Dresden, Ohio, makes baskets.
It has done so for quite some time, but until a few decades ago the hand-woven creations were considered useful household items and nothing more. Today they’ve earned Dresden something of a reputation, and the town knows how to make the most of it.
Dresden’s famed Longaberger basketsalong with wrought iron, pottery, and fabric productsare collected by thousands of devoted fans and sold by nearly 60,000 independent sales associates nationwide.
This central Ohio town is the birthplace of the Longaberger basket, as well as a tourist destination which attracts several times the village’s population of 1,692 practically every day all summer, many lured by the town’s basket-making legacy.
“(The Longaberger Co.) has become central to a lot of us, but it didn’t start out that way,” admits Marge Williams, a lifelong Dresden resident and 20-year Longaberger employee.
J.W. Longaberger’s basket-making venture started out as a family business in 1919 when he went to work with his father, a full-time basket-maker, but he ended up closing shop in 1955. The fifth of J.W. and Bonnie Longaberger’s 12 children, Dave Longaberger, decided to re-open that shop in 1973 on an entirely different scale.
The company provided good jobs for Dresden residents, but it seemed to most of them that Dave’s was a pipe dream. “Dave used to get up on the desk and tell us how things were going to grow,” recalls Williams, Longaberger’s basket-making demonstrations manager. “He really was a visionary.”
A visionary with evident follow-through. The Longaberger Co. has exploded into an $850 million-a-year direct sales empire, the largest manufacturer of handmade baskets in the country, and an employer of nearly 70,000 people (719 in Dresden alone).
Dave Longaberger, who died in March 1999, made certain the town in which he’d gotten his start wouldn’t be overwhelmed by his company’s growth. Though some Longaberger facilities remain in Dresden, and Dave’s mother, Bonnie, still lives there, most of the company’s operations are located outside the village.
J.W.’s workshop was moved to the Longaberger Homestead, a tourist attraction in nearby Frazeysburg where people can shop for Longaberger products, weave their own baskets, or enjoy a meal at a family style restaurant. Also, part of the Homestead is a replica of the Longaberger home (Bonnie lives in the original).
Company headquarters are in Newark, Ohio, 25 miles west of Dresden, and other operations are scattered across the state. Nevertheless, Longaberger fans still turn their attentionand their carsto Dresden. About half a million tourists visit the Longaberger “campus” annually.
The Longaberger Co. continues to honorand contribute tothe village. It has made Dresden home to the world’s largest basket, a massive replica of a typical Longaberger product. (It’s 23 feet tall and was made from the wood of 10 maple trees.)
The company also built a fitness center and a swim center in the village, as well as a new park and senior center. Small wonder Longaberger was dubbed one of the “Most Generous Companies in America,” by George magazine in 1999. (Dave’s daughter Rachel heads the company’s philanthropic efforts, and his daughter Tami is Longaberger’s president/CEO.)
The company’s goal, however, hasn’t been to improve Dresden so much as to maintain its innate charm. Longaberger tends Main Street’s trees and flowers, for instance, and old-fashioned treats still are available at Popeye’s Soda Shop, also on Main Street. The ’50s-style diner named for Dave Longaberger (Popeye was his nickname) serves up thick milk shakes and tasty onion rings.
“We’ve always been a small farming community,” says Dresden mayor Bob Lane. “We have been able to retain that image, even with the Longaberger expansion. The image will stay here because it (the company) stayed here.”
Today thousands of people may visit Dresden during the day, but at 6 p.m. village streets belong to the natives again. “The company has never really tried to take over the town, only enhance it,” says Marge Williams, “and allow everyone in Dresden to share in it.”