For much of the 20th century the Short Mountain area of Cannon County produced craft artists who gained fame for their variety of nattily woven white oak baskets.
Now, in early 2011, it appears the basket makers may be down to one active practitioner, 92-year-old Mary Jane Prater. Her house sits on Prater Town Road barely inside Warren County, about a half mile from the Cannon County line and maybe two miles from the Short Mountain community.
“I think they’re all about died out or quit making them,” says Prater of her peers. “I’m the only one left now that I know of that is trying.”
She was 16 or 17 when she began making the baskets in the mid-1930s.
“My stepfather went to making cane-bottomed chairs. I bottomed the chairs. Our neighbor, Jimmie Prater, she took the scraps from splits of the chair bottoms and made baskets,” said Mary Jane, sitting in her easy chair by a gas-warming stove in her living room.
“I thought, ‘Well, I can do this too.’ She taught me to do baskets. I swapped ’em for material at T.O. Muncy’s store to make quilts, aprons and bonnets. A whole lot (of the other basket makers) was shamed of ’em and never let it be known. I never was ashamed of mine.”
Prater traded her baskets for materials until the 1960s when she began to sell them to a peddler named J. Paul Newby who carted them out of the county to sell in other areas. Back then she sold them for 25 cents to 35 cents a basket. Today her price runs from $100 to $150, and they fly out of her hands almost as fast as she can make them.
Other famed basket makers from Cannon County, now either deceased or no longer making baskets, include Ida Pearl Davis, Mary Davis, Gertie Youngblood and Prater’s late mother, Delilah Cooke Ferrell Youngblood Davis, whom Prater taught.
“Ms. Prater’s star is on the rise. You better get one now. She is receiving a great deal of renown, being featured in one statewide and one national exhibition as one of the finest working basket makers from Cannon County” said Evan Hatch, folklorist with the Arts Center of Cannon County in Woodbury, where a new exhibit went up Monday (Jan. 10) titled Tradition—Tennessee Lives and Legacies and which includes photos and text about Prater.
“It is the Tennessee Arts Commission’s salute to working folk artists, tradition bearers and self-taught artists from throughout the three regions of Tennessee. The program, which features 25 different artists, will go statewide for three years.”
“These individuals are some of the state’s greatest resources,” shares Rich Boyd, executive director of the Tennessee Arts Commission. “Tradition is a testament to the agency’s work in the traditional arts under the leadership of Dr. Robert Cogswell. This project is a tribute to the artistic tradition that has remained alive in Tennessee and the relationships and trust Roby Cogswell has established through the years.”
The Tennessee Arts Commission contracted Nashville photographer Dean Dixon to provide visual images to compliment Cogswell’s expressive essays. Dixon spent over 18 months traveling the state and provided stunning photography for the hardbound, full-color book, which the Arts Center will have for sale at $50.
“Many of the artists are musicians, so we will have video or recordings from people such as Charlie Acuff, a fiddler from East Tennessee; Thomas Maupin, a buck dancer from Eagleville; and Roy Harper, a painter and musician from Manchester; and Prater, who lives about six miles out of Woodbury,” said Hatch.
“We are happy to buy her baskets so that the Arts Center can be a distributor of Cannon County’s famous folk art and an advocate for this tradition. Her baskets feature a rare combination of strength, intricacy and beauty.”
As for the woman herself, Hatch says, “She’s scrappy, no nonsense but also has a good sense of humor.”
Prater’s variety of basket styles include egg baskets, pie baskets, cone baskets, box baskets, sewing baskets, Moses’ cradle and Joshua’s basket.
What she enjoys most about making them?
“It keeps my hands busy, and I don’t eat as much. It’s hard work. You’ve got to have patience. You can’t get mad and throw it down and tear it up. It takes me about a week to make a basket. I have to take a nap,” she said. “Back then I didn’t put as many ribs and the splits weren’t as wide. I could do one in two days,” said Prater, who made about two dozen baskets last year.
From 1945 to 1974 she worked at the Levi Strauss Co. in McMinnville as she could make more money making shirts at the factory than making baskets. Her husband, James Prater, who died 28 years ago, was a farmer and night watchman.
The couple produced four children, eight grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren at last count.
“I was raised in the Cannon County community of Center Hill just across the creek from here. I was born in Lucky in Warren County,” said Prater, who was raised with two brothers and three stepbrothers by her stepfather Otis Youngblood, a farmer and horseman. “I was as big a tomboy as they was.
“We had a big ole log house. We raised up everything and canned up stuff. Upstairs we had bean sticks, and my mother would dry beans that we called beans in the shuck. I’d hate to go back to those days, but I still got the coal oil lamp and old iron.”
When asked how many baskets she figures she has crafted over the decades, she answers, “This house wouldn’t hold ’em. I made a bunch.”
Prater has only kept three baskets for herself. One in her kitchen holds light bulbs and a best in show ribbon for best egg basket from the McMinnville Fair of 1981.
A second basket atop a kitchen cabinet was made by Sally Mears, which her mother traded a broom for. The third is a big basket sitting in front of the TV set that holds magazines, books and photos.
Prater’s trademark is a white oak split inside the bottom of her baskets that bear her signature, address and age written in pencil.
“I make ’em and sell ’em. They sure have helped me out a lot this year,” says the woman who appears to be the last man standing making Cannon County’s famous white oak baskets.
Tradition—Tennessee Lives and Legacies
What: A tribute to the crafts and music of 25 Tennessee folk artists via a photography exhibit by Dean Dixon and text by Robert Cogswell.
When: Jan. 10-Feb. 26 with a reception at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 3. Office hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Where: The Arts Center of Cannon County’s Marly Berger Gallery. The Arts Center is located on Hwy. 70S approximately 1 mile west of Woodbury, 15 miles east of Murfreesboro and 40 miles southeast of Nashville.
More info: www.artscenterofcc.com