A vanishing landscape Sweetgrass basket business sweet or sour?

Marie Rouse's new stand is farther from the road than her previous one, but at the same time, she appreciates the replacement. File/Wade Spees/Staff  May 29, 2014

MOUNT PLEASANT - For years, Nakia Wigfall and her two sisters dutifully tended their father's sweetgrass basket stand here along U.S. Highway 17, carefully arranging baskets in hopes of catching the eyes of drivers passing by.

They hung baskets from simple wooden boards six days a week, at least until the past few years, when the highway was widened from four to six lanes.

When their stand was moved to a new location during the road's construction, Wigfall said she started using it less often, more like three days a week. It eventually was replaced at a new location across from the Boone Hall Farms store.

Wigfall said she hasn't been there in a year and instead is finding other ways to sell her family's painstakingly crafted baskets.

"You can barely see the turnoff to the stand until you get up on it, and by then it's too late," she said. "It's pretty much a hazard, not only for us but for a lot of basket makers. If you go along Highway 17, you'll see a lot of empty stands. That's because people are not stopping."

Some consider all of this town's sweetgrass basket stalls America's densest collection of roadside stands, a collection that helped the sweetgrass basket tradition survive after its crucial role in the Lowcountry's rice culture faded away a century ago.

Now it's the historical landscape of these basket stands that is fading.

The actual number of stands - which now stands at around 95 along the highway from Mount Pleasant to Awendaw - has remained largely the same during the past few decades. But their character and longtime appearance is changing.

They once were rickety, handmade structures assembled by basket makers or their families at a location of their choosing, usually in the highway right of way along a mostly rural, residential stretch outside the town's limits.

Today, many stands are professionally made and strategically placed amid small parking areas, new sidewalks and street lights along a bustling artery lined with restaurants and retail stores in the state's fourth-largest municipality.

Staci Richey, a preservation consultant who surveyed the stands as part of the recent U.S. Highway 17 widening, said the stands once were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

But that might be a harder argument to make today.

While many stands survive - and new ones have been built with largely the same materials - the workmanship, setting and feeling are different.

"It almost has a clinical feel to it," Richey said. "As you're traveling 45 mph, it's hard to see where the curb cuts are. Sweetgrass basket makers are not going to be able to alter this."

The town and state realized the highway widening could harm the basket stands and basket makers, and they launched two studies to figure out how to lessen the ill effects of the project.

This work was required by federal law, since the stands were part of a historic landscape deemed eligible for the National Register and federal dollars were involved in the construction.

Blair Goodman, who worked for Tidewater Environmental at the time, even took a sweetgrass basket making class as she worked as a liaison between the basket makers and workers widening the road.

The work was complicated because the state had no policies or protocols for relocating stands placed without permission in a public right of way.

While the older, flimsier stands had a certain charm, they became a liability issue with the contractor, so many were replaced with professionally built stands.

"There was a definite level of mistrust at first," Goodman said. "Some said, 'Why do you want me to tell you what I think of the project? You're just going to do what you want to do anyway.' It ended up being a lot more coordination, more than any of us really expected."

The town spent more than $100,000 studying the stands' history, working with basket makers and building about 25 new stands at about $1,850 apiece. That figure doesn't include drainage pipes, gravel driveways and other site work needed for the new stands' locations.

Paul Lykins, Mount Pleasant's Transportation Projects Engineer, said finding suitable sites proved to be a challenge. Much of the widened highway has a raised curb and sidewalk. Other sections have large new noise barriers to shield neighborhoods from the highway's noise.

As the town counted the stands, it found 63 on the stretch in 2009, but seven more just two years later, as work was poised to start.

"Mystery stands started popping up," Lykins said.

The town's mitigation work won awards from the Federal Highway Administration and the S.C. African American Heritage Commission, and Lykins said he feels there are more basket makers on the highway now than before, though no exact figures are available.

Basket makers using the new stands can personalize them as they choose, with paint, plastic, signs and additions. Goodman said some basket makers are happy with their new stands, while others don't like the change.

