Delmar Davis has been selling baskets, sourced locally and internationally, since the 1940s.
Note: On Aug. 18, 2016, Delmar Davis confirmed that Davis Baskets is for sale.
MACK’S CREEK – It may not reflect his road signs, but Delmar Davis is really in the business of historic preservation. For nearly 70 years, he has owned Davis Baskets, one of the area’s last roadside souvenir stands — and in the process, has helped keep Ozarks basket making alive.
“(Basket making) is very close to being extinct because people do not appreciate handcrafts, and they won’t pay the money that it takes,” he says. Years ago, however, things were different.
“When they built this new highway, there were 11 (roadside) shops,” recalls Davis, noting that all of those stops sold some baskets.
Now, the nearly 90-year-old owns the only one that’s left.
Beginning the business
Davis didn’t intend to preserve history by his basket making and selling. He wasn’t even fundamentally driven by a love of the craft, or a desire to keep a tradition alive. Instead, his motivation was simple.
“I like to eat,” says Davis. “It was a matter of making a living. I had a wife and two kids and my parents to take care of.”
His early years instilled an ethic for work, too: Davis grew up “so poor that it’d make you cry” in the middle of both Nebraska’s dust bowl and the Great Depression. He moved to Missouri when he was around 12 years old, and when World War II came along, entered the Merchant Marines.
It was time home on leave in 1947 that saw the start of his first shop: It was a little 12-by-12 foot stand that his parents operated until he was back home for good.
That shop actually didn’t sell baskets in the beginning: Instead, items such concrete pottery and cedar boxes were some of his featured wares. However, the store’s focus soon began to evolve.
“An older man I was acquainted with was a basket maker, and he said, ‘Why don’t you make some baskets?’” recalls Davis.
Nearly 70 years later, it’s safe to say the suggestion stuck: The shop was dubbed Davis Baskets by 1948, and it’s been known as such ever since.
The basket making tradition
Davis Baskets’ previous building was used until around 1970, when the store moved to its current location due to the construction of Highway 54. “It went off and left my old buildings,” says Davis.
Davis speaks from behind the register, feet propped up on the counter. His time in the business has taught him a few things; tips and tricks that are likely to be lost as the art form fades.
After all, the art of basket making is older than the Ozark hills. According to a 1958 article in The Ozarks Mountaineer, “basket making is an art that goes back into antiquity and has come down to the present day unchanged” — and that “woman, creator of all household arts, began with the weaving of a basket.”
Davis himself believes that women make the best weavers. “(They’re) more dexterous and more careful,” he says. “It’s just something that lends itself well to women rather than the men.”
That dexterous quality is one of the most important things in basket making, says Davis. After all, “there’s not much to it,” he says of weaving. “You simply show (people), and then they have to work at it. You aren’t going to do it right the first time. It takes practice.”
He notes that for baskets, regardless of their point of origin, locally sourced material is also a factor. “They make them from the stuff readily at hand,” says Davis. “If you’ve got bamboo, you use that. If you’ve got sweet grass, you use that. We use white oak. But white oak does happen to be much tougher than most materials that baskets are woven out of.
“The secret of a basket anywhere in the world is good material, well prepared in advance,” he says. ‘Cause you can’t stop and make a piece as you need it to make any time at all, see?”
Davis is shown making baskets on a postcard from the early 1950s.
During the shop’s heyday, Davis says he worked with nearly 60 local craftsmen to source baskets for his shop — and specifically emphasizes the “working with.”
“Basketmakers and artists, they don’t work for you,” he says. “They work with you, and you work with them.”
Today, that number is lower. “(It’s) just two other guys and myself,” says Davis. “People just won’t pay the price for the workmanship.”
Ozarks baskets are marked with yellow tags at Davis’ store — but he also sells ones from all over the world.
But even Davis doesn’t make many baskets himself these days. “It’s a physically hard job, and it takes me longer to run the shop,” he says. “And I’ve never been the biggest producer. I’ve had guys make a lot more than I do, because I had to (run the shop). You have to sell them, you can’t just make. You have to sell.”
That goal of selling became a challenge as years passed. Slowly, the commonplace roadside stands began to disappear. And as baskets began to lose popularity, Davis started supplementing his store with other items.
“Handcrafts just don’t pay,” says Davis. “It’s just a matter of having a livelihood.”
“I’ve been subsidizing with the other merchandise over the years,” says Davis of his store, which stocks a little bit of a lot.
Today’s merchandise is varied: About half the store is filled with baskets, but the other floor space is stocked with things such as Native American memorabilia, candy and glass figurines. In the back, shelves with sweet jams and jellies are just a few feet from old-fashioned gingham sunbonnets; beyond that are a variety of cookbooks — and even “little black books” for those on the dating scene.
Delmar Davis doesn’t intend to give up his reign as “The Basket King” to retirement.
But customers do still come: On a recent Saturday afternoon, one of those people was Jason Edge. He’d come to the store several years ago, and decided to make a return visit with his mother after he saw Davis’ freshly painted road signs and knew the business was still open.
Visiting such stops is a hobby of Edge’s, especially since time — in the big picture — is of the essence. “This is the end,” says Edge. “This is the end of the roadside attractions.”
Other people, a mix of families, couples and seem-to-be friends, trickle in. Most, Davis says, are return customers — some who even call ahead to make sure he’s going to be around that day. “I’m not Walmart,” he says. “I’m not open 24 hours, you know.”
But when he says he’s going to be there, he’s there — and even though his hours have cut back some over the years, he has no intention of leaving permanently. After all, “people die when they retire in this country,” he says.
Want to shop?
Davis Baskets (13174 US 54, Mack’s Creek; 573-346-2102) is generally open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. However, if you plan to visit, call ahead to ensure that the store is open.
While Davis sells many things at his shop, he isn’t looking to unload his 1960 Corvair that’s continually parked out front. A sign on its window says the car is “a model 700, 2 speed A/T” and that Davis “bought it in the fall of 1959 for $2005 cash. It has 129,000 miles on it. It runs. I plan to restore it. It was a good car contrary to Ralph Nader.”
Inside the store, he confirms his desire to eventually fix it up. “And if I don’t, well, my kids can send it to the junk pile,” he says.