The Basket Man


Jesse Butcher nearly lost one of his hands before he discovered what artistry it could perform. In fact, anyone who saw the lanky Tennessean in a hospital emergency room that spring day in 1977 would have considered him lucky just to be alive.

“I was sawin’ locust poles for my neighbor, Earl Woods,” says Butcher, who lives on a 30-acre farm near the Knox County-Union County line in eastern Tennessee. “It happened on a hillside. One of the trees hung up in some ‘possum grape vines and I stretched out to cut it a’ loose. My feet flew out from under me. When I fell, the saw landed on my right wrist.”

What had started that morning as an act of neighborly assistance now became a race against death.The whirring teeth had ripped through Butcher’s arm, leaving his hand dangling from a bloody stub. Butcher had to walk a quarter-mile for help. He was rushed to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Knoxville, where he underwent surgery to reattach the hand.

Later, he was transferred to a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky that specializes in nerves and bone structure of the hand. Nerves were stripped from both ankles and transplanted into his right hand. And from that point on, the retired game warden and former car salesman committed himself to full recovery and use of his fingers.
“They had me a’squeezin’ dough up there in the hospital,” he says. “There ain’t much future in doin’ that.”

A New Passion

White oak baskets had always intrigued Butcher. While patrolling the hills, hollows and remote farmlands of Union County as an officer for the Tenn. Game and Fish Commission, he had seen many of these baskets, some still in working condition after nearly a century of use. Upon discharge from the Kentucky hospital, he enrolled in the Youngblood School of White Oak Baskets — taught at Tenn. Tech University through the Joe L. Evins Craft Center near Smithville — and bade farewell to his last lump of dough.

In some respects, “weaving” baskets is a misnomer. Part of the process does require a delicate, tedious, over-under lacing with thin oak splits. That’s usually reserved for craft fairs and shows. But as anyone who takes them from log stage to the kitchen shelf will agree, basketry begins long before the product takes shape.

Says Butcher: “First thing you’ve gotta do is find the right tree. You’re looking for a white oak. Not a red oak or a water oak or a chestnut oak. Not a hickory or a poplar, either. Some people will tell you the best place to look is on the north side of a mountain. Other people will tell you the south. Hell, they’re all wrong. You’ll find a white oak wherever it happens to be growin’.

“You want one about four inches in diameter. I like my trees to come from a brushy thicket, where they can shoot up fast and put on lost of growth wood. A white oak growin’ in the woods usually ain’t no good. It doesn’t get enough sunlight to grow fast enough.

“Lotta times, I gather wood with Ralph Chesney, from up at Luttrell. He’s as good a basket weaver as there is in this country. Him’n me, we argue about trees. I’ll find ones he don’t like, and he’ll find ones I don’t like. But after awhile, we’ll finally agree.”

The tree is felled by chain saw. “I spread my feet a lot farther apart these days,” Butcher says with a chuckle. “And I try not to go out alone anymore.” Even then, “accidents” can happen.

“I was high on Combs Ridge one day, nearly three-quarters to the top, and found a perfect tree,” he recalled. “Started to cut it down, and that’s when I noticed I’d put the dadblamed chain on backwards. Didn’t have the first tool on me. There wasn’t nothin’ to do but leave — I hung my hat on the tree so I could find it — and walk plumb back off that mountain to the truck.”

Butcher’s mouth widens into a broad grin. “I want you to know that now, I check my chain ever’ time before I go out!”

The truest wood with the straightest grain is the fillet Butcher seeks for basket splits. That’s the wood between the limbs. Ideally, it will run upwards of six feet in length — if he’s lucky enough to find a deluxe specimen. Forty to forty-four inches is more the norm. Once the sections are brought out of the woods, the next phase of basketry begins.

And what if Mother Nature supplies an overabundance of wood at once? No problem. “Just store it in the freezer,” he recommends. “It won’t warp or split on you that way.”

Back home, Butcher uses a maul to split the logs lengthwise. This produces “blocks,” which are split again with a froe and mallet. Over and over the process is repeated, each time resulting in a smaller section.

In Butcherese, it goes like this: “First, you halve it. Then you quarter it. Then you eighth it. Then you sixteenth it. And so forth. You wind up with a bunch of lengths that look like little sections of pie.”

The heartwood is removed next. It’s fine for splits, or “weavers,” but because of its dark color, Butcher uses it sparingly, mainly for contrast.The bulk of the basket will be made from the pearly white growth wood.

Further reducing the sections into pliable weavers can only be described as a labor of love. Or hate, as the case may be. It calls for long sessions with a shaving horse and draw knife. As the pieces become even thinner, less than one-sixteenth of an inch, Butcher puts them across his thigh, which is protected by a tattered piece of horsehide, and scrapes them further.

Bushels, Pecks & English Fans

Southern Appalachian white oak baskets come in a variety of shapes and designs, but the main ones are the egg basket (or aptly named “butt basket” because of its two “cheeks”), bushel, peck, English fan basket, and small egg gatherer. Whatever the size and shape, each has three integral parts — the hoop (or handle), and a network of lateral ribs, all of which are bound together by row after row of weavers.

“We used t’have t’whittle each rib with a knife, but then Frank Rucker, from over at Rutledge, came up with an idea to shape ‘em by pullin’ them through a hole in plate metal,” says Butcher. “Saves a lot of time, and makes a lot more uniform rib, too.”

Even then, an odd-shaped rib occasionally shows up. Butcher used to throw them into the fire. Then one day, while weaving at a crafts fair, Butcher’s hillbilly humor got the best of him, and a whole new market opened up. “This fellow walked up and asked what those reject ribs were for. I told them they was poot sticks.

“He says, ‘Poot sticks?’”

