Kate Abbott: Thanks to the men who made the Basket Shop in Chesterfield


'The Basket Shop," the sign said. "Visitors Welcome."

But the workshop was dark on Sunday morning, when I tried the door.

I was standing on Route 143 for the first time, on top of the ridge, wanting to offer a tribute a month too late. Milton Lafond has made and sold baskets here since 1984. He learned from his father-in-law, Benjamin Higgins, who worked in this shop for more than 60 years.

Lafond sent his baskets worldwide and appeared in Yankee magazine. And he died in October, after an illness.

Standing at his doorway, not wanting to intrude, I wished I had found this workshop a year ago, so I could have talked with him. I wish his family peace.

I had simply come looking for a gift. (Dad, if you're reading this, please stop now, until New Years. I'll tell you all about it after Christmas.)

A short piece from The Hidden Hills, www.hidden-hills.com, brought me up the Lafayette trail to Chesterfield.

Now that he's retired, my dad has replanted the vegetable garden I grew up with, rebuilt the fence a foot or more over my head and begun to reclaim the garden at my grandmother's house. He spent the summer picking pole beans and tomatoes and baby lettuce. So I want to find him a garden basket.

And when I read about this family business quietly going on down the generations, I wanted to give my dad this story, too. He likes working with his hands. He taught me to saw a board, hammer a nail and tie a knot.

He would admire the skill that makes a basket beautiful and sturdy enough to last for decades. People sought out Higgins and Lafond because they had seen a basket or bought one generations before.

According to the Eagle archives, Higgins made his baskets from white ash, from trees 50 to 70 years old harvested within 10 miles of his workbench.

"A lady came in just the other day," Higgins said in the Eagle story, "told me she bought a basket 30 years ago, brought up five babies in it, and uses it now as a clothes basket."

By 1928, Higgins had a thriving business -- a contemporary story from the archives shows a photograph of his Model T Ford with a woven basket body. He split and prepared his own materials, though war wounds kept him from cutting his own trees. He had served in World War I.

On the hilltop, I didn't know that yet. I turned quietly away from the shop and knocked at Earth Song Farm next door, where an open flag hung.

Joa Agnella-Traista of Worthington told me why the basket shop was closed, as she guided me through the farm shop -- free-range eggs, spices and garlic, movies to rent, books to browse. She is also an Ayurveda practitioner and massage therapist. For the holidays, she has a selection of local art on weekends: knitting, ceramics, maple wood, rose petals, pine sachets in hand-woven linen.

She said she would have liked to learn from Lafond, and she hopes baskets and basket makers will return to the shop. I do too. But for now I thank the basket makers who made it and kept it going.


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