LeRoy Graber

Willow Basketmaker
Man smiling, holding a basket.

Photo by Michael G. Stewart


LeRoy Graber learned to weave willow baskets from his grandfather, Jacob Graber, who came to the Dakota Territory from the Ukraine in 1874. Prior to settling in the Ukraine, the German Swiss Mennonites emigrated to Alsace-Lorraine and Poland, seeking religious freedom and exemption from conscription into the military. These settlers carried with them their crafts, foodways, stories, and agricultural knowledge. When Graber was 10 years old, his grandfather told him he was old enough to learn basketmaking. Known locally for his award-winning dairy farm until his retirement, Graber has demonstrated this craft for more than 25 years, weaving both willows and stories at the annual Schmeckfest (tasting festival) held in Freeman, South Dakota. Through the years, the stands of willows appropriate for basketmaking have gradually disappeared, and the number of people in the region actively making willow baskets has diminished to one, LeRoy Graber. Realizing the importance of this artistic tradition, Graber says, "I can feel the heritage of my ancestors in my hands." To ensure the perpetuation of the tradition, he and his son Kim have planted acres of different kinds of willows on their farm and Graber demonstrates the craft at local schools and teaches basketmaking in the apprenticeship programs of South and North Dakota.


LeRoy Graber at work on a basket

Interview by Josephine Reed for the NEA

NEA: You've been awarded an NEA National Heritage Fellowship because of your skill in basket weaving. How long have you been basket weaving?

LeRoy Graber: Would you believe, I was watching my grandfather weave a basket 79 years ago and he said, "LeRoy, you're old enough to learn how to weave a basket." That was the era when willow basketry could've been called "Container Corporation of America" because we didn't have all the plastics and all the other boxes. And that was at the age of 10, so now you know how old I am.

He showed me how to make one basket and I remembered that, and I made a few baskets and then I didn't make any baskets until I taught country school in a one room school, and I taught some of my eighth graders how to do it. And then I got married and I sort of forgot about it, rearing a family, and then all at once, they began to notice that this is an art that may disappear. So then that was really interesting, again, and they got me busy.

NEA: What do you remember about your grandfather?

LeRoy Graber: I'll tell you a little story -- how my grandfather came to South Dakota. This was in 1874….Grandpa [got a job] of delivering the mail from Yankton to our community about 35 miles north, and the little post offices in between, usually in combination with a grocery store. He did this route twice a week on a buckboard, which is an open buggy, and he said, "LeRoy, you can't imagine how it was. It was one waving sea of grass. No trees to speak of. No fences, no roads, no landmarks; just a few black shanties made out of sod."

NEA: You come from and you live in a very close Mennonite community, and in fact that's part of the reason why your grandfather came here. Tell us a little bit about the Mennonites.

LeRoy Graber: The Mennonites are very often mistakenly associated with Hutterites. I would say we are like most of the other Protestant denominations with the exception of we put more emphasis on living a life of service, peace, and love instead of doing evil for evil. And that is a pretty tough road to follow sometimes, especially when wartime is going – then we have some hard times with public sentiment.

NEA: And your grandfather brought with him certain crafts and food that really is pretty specific to the Mennonites from his area, isn't that true? That along with religious beliefs, there also came crafts, for example, including the basket weaving?

LeRoy Graber: Oh, yes. That is very true. We lived the life that many people are talking about going to now -- self-sufficiency, gardens, orchards…. We had to do that to subsist, because money was very, very scarce. And then of course, shortly after they came over, came the hoards of grasshoppers, prairie fires, droughts. Many of those settlers would've gone back if they'd have had the means to do so, but they stuck it out and things got better.

Let me tell you what the baskets were used for in Grandpa's day. They needed baskets for eggs, potatoes, cobs, sewing needs, clothes, if a baby was expected, a bassinet. They even had buttocks baskets which went behind the saddle on a horse. So you can see that baskets were very, very essential. It was a necessity to know how to do that.

NEA: And you said you still had a hat that your Grandfather made for you?

LeRoy Graber: Oh, my, is that ever precious. This hat was woven out of rye straw because that is probably the toughest straw that we have in this area. And he would cut that. He would weave a strip simultaneously with eight straws, which would make a strip about three quarters of an inch wide some place in that area. When he had about 100 feet of that, it was still quite pliable. Then he would weave the crown first and then the brim as far as you would want it. I did meet a weaver like that at a North Dakota fair not too long ago, and she said, "I can do about a foot of that per hour." So if Grandpa had 100 feet in there, you figure it out.

