Appreciating and collecting items from the past was instilled in me mostly by my father. Growing up, he would always point out objects that were handed down in the family and explain what it was and how it was used. It could be a simple snuff box, porcelain baby feeder or travelling inkwell. He also was famous for bringing home interesting objects that he would pick up from various sources. It was something he started doing early in his career as a Conductor on the NY Central Railroad. His layover periods between trips allowed him to explore different towns and their thrift shops. He especially enjoyed the military surplus shops that sprang up following WWII. It was a habit he continued until his death in 1988.
One of those interesting objects was a large ash splint woven basket. Besides his familiar “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” reason for bringing something home he also saw practical value in them. I don’t remember exactly when the object arrived in the house but I think it was probably late 60’s or early 70’s. He could have obtained it from Peekskill Military Academy where he worked as a night watchman. The academy closed at the end of the 1968 school year so it could have possibly come as a result of that. More than likely it was used for laundry services.
It was larger than a typical basket used for a home but it was put to good use as a storage container for various things over the years, toys especially. It was built to be strong and was obviously of good quality. It held up perfectly. My father knew it would.
In the early 1980’s my parents sold our house on Walnut Street in Peekskill and decided to move out of town. With space limited and downsizing needed, the basket ended up in my garage rafters for the next 35 years. I just couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it. Besides, they don’t make them like that anymore or if they do somewhere, they are surely very expensive. Now, all these years later, it was my turn to make space and downsize. With both of our adult children living on their own, my wife and I realized we had to begin the endless task of sorting through the piles of ‘things’ that have accumulated over the years. So, as we began sorting and organizing for the inevitable garage sale, it was time for the basket to once again see the light of day. Then I took a real close look at this object I took for granted the for last 50 years!
I saw the name and location of the manufacturer burned into the wood near one of the handle openings, Ballou Baskets Becket, Mass. and I decided to do some online research. It took a little work to get information but eventually an amazing history was discovered.
The Becket Historical Commission responded to my email submission to their website requesting information about our basket and the company that manufactured it. After starting as a small shop in 1888 the Ballou Basket Company grew to a larger factory producing quality products sold throughout the country. It was also a significant employer for the Becket area. Then it all came to an abrupt end.
In November 1927, a torrential rainfall caused the local reservoir to give way and flood the area. Within minutes, the basket factory was washed away, along with the homes of the Ballou brothers Willis and J. Clinton. Many other homes were destroyed or badly damaged as well. The post office was gone, area stores were gone too. Although the family did their best to attempt a come-back for the company, the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that followed made it virtually impossible. Ballou baskets finally came to an end when another family tragedy occurred and J. Clinton Ballou was killed by a locomotive in the early 1940’s.
We discovered that samples of the Ballou Basket Company are not easy to find. Even in Becket, there are very few samples to show in their museum. Many families will temporarily loan their treasured possessions whenever the town looks to honor their basket manufacturing history.
My wife and I decided we should donate our basket to the historical commission. It was the right thing to do. However, given its size, we were not sure they would want it. To our delight, they were excited to be getting such a donation. Their permanent collection was minimal and there were no samples of baskets of the size we were offering.
So, just weeks later, representatives of the Becket Historical Commission travelled to our home in Peekskill to collect the new addition to their collection. They were thrilled and appreciative of the gift. While they were here I was able to give them a private tour of our very own Lincoln Depot Museum. Then, after lunch in the area, they were off back to Becket.
There was only one stipulation I gave for the gift, that the display described the gift as coming “From John and Nancy Testa in memory Joseph L. Testa.” It was an appropriate and fitting attribution to my father to which they wholeheartedly agreed.
So, if you are ever in Becket, Massachusetts stop by the Becket Historical Commission to learn more about Becket and Ballou, and look for our basket.
This is a wonderful story and has a special meaning for me. In the early 1900s, my Great Grandfather Earle Eaves was on his way to work at the Ballou Basket Company when he was struck by a train and killed. It’s ironic that J. Clinton Ballou suffered the same fate. Earle had married my beautiful Great Grandmother Maude Eaves only three works earlier-a brand new bride- and didn’t know she was pregnant. Somehow she had the strength and fortitude to survive this tragedy and give birth to my beloved Grandmother Vearle, which is the feminization of Earle. Both my mom and I have Vearle as our middle names.
This wonderful story brought back a very special memory so thank you.
JC Ballou was MY great grandfather. Knowing Becket and the train schedule so well we always wondered how that could happen. It was during a blinding snow storm. Did he slip? Have a heart attack? OR decided the loss of all his businesses due to the Becket flood was too much? He was religious and hearty New England stock, not sure he would have stepped in front a train on purpose that BUT is is interesting you lost your grandfather that way too. (My grandmother was born in Becket in 1900)
Alice Ballou Morse
Hello I was wondering you could help me. I have a ballou canvas box with morton shaker bread inked on the canvas. I am.unable to find anything similar online and would like to find out more about it
Better late than never…just came across your article about donating Ballou baskets. Yes, they absolutely don’t make them like they used to! Thank you for your donation. We have donated a few ourselves and a few are still in use here at home. JC Ballou was my great grandfather. He had one daughter (b. 1900), Gertrude, my grandmother and we were very close. My father was only five but remembers distinctly his Mom crying when she got the news of Becket flood, the loss of her childhood home, basket factory and grist mill etc.
They Just Don’t Make…
To be sure, we are all fortunate that this one was not labeled PICNIC, and left for rodents to find shelter, then sold for a pittance at any sale.
I will take a bit of privilege in declaring for all to hear(?), dad more than likely acquired this “beauty” from PEEKSKILL ACADEMY/Peekskill MILITARY Academy(although the Academy adopted a military “feature” in 1857, the official name remained sans that definitive well “through” the 75th Anniversary of 1908, whose catalog of ceremony contains a historical SKETCH/9 pgs.). Newspapers may have taken liberties in this regard, due to obvious UNIFORMS, much plainer than the norm.
Pre-Depression dated, we would otherwise think much newer?
It was evidently used to “CARRY” small children SAFELY, plenty of breathing room, yet lightweight and strong.
From 1855-1954/99 years some 20 million immigrants were “funneled” into the most decrepit(unhealthy) city this country had to offer, New York City(Chicago not excluded). That is another story.
Tens of “thousands” of children were left HOMELESS, due to the deaths of their parents, MANY of those TRANSPORTED to PEEKSKILL, “during the age of STEEL” three(3) “CONVENTS” established permanent residence, only to be lost in history by the post 1968 CITY.
***Peekskill Academy had been the FIRST to encounter that blight to last a CENTURY.
The 1889 new PRINCIPAL was “Dr. J.N. Tilden” from the village, and circa “1890” Daisy Maude ORLEMAN(Robinson) became Academy physician, now credited with being the first female dermatologist in America. Her records have not surprisingly never been secured. “Daisy”‘s father was Col. Lewis Orleman, who arrived from the Department of War at P.A. in 1889 also, becoming Principal in 1894 when Dr. Tilden left “due to health concerns”.
My best attempted calculation(without Albany), is that “100,000” children were “processed” in/through Peekskill in that Century(from 1839-1954(close/Ellis), and that the total number of Academy graduates, about 6,000 estimate.
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