Local man makes living weaving baskets

Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Billy Owens strips a piece of oak to make baskets. The process must be completed while the wood is still moist and flexible. Kayla Monahan Special to the Cassville Democrat

Family tradition allows Shell Knob resident to travel, teach

By Kayla Monahan

Special to the Cassville Democrat

Traveling through the Ozark Mountains and down a winding dirt road, one might find Billy and Theresa Owens working at their home outside of Shell Knob.

The husband and wife sit inside the woodshop overlooking the hills while the wind blows through building, lifting the scent of freshly cut oak.

The couple have found a way to turn what some consider a hobby into a career. The Owenses are professional basket weavers, making white oak baskets by hand in the same way it has been done for generations in the Ozarks.

The journey started with Billy Owens' father, Dale, growing up in the depression.

"Dad was self-taught," Owens said. "He needed something to carry oats to feed the hogs, and so he made a basket out of necessity."

Owens said his father did not make basket weaving a career, but went on to get a steady job to support his family. Around age 50, he went back to his former skill and became the basket-maker at Silver Dollar City. Eventually, Dale Owens opened a open shop in Branson.

"Branson was booming in the 1990s, and it was a good time to try something," Billy Owens said. "He would sell every basket he made, because the tourism was good in Branson."

As a child, Billy learned the skill from his father, but was not interested. However, with his father needing help and his own children growing up, Billy decided to take a chance. He left his job, and went into business full-time with his father.

"It was different as an adult because I wanted to, and as a kid I was told to," Owens said. "I started to like it. I guess as we get older, we gravitate back to our roots, and do more meaningful things."

The process is done completely by hand. According to Owens, the baskets are made in the same way they were 150 years ago.

Owens cuts down the white oak tree, pointing out a major difference between the past and today is his use of a chain saw instead of a cross saw. Then, he cuts the wood, strips it and weaves it into over 20 different basket styles.

"I love the freedom of walking out my backdoor and going to work," Owens said. "I like being in touch with nature.

"Trees are not man-made, they are God-made and I am just changing it into another form. It's turning something beautiful into 50 beautiful baskets."

In 2008, Owens gave up the shop and now spends a majority of his time on the road, traveling across America, teaching classes and selling baskets. When he returns home, he and Theresa work diligently to weave baskets and prepare kits for those interested in making their own basket. Owens said making a kit takes as much time as actually finishing the product.

"This is an outlet for people," Owens said. "Some people knit, some bowl and some make baskets."

The baskets are made to last. Every piece is made by hand with no chemicals or glue. Owens said they are 100 percent organic.

To prove the basket's strength, Owens dropped a 25 pound weight into the basket and lifted it up to show it would hold.

Since the baskets are made of white oak, they can be used for multiple purposes. According to Owens, if the basket gets dirty, it can be hosed off. The moisture is good for the wood.

Owens said he is turning teaching jobs down because he cannot produce the material for the kits fast enough. Most baskets require 12-20 strips of wood, which have to be made by hand, packaged and stored until the class.

Also, it depends on how easy the tree is to work with.

"Trees are just like people," Owens said. "Some are easier to work with than others."

Owens said he would be happy to cut down a white oak tree for someone. With one tree, Owens said he can usually get 50 baskets, and anything that is not used for baskets becomes firewood so the lumber is not wasted.

While his children and grandchild are not actively involved in the business, Owens said they all know how to make baskets.

In the future, the Owens couple hopes to use their trade to bring tourism to the Ozarks. The Owenses have a long-term plan of creating a place on their property where they can hold retreats and classes.

"This is an expensive hobby, and most of the people I am teaching live in asphalt jungles," Owens said. "They want to see what the Ozarks has to offer."

Owens said many of his clients are nurses and attorneys who have high stress jobs, and often ask about seeing the serenity of the Ozarks.

"I want to expose them to the beautiful Ozarks, let them see the whole process and let them be hands-on if they choose," Owens said. "Basket weaving makes people happy and gives them an escape from their world, and for me it pays the bills. It's a win-win situation."

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