Texas Basket Co. Building Bushel Baskets

Americana, Made in America, Traditions
on June 3, 2010
David Mudd Bushel size baskets are fashioned from 16 strips of sweetgum wood, which are layered into a webbed mat.

When tomato farmers in Jacksonville, Texas (pop. 13,868), needed containers for harvesting and shipping produce in the early 1900s, Texas Basket Co. fulfilled the need, and the company has been building wooden bushel baskets ever since.

"This is the oldest mill making fruit and vegetable baskets in Texas," says owner Martin Swanson, 57, standing amid buzzing and clanging machines that saw, shave and slice enough sweetgum logs into strips to produce up to 12,000 baskets each day.

On the factory floor, Erasto Ponce, 63, places a wooden strip on a pattern wheel, then slaps a second strip crosswise. With hands that move swiftly from 20 years of experience, he slaps on one strip after another until he has layered 16 strips into a webbed mat, which he fastens with a staple gun before a machine bends the wood to form a basket.

"This basket is native to America," says Swanson of the half-bushel container being built by Ponce. "It was made for American produce."

In the 19th century, baskets were as commonplace as plastic bags are today. Basket-making companies flourished in Texas in the early 1900s, with nearly two dozen statewide, including four in Jacksonville, known at the time as the "Tomato Capital of the World." In the 1940s, many of the companies closed as cardboard boxes began to replace baskets.

When Swanson and his late father, J.C., bought Texas Basket Co. in 1976—becoming the fourth family to own the business since 1919—they added more basket styles and found new customers, including hobby and craft stores, candy and gourmet food shops, and nurseries and florists.

"We keep coming up with new ideas," says Swanson's wife, Jackie, 56.

Today, the company makes novelty baskets shaped like giant coffee cups, watering cans and the state of Texas, Easter baskets and berry baskets, and wooden crates and display racks. Natural, stained or painted wood produce baskets are built in various sizes, including a half-peck and a bushel.

Longtime customers Cleve and Lesley Moore use the produce baskets to store and display green beans, corn, gourds, bell peppers and other fresh vegetables at their farm in nearby Bullard (pop. 1,150) and at farmers' markets.

"We prefer the baskets over cardboard or waxed boxes because they look fresh and old-fashioned," says Cleve, 40. "We wash and air dry the baskets and get two or three years out of them. One of the most important things for us is the baskets come from a natural, renewable resource."

"A never-ending challenge at the factory is keeping the factory's aging machinery running. Nobody makes basket machines, so we have a machine shop to make our own parts," Swanson says.

Plant manager Dave Haberle, 63, who has worked for the company since 1980, knows the idiosyncrasies of each piece of equipment from the machine that peels bark from sweetgum and birch logs to the massive boiler that produces steam to make the wood pliable.

"It's like grandpa's axe," Haberle says about the 90-year-old equipment. "It's had five handles and two new heads."

Swanson calls the factory a working antique, and such a rarity that it has become a tourist attraction. From an observation room above the factory floor, visitors can watch some of the company's 100 employees crafting baskets, and in the gift store, customers can select from some of the company's 200 different styles.

Texas Basket Co.'s products are sold worldwide and, across the United States, its baskets can be found filled with almonds in California, mums in Colorado, seashells in Florida and crabs on the dock of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. "It's always fun to visit someplace and see our baskets," Swanson says.

And, of course, they are still used to tote tomatoes in Jacksonville, Texas.