to take her out on a date, I got in my truck to go to her house, and drove into the woods, and stopped at the house, and 15 dogs jumped in the busted door of my Ford and chewed on me."

The spectators around him murmured. They were either horrified by the thought of ravenous hounds or wondering what hungry dogs had to do with biscuits.

"I finally got away and said, "Woman, why didn't you call off those dogs?' She said she figured if I could fight off those dogs I had to be worth going out with. Well, we sat on the front-porch swing and all, and just about then I smelled biscuits cooking. They was sourdough biscuits, the best I ever tasted."

The moral to the story?

"You women who want yourself a man? Learn you how to make biscuits."

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