NEA: What was your life like as a dairy farmer?

LeRoy Graber: I had Holstein cows. My Dad was a man before his time. He bought a cow, a Holstein, for $300 eight years before I was born. So then he kept building up the herd and eventually I took it over and one year, we were the third highest in the nation as far as milk and butter fat production were concerned. And for that I got an award as the most efficient dairy farmer in the United States by the Ford Foundation. That may be stretching it a little bit, but we did pretty good.

NEA: Tell me, you said you went back to basket weaving after you retired from dairy farming. What made you decide to do that?

LeRoy Graber: Well, I'm an outdoor person. After retirement I taught school, country school, for two years. I had this terrific herd of Holsteins that I could take over if I wanted to. That, combined with me being an outdoor person and loving nature as much as I do, made me switch to going back to weaving baskets.

NEA: How do you weave a willow basket?

LeRoy Graber: I have five steps that I have on a table that tell how to make a willow basket. The first is taking nine little thicker willows, tying them together with a thin willow, separating that cluster into spokes, so it looks sort of like a wheel in a way. And then, starting with thin willows, we weave around that and it gets bigger and bigger, and when we have the diameter of the bottom that we want, we'll stick another willow in beside each one of these spokes and bend those willows up and tie them together. And then we can weave upwards, and then we'll weave upwards as far as we want the height of the basket to be and here, if we want to have the basket bow out, we'll untie it and let the uprights spread out a little bit. If we want to bow it back in, we tie it on top again so the uprights are bowed in. So I think chiropractors would make a very good basket maker.

When we have the height that we want, then these uprights, of which there are probably a foot and a half remaining, are bent over and woven into the rim on the top. And following that, is an option of having a handle on it or not. Now, I've gotten pretty fancy. Grandpa never made anything like that, in which we have different colors of willows, and I can weave a checkerboard into the part that goes up, or I can weave a spiral. There are several different kinds of weaves that are used in weaving a basket, many different kinds of rims on the top, so my son and I decided we could weave about 10,000 baskets and not make a duplicate.

NEA: What accounts for the changes in the colors?

LeRoy Graber: Well, for example when I weave around the basket going up, I will take a white willow or a lighter colored one and a darker one, for contrast. And I can make a nice checkerboard that way. If I go over two and under one, weaving upwards, and I use the same amount of willows and the same kind, I will have a spiral.

NEA: How long does it take you to weave a basket?

LeRoy Graber: Let's say that I make a basket of just one color, about a foot high, about a foot in diameter, the process there would depend a lot on the uniformity of the willows, and that's where the purchased willows are much more uniform that the ones that we drive around and cut ourselves along a lake shore or a river. Anyhow, after carefully selecting uniform willows -- because if I don't have them quite uniform, for some unknown reason, one side will get quite a bit higher than the other -- I will say it takes about seven and a half, eight hours.

NEA: Where do you demonstrate making baskets?

LeRoy Graber: We have a Swiss-German festival [Schmeckfest] in Freeman every year. And we have something that I don't think is any other place in the world, and that is three ethnic German groups; the Swiss, which I am part of, the Hutterites, and the Low Germans. So we have three kinds of ethnic German foods and I wish I could get the concession for Alka-Seltzer.

NEA: Tell us about some of the food that you have.

LeRoy Graber: Oh, boy. Kuchen is a favorite. I have learned to go easy on the things in the beginning, because it is served family style, which includes dried beans made into soup and they have a flavor that you just can't find otherwise, unless you have dried beans. And they have noodle soup; they have stewed beef made in a big kettle. I don't know why, but it's more delicious than if you make it in a small batch. And then there are poppy seed rolls and those are loaded with poppy seeds… Oh, fried potatoes, and some of those are fried in lard, and that is why some of the people come to Schmeckfest, because they can get fried potatoes fried in lard. Wow.

NEA: And at Schmeckfest you demonstrate your basket weaving?

LeRoy Graber: Yes. They did have quite a few other demonstrations, like rope making, quilting is a big thing, and rug weaving, and so on. But those have sort of disappeared because young people don't want to take the time to learn that and do it that way, when they can get it much easier.

NEA: Are you finding that with baskets? You teach young people how to make baskets, don't you?