"The middle chunk, if you think of a bell curve, are ambivalent about it," she said. "Access is more challenging now."

The mitigation work along the highway is only part of a larger pattern of trying to help sweetgrass basket makers.

When the Towne Centre shopping center opened almost a decade ago, the town required it to create a series of sweetgrass stands to replace those lost along the highway.

Today, those four stands often are occupied, and the site includes a large live oak that shades both the basket makers and their customers. Adeline Mazyck sewed there earlier this month, and she and others put out five or six tables because their four stands weren't enough to display all of their baskets.

"We're in a pretty good spot," she said. "A lot of people say they like to come off the highway. They don't want to be on the highway."

The danger of the roadside stands became clear in 1999, when Mary Seifert, 46, an off-duty Pennsylvania police officer, was killed after stopping to buy a sweetgrass basket along Highway 17. She returned to her minivan to get her wallet when an 80-year-old man driving a sport utility vehicle ran off the road and hit her. Another basket maker once was hit by a tire that fell off a truck.

The town built a sweetgrass pavilion at its new Waterfront Park. It also gives developers a $15,000 break on their transportation impact fee for each basket stand they build on their property along the highway.

Marie Rouse often occupies a new stand at Walgreens, which got a $30,000 fee break for building two stands next to its new store. She said her location isn't quite as visible to her customers as her previous stand, but she said the store's employees have been friendly.

She is less pleased with the wider, busier highway, which sees more than 35,000 cars and trucks whiz by each day.

"I don't want to be a complainer, and I thank God I'm here," she said, "but it's really slowed down our business."

Basket maker Henrietta Snype said she saw many of these problems coming for years as the town's development crept north.

"I stressed to the basket makers years ago that it's not going to be easy," she said, "but it's history and tradition, and it's really hard to accept changes, especially when it's something your family has been doing for generations. As time changes, you have to move with time, but not everybody is the same."

Snype decided years ago to leave her stand along the highway. Her baskets now are sold inside the Preservation Society of Charleston's King Street store, and she teaches her craft in schools.

She also keeps a collection of baskets at her home for repeat customers who know her well.

Other basket makers may be moving farther north, where the highway returns to four lanes and has no curbs. Wigfall said she and her sisters have talked about opening a stand on family property along Rifle Range Road.

"I see more and more are going toward McClellanville because there's not as much headache," Snype said, "but the headache is going to follow them because people are building out past the headache."

The wider highway is just one threat facing those hoping to keep the sweetgrass basket tradition alive.

Others include the availability of sweetgrass, the struggle to interest future generations in the craft and the erosion of traditional Gullah communities here, where many basket making families have lived for generations.

Snype said she thinks the future of the craft can survive the loss of Highway 17 stands - just like it managed to survive the loss of the Lowcountry's rice industry. Basket making began as slaves used their knowledge of basket making to craft large fanner baskets used to winnow rice by tossing it in the air and letting the breeze blow away the chaff.

"I see the basket making moving to another level," Snype said. "All basket makers don't feel that way, but I challenge them to step out of the box and do something different. You have to be thinking in more than one way."

There are signs many basket makers are adapting in their own way. Several basket makers have their own websites, and their work is increasingly respected as art - not just craft. The best baskets now sell for five figures.

"The sweetgrass corridor is so unique within the entire United States that it is hard to see it so dramatically altered," Richey said, "but as these artists have endured many years of changes and adapted accordingly, I can only assume they will continue to thrive and make the best of the new surroundings."

Dale Rosengarten agrees. She is the author of "Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry" "Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art."

In an essay titled "Babylon Is Falling" that Rosengarten recently wrote for a forthcoming anthology on South Carolina's contemporary folk traditions, she reflects deep concern that today's basket makers have been under siege from the highway widening and the recession before that.

But her conclusion is not all gloom and doom.

"Time and again, the sewers have found a way where there is no way," she said. "There is reason to believe they will continue to do just that."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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