Basket Village, USA

The former corporate office of The Longaberger Company sits on the south side of State Route 16, forty minutes east of Columbus, Ohio. A seven-story replica of a woven handbasket, its 150-ton, maple-colored handles are visible from half a mile away. Inside the behemoth building, iron basket ornaments and wooden basket-weave wall coverings decorate the office space, complete with a glass elevator and an atrium rooftop, as if Willy Wonka had once forayed in the world of country-style home goods.

Dresden, the 1,400-person village where The Longaberger Company began, sits twenty miles east of the unusual headquarters. Dresden is also my hometown. When I was born, my family lived in an apartment complex fifteen minutes outside of the village, and in 1997, we moved into a yellow ranch home a few houses away from the company’s original, more traditional two-story home office.

Founded in the early 1970s by the son of a basket weaver, The Longaberger Company’s product line grew from [four] types of baskets to over 80 different models. Recipe baskets, laundry baskets, magazine baskets, shopping baskets, trash can baskets, heart-shaped Valentine’s Day baskets. If it could be made into a basket, The Longaberger Company made it into a basket, priced the product somewhere between $25 and $200, and used a multi-level marketing model to peddle the durable wooden containers to housewives across the United States. The company expanded its country lifestyle brand to other cozy farmhouse products – pottery, linens, and iron goods – and entered the hospitality market as well. At its peak, it boasted 60,000 consultants, 8,000 employees, and one billion dollars in annual revenues.

The independent consultants filled their homes with Longaberger products, invited friends over for crudité and Chardonnay, and told the story of Dave Longaberger, a humble craftsman with a dream of baskets in every American household. Alongside order forms and special edition stock models — each autographed by the basketweavers themselves — pictures of the quaint village of Dresden circulated the room. Dave and his employees were not only manufacturing high quality, handmade baskets in this photogenic small town — they were building an economy, rooted in the local tradition of basket weaving. It was a ‘Made in America’ entrepreneurial tale, and it was something people felt good about.

This tale was not just a consultant’s pitch to make sales. Dave believed it was an entrepreneur’s responsibility to give back and to build up. For the most part, he did just that. Longaberger employed half of Dresden’s residents, paid its basket weavers nearly four times the state minimum, and offered safe working conditions. Hundreds of laborers left union jobs at the Armco Steel mill or the plastic factory to learn the craft of basket weaving at Longaberger University. As the company grew, the corporate office stayed nearby, providing a growing number of white-collar jobs. The demand for a college degree accelerated, and the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mantra faded from the dialogue at cookouts and football parties. Instead, education was the key to economic mobility in the region. The question at family gatherings was no longer “what factory are you going to work for?” but “what university are you going to attend?”

As a part of his vision, Dave furiously invested in making the area a place where people wanted to live, work, and visit. Adjacent to the basket factories, he built a massive farm-and-country themed shopping center, The Longaberger Homestead. To appeal to the consultants’ spouses, he constructed a premiere 18-hole golf course with a 55,000 square foot lodge. In the village itself, he opened one of the world’s largest stainless-steel swimming pools, where I swam as a six-year-old and worked as a teenager. Across the street, a state-of-the-art fitness center, complete with a gymnastics team, two indoor-basketball courts, three baseball diamonds, and a soccer field. Open to the public for a fee, dozens of primarily unsupervised kids would congregate at the pool and the fitness center while their parents finished their shifts at the plants. On days when my parents were working or in school themselves, I played basketball, did homework with friends in the bleachers, and mostly stayed out of trouble. Without these places, I do not know what I would have done after school. Although such amenities are commonplace in Silicon Valley corporate offices and major cities, having access to these top-of-the-line facilities is unheard of in isolated, rural towns. In this regard, I was a very fortunate Appalachian child. 

As the company expanded from a family-owned workshop to a consumer cult, The Longaberger Homestead and the village of Dresden increasingly became a tourist destination for basket fanatics and their families. By car and by tour bus, up to 500,000 people flocked to the region for ‘Basket Bee’ conferences, weekend shopping getaways, and photos in front of the ‘World’s Largest Basket’ each year.  Pink and yellow Victorian bed-and-breakfasts accommodated their stays, and basket-shaped planters filled with matching Daffodils lined Main Street. Restaurants, craft shops, ice cream stands, and cafes poured into the alleys. My family got into the action, obtaining a permit to sell soda, candy bars, and hot dogs to visitors from a card table in our backyard. On the busiest summer weekends, we made over $300 in profits.

Business was booming for everyone! Yes, at times, it felt like living in a theme park. But, like many American small towns in the last millennium, nobody locked their door, everybody knew your name, and the future looked bright in Dresden.

Then, a year after Dave Longaberger’s death, the dotcom bubble burst. And almost everybody stopped buying baskets.

Why this happened is not rocket science — if consumers lose their jobs or retirement savings, they are immediately going to stop buying the housewife equivalent of Beanie Babies. However, this was somehow not something anyone in the C-Suite of the highly levered basket empire anticipated. Perhaps greater than the company’s unfortunate market correlation, The Longaberger Company also had an unexpected problem in the new age of e-commerce. If someone really wanted a basket, they could now go to eBay and buy one from one of the thousands of struggling consultants who were exiting the doomed basket business. In the 1970s and 1980s, a high-quality Longaberger basket was meant to be passed down through generations. By 2001, this craftsmanship equated to an “easily sellable on the internet” problem.

Sales plummeted, the company’s extracurricular investments continued to operate at a loss, and the layoffs began.

The company’s downfall was slow. Seasonal increases in sales, the announcement of a new company President, or a change in state political leadership would jumpstart the energy in the village, but it never lasted. As the company floundered for nearly two decades, the regional economy that thrived around the basket empire sputtered in agony. Bed and breakfasts changed owners and eventually closed. Retail and restaurants followed. Over time, hundreds and hundreds more lost jobs. Basket weavers with mortgages settled for jobs that paid half, some eventually losing their homes. In 2013, private equity buyers swooped in, promising a turnaround while selling off assets for a fraction of their value. The golf course, still ranked as the top public course in Ohio, sold for $4 million dollars, the basket building for a measly $1.2 million. After years of fire sale property auctions and optimistic announcements, the company formally ceased operations in 2018. A new version of Longaberger, offering a lower-priced version of the legacy product, launched on QVC in 2019. Today, the company employs [fifteen] people.

At the Longaberger Homestead, hundreds of thousands of square feet of manufacturing warehouse and retail space still sit empty. The white picket fences that bordered hundreds of acres of Longaberger property have turned gray, and the maple-colored paint on the basket building’s handles are chipped and faded. Its 500-car parking lot is vacant, apart from an abandoned maintenance van and some construction equipment. The new owners planned to redevelop the property into a hotel, but put it up for sale again instead. 

In the village of Dresden itself, several reminders of the Longaberger’s glory days, including one of its office buildings, were destroyed by an arsonist. The fitness center was demolished. There is no longer a grocery store, apart from a Dollar General on the outskirts of town. Longaberger University is still standing, though with broken windows and haunted house vibes. The sidewalks and roads that Dave built are cracked and crumbling, and most shops are shuttered with ‘For Sale’ signs. 

 

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