LeRoy Graber: Yes. The first years of my basket weaving, until about 35 years ago, I got all my willows locally along streams and lakes. Then through the progress of farming, spraying, cultivating the land ditch to ditch, many of those varieties have disappeared. So then we found some nurseries that grow them and now we're sure that there are over 500 kinds of willows. Some of those aren't worth anything for making baskets; some are, like oak and hickory. They're a little stubborn, but when you have a basket that's done, I can even challenge football players to break it, and they can't do it. Now, those baskets that are made out of those willows come in a dried form, so we have to re-baptize them. And willows are like people in a lot of ways, and some of those willows we have to hold under longer than other willows.

NEA: Why do you only use willows when you do your baskets?

LeRoy Graber: Well, that's the way I started because this area was very similar to the Ukraine, where my grandfather lived; it had willows, but it didn't have trees. So that was the story of that, and that's the way basketry is. It's very interesting of the multitude of things baskets are made from. I talked to a basket maker from Minnesota. He used black ash. He would take a little black ash three, about three inches in diameter, and cut off about a six foot length, lay it down and he would beat the heck out of it and that would separate the growth rings. And then he would slice those lengthways and he had strips to make baskets, and they were stout baskets. But then, of course, I envy people that make baskets out of pine needles and can make baskets that are waterproof, but every different material has its merits and its drawbacks.

NEA: You and your son have also been replanting different kinds of willows?

LeRoy Graber: Yes. My son got very interested in the prairie grasses and the fruits of the pioneer days, so he has planted acres of blackcurrants, Saskatoon berries, and berries of that kind. The willows aren't quite that many acres. He's planted a nice patch and so has my daughter, who is now taking a great interest in it. She lives in Indiana and she has even made living willow sculptures, which is quite a challenge.

NEA: Can you describe the outreach you've done in teaching others this art?

LeRoy Graber: I have taught about 10 handpicked people in South Dakota … and we usually spend about three days together and have them make three or four baskets in that period of time. And then if they want additional help or information, I'm always available. But then the folklorist in North Dakota found out about me and what an appreciation he has for the craft. So there, I taught some of the university art teachers and high school art teachers how to make them. One of my greatest joys has been when my son and I would go to a town and set up the demonstration and for two days, we'd have classes come in and we'd give a half hour to 45 minute presentation to each class. And seeding the seeds of enjoying a craft has been so rewarding and I have stacks of letters that I received from these students, some from the little girls, which I fell in love with, and that has been one of the greatest joys of doing this.

NEA: What it is that you like about weaving willow baskets?

LeRoy Graber: Well, I have several things that come to mind. I think the foremost one is that I can feel my heritage that goes back to the Anabaptist times and how that has connected me with my spirituality and the joy that people had living a very simple lifestyle, the wonderful people I meet. We had a show at Jamestown which I was invited to. In our tent, we had people from Norway, Bosnia, and Armenia. In other words, craftspeople that had ethnic backgrounds in many, many different countries. And we had such a wonderful time and at the end of the day, we said, "Well, we got along so great with each other; why can't the nations do what we're doing?" I have two ladies in particular in North Dakota and Minnesota. One is an art teacher in Moorhead University in Minnesota, and she cards her own wool, distills her own dyes from different plants; not the berries. Berries are not colorfast. So she takes a green plant and distills it and gets a purple dye or a yellow one, and those are the ones that are the most colorful. And she's also into homeopathic medicine. Then the other lady got so wrapped up in it, and she has gone out and imported willows from other countries. She is the one that is really carrying it on. A year after I taught her, she had completed over 80 baskets.

People ask me, "What was one of your greatest moments?" Well, I had to think about that, but one of my greatest moments was when I was demonstrating at a show and a lady came by in a wheelchair and the lady that was pushing her said, "This is somebody making baskets," and I looked, and the lady was blind. Well, I thought, "This doesn't mean anything to her," so I said to the lady in the wheelchair, "May I take your hand?" and I went to step one and I ran her fingers over the process of step one. Step two, putting the willows in on the side and bending them up, and I ran her fingers over that, and she began to smile. And then we went on to make it short, until we finished the basket. By that time, she got a hold of my hand and she held it tightly and thanked me profusely and wouldn't let go. And she says, "Well, we have to go on," and then a tear rolled down my cheek. That was a great moment.

NEA: When you heard the news about receiving the award, what did you think?

LeRoy Graber: Well, you see, I did not apply for this, so about a year ago, the state had me up for an award, some kind of a Governor's award, but I didn't get it. But I told my son, I said, "That doesn't make any difference to me because I've had my joys with the school children, the people I've met, so I got my pay." Okay, now I get this phone call. I think I was eating supper. I thought it was a telemarketer and I was just about ready to hang up when he said he's from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. "Well, maybe we should listen to this," and he's the one that let me know.