They Just Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore

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.

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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.

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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!

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J. Clinton Ballou (Courtesy of the Becket Historical Commission)

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.

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The Ballou Basket Shop, one of the buildings washed away the 1927 flood. (Courtesy of the Becket Historical Commission)

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.

Ballou Basket Shop Group

J.C. Ballou standing in the doorway of his shop with a few of his employees. (Courtesy of the Becket Historical Commission)

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.

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Sandra Jarvis and Joy Lennartz of the Becket, MA Historical Commission happy to take possession of their new artifact.

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.

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About Legislator John G. Testa

John G. Testa, a life-long resident of Peekskill, began his first term on the Westchester County Legislature in January 2010. Prior to his successful run for the District 1 Legislative seat, he served 3 terms as Mayor of Peekskill from January 2002 until December 2007. Before becoming mayor he also served a four-year term as a Councilman. From his first days in office Testa worked tirelessly to set the City on the path of economic stability. Peekskill flourished under this plan, increasing the city fund balance to its highest in history. During John’s tenure in office, the NY State Comptroller’s Office named Peekskill one of the most fiscally sound municipalities in the State; independent auditors proclaimed Peekskill as being in its best fiscal condition in over 30 years; and Moody’s Investor Service agreed to upgrade its bond rating, resulting in further savings. The plan he put in place was so successful that it enabled the City of Peekskill to pass three budgets in a row with a 0% tax increase. These fiscal skills will prove valuable to Testa as he works to put the brakes on what has been wildly escalating county spending and unchecked government growth. He has pledged his efforts to work to consolidate services, eliminate wasteful spending and improve efficiency. In addition to the fiscal conservatism that served Peekskill so well, Testa worked to promote the city, attracting investment, jobs and an increased tax base. Over $100 million of private investment came to Peekskill in the forms of new residential construction, retail space, and the redevelopment of historic structures. As Mayor, Testa led a successful battle to stop the unfair and unsafe plan to send sewage to the Peekskill plant from outside the sewage/water district. John’s roots are deep within the soil of Northern Westchester. His father’s family has lived here for more than a century and his mother’s family is nearing that mark. He is proud that he was born in Peekskill and has lived and worked here all his life and, with his wife Nancy raised their two children here.
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