“Yeah,” I told him. “You know, for when your wife is cookin’ soup beans. Just have her stir em with one of these sticks and it’ll take all the poots out of ‘em.” Butcher winks. “I even wrote ‘poot stick’ on that thing and sold it to him for a dollar. I bet I’ve sold hundreds of them ever since.”

You don’t just pick any ol’ day for weaving. Like farming, chores must be matched to the weather. Sunny, windy days are a basket weaver’s worst enemy. Butcher does most of his work during damp, overcast periods when moisture in the air helps keep the split pliable. Even then, he must dampen them frequently until they can be threaded into place.”

Average elapsed time from log to completed basket? About 70 hours, Butcher estimates. Which translates to a lot of labor for a little bit of money.

“I was at a show one time and this feller said he wanted to buy one of my baskets. He gave me a $10 bill and waited for his change. I told him I needed 55 more dollars. He just stood there and blinked. He thought the price tag said $5! When it finally hit him, he said there’s no way he was gonna pay $65 for a basket. I told him I’d pay him $500 to make another one just like it — and I’d give him a month to do the job. He didn’t take me up on it.”

One chore Jesse doesn’t particularly enjoy is repairing old white oak baskets made by other craftsmen. “Don’t do it very often. Not unless it’s for a friend. You see, there’s a lot of individual history in a white oak basket. It reflects the person who made it. If I go over and put my touch on it, it’s been changed. I don’t like to mess with history.”

History is important to Jesse Butcher, with good reason. He is believed to be the last Tennessee son of a Civil War veteran. Son, mind you. Not grandson. His father, William Butcher, died in 1915, three months before Jesse was born. William Butcher’s enlistment and discharge papers are part of the impressive collection of Civil War memorabilia at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tn. The Butcher family contributed them in 1988.

Butcher’s baskets have won praise at a number of craft shows in and around the Tennessee Valley. He’s particularly proud of two best-of-shows he won during competition in Abingdon, Virginia. He’s not the only basket-making Butcher, either. His wife, Roxine, also is an accomplished weaver. One of her egg baskets is on permanent display at the Museum of Appalachia’s Hall of Fame in Norris, Tn. Jesse regularly demonstrates his craft during festivals at the museum and at the Foxfire school in Rabun Gap, Georgia.

And speaking of north Georgia, that’s where one particularly exquisite Butcher basket is on display. Except most people never get the opportunity to view it. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter have it in their cabin retreat.

The former president is not the first person in high places Jesse Butcher has rubbed shoulders with. Back during his game warden days, Butcher was asked to serve as personal hunting and fishing guide for retired army general Mark Clark, a hero from World War II. It didn’t take Butcher long to realize the influence a five-star general exerts, even long into retirement.

“The general wanted to go trout fishin’ below Norris Dam, but the water was running awful high,” he recalled with a laugh. “I made a few calls and finally got the head man at TVA. When he realized who I had with me, he asked, ‘What time does the general want the water cut off?’

“I didn’t know much about trout fishin’, but I got hold of Eddy George, who was a sporting goods dealer in Knoxville back then. A real good trout fisherman. Eddy drove up to the river and brought some hip boots for General Clark. Turned out Eddy’d gotten him two right feet! I’ll never forget what he said to the general: ‘Hell, wear ‘em. That’s what they used to say to me when I was in the army!’ And that’s just what General Clark did. Wore ‘em all afternoon. Caught a limit of trout, too — although I’m still not sure Eddy didn’t help him along.”

Butcher was among the first group of full-time conservation officers hired by the state after the 1949 model game and fish management act was passed. Prior to that time, game wardens were little more than fee-grabbers whose pay was based on the number of arrests they made.

“I’d worked for TVA before and after the war,” he remembered. “Did everything from clear the dam sites to work on the drillin’ team to servin’ on the security force. But when the game warden job opened, I was glad to take it. I always wanted a job where I could be outdoors all the time.”

His wish was granted in spades. Over the next seven years, Butcher chased illegal hunters and fishermen through the winding roads, dark hollows, and narrow rivers of Union County. Looking back, he says it was some of the most rewarding work he’d ever done.

“People were all the time catchin’ fish in traps. No tellin’ how many of ‘em I dynamited out of these rivers. I was always finding illegal nets, too. It was pretty easy to figure out who was netting. See, in those days, the ol’ boys would tar their nets to keep ‘em from rottin’. I’d float down the river ‘till I found me a boat with tar streaks across the bow where they’d hauled in the net. That was a good giveaway. If there was leaves in the boat, I had ‘em for sure.”


“Sure. You dump fish out on the bare floor of an old wooden boat and they’ll go to thrashin’ all around. You put down a carpet of leaves, though, and they won’t hardly make any commotion at all. Anyhow, once I found a boat they were using. I’d just look around and find the nearest bend of the river. Fish are just like people going around a curve. They’ll take the inside bend. That’s where I always found the nets.”

Today’s conservation officers use sonar and other sophisticated gear to pinpoint the site of illegal underwater operations. But in Butcher’s days, it was a matter of dragging for contraband. He hollowed out a baseball bat, filled the center with lead, and attached it to a stout cord. After driving dozens of finishing nails partway into the bat, he had a fine grappling hook.

“I could take that thing and throw it into the bend of a river and in four or five passes would find the net,” Butcher said. “Then I’d pile all the net on the bank beside the boat and burn it. All I did was slow ‘em down, though,” he chuckled. “In those days, a good net maker could weave a new one in 24 hours.”

Excerpted from Mountain Hands: A Portrait of Southern Appalachia by Sam Venable, photographs by Paul Efird (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville: 2000). To purchase the book, visit your local bookseller or by visiting


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