Every now and again, I stumble across a story that is a welcome relief from the usual bad news, of which there is always a plethora to choose from. There are obvious political events in the past few days that beg for a column, but I need a breather. I came across a story out of Peterborough, New Hampshire that caught my eye, if for no other reason than it's simplicity. For those that don't know, Peterborough is the quintessential New England town. Nestled between Grand Monadnock and Pack Monadnock mountains, it is home to the famed MacDowell Colony, an age-old retreat for artists, writers, musicians and nearly any other creative venue. Leonard Bernstein spent a summer there as well as countless other notables. It is the basis for Thornton Wilder's famed tome, "Our Town" and it still retains the same charm that was detailed in that story.
It is also home to the Peterborough Basket Company. An example of quiet Yankee fortitude, largely unnoticed for decades, it has churned along for the last 154 years virtually unchanged. Since 1854, local men and women have hand-crafted every conceivable form of basket at the expansive building. It struck me as noteworthy that, yes, a business can actually survive that long. They have changed with the times in terms of marketing and to some degree, product, but the basic business model has remained constant for a century and a half.
Russell and Joan Dodds bought the business from a neighbor of theirs in Concord, Massachusetts in 1983. Through casual conversation they found that their neighbor, Dick Pierce, had owned the business for years and was ready to sell out. Russell had been an insurance salesman and done very well, but was ready for a change. After some convincing, his wife agreed and they took the plunge. Now 80, his son Wayne helps run the business as well. After taking over in 1983, Russell hired a consultant to review the business from head to toe. They developed a web presence, switched from using oak for the baskets to a native hardwood, Appalachian White Ash, the same wood used to make baseball bats. The wood goes through a vast process, first carved into strips, steamed, sanded by spinning in a huge cylinder, and then hand-woven into a variety of baskets. In earlier days, the baskets were more functional than decorative. Folks used them for shopping, storing vegetables, on bicycles and carriages, and literally countless other uses. Now, they are more likely to be used as decorative pieces or sold to gift basket companies. The Dodds also created a line of insulated baskets that have done very well, used as coolers or to keep contents warm. All the assembly is done by hand, by artisans, really, and even the end staining is done by hand, dipping each basket in it's assigned shade.
True to New England ingenuity, the plant, as it has been since it opened in 1854, is heated by an enormous wood-fired boiler in the basement that looks like the front of an old locomotive engine. But they don't use oil. Since day one the boiler uses only scraps that are saved from the basket-making process through the year. Sawdust is sold to local wood pellet companies to produce their product. Russell points out that the company wastes nothing, literally, and this is as it has always been.
Yeah, there's a certain sense of nostalgia here, I can't deny it. There is also a hint of reassurance, at least for me, that as the rest of the world continues to spin and change, and not usually for the better, that here in the shadows of Mt. Monadnock, there is a little corner of the world where time stood still. Where you can walk across the creaky floor and depending on where you look, you may be seeing the exact same view that you would have taken in over 100 years ago. Demonstration that sometimes only some gentle tweaking is required to keep up with the times, not the sweeping, sledge-hammer approach that most of us have been conditioned to believe is the only way to do it. The story left me wondering only one last thing...there's got to be something I could put in a basket.