Francis Whitaker Baskets
Charlie Whitaker called his first “do-si-do” and “swing your partner” in 1956. More than 50 years later, he was still calling those words, guiding young and old alike through an evening square dance at the Carcassonne schoolhouse in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
Highway 15 toward Whitesburg leads to the two-lane Highway 7. The road gently curves around the base of the mountain range, and each small opening is an entrance to the mouth of a hollow. Bull Creek Hollow, just past Blackey, is the path to Carcassonne. It’s a winding, edge-of-the-cliff drive to the top, where the community gathers once a month for the Carcassonne Square Dance.
The white-planked schoolhouse is long and narrow, and the metal roof shows its age in the best of ways. An American flag waves, and old men rest on wooden benches at the front entrance, watching the youngest generation toddle around the playground. The pride this community takes in its gathering place is evident. The nearly century-old building and its grounds are immaculately kept. There is a sense of common purpose to preserve not only the building but also the tradition of mountain music and dancing.
On the second Saturday of the month—just as it has been for nearly 60 years—young and old gather. There are the regulars who have been coming to dance, meet and mingle for decades, but there are equally as many newcomers—younger generations dancing, meeting and mingling with the older.
The dance begins promptly at 8 p.m. The three-piece band, led by legendary Bluegrass musician Lee Sexton, strikes the first chord, and the room comes alive with the first promenade of the night. There are some who come just to watch, talk with friends and tap their toes to music. But for those who head out onto the weathered dance floor, the night is filled with laughter, movement and excitement.
Most people associate square dancing with big skirts, matching jewel-studded outfits and cowboy boots. This is not one of those dances. Not to be confused with the more sedate and methodical folk dance, square dancing by definition lends itself to a more freeform approach. Dance steps can be mixed and matched with varying songs, and the music is much livelier and upbeat.
The caller is patient. He teaches and lightheartedly leads those following his instructions with care. From time to time, he holds up his hand, and the band stops in mid-song to allow for thorough step-by-step instructions. No one is left to navigate his or her way through the steps alone. Once everyone is on board, the music picks up again, and the dance proceeds.
A few breaks scattered throughout the night give the dancers a chance to catch their breath. A cold peach Nehi soda and a slice of pie await in the schoolhouse kitchen, where a big pot of chili simmers on the stove. A corkboard hangs near the quilting room just off the kitchen, displaying years of Carcassonne history: newspaper clippings of dancing demonstrations at folklife festivals around the state, tributes to friends lost, and old black-and-white photographs—glimpses of what this schoolhouse has meant to the community through the decades.
Before the evening ends, there’s a cake walk. This, no doubt, is the highlight for the dozens of kids who have been drifting between dancing and playing all night. After the final dance, everyone bows to his or her partner one final time, and the monthly square dance in the old schoolhouse comes to an end.
Carcassonne School was founded decades ago out of necessity. Roads in the winter often were shut down, and the families in the holllows banded together to keep the school running all year long for the children. Nowadays, Carcassonne still exists out of necessity, meeting the need for fellowship as generations of families in these parts have experienced life together one “do-si-do” and “swing your partner” at a time.
The Creative Gene
Just as Charlie Whitaker was revered as a master dulcimer maker, his sister Frances is equally respected for her baskets. For 20 years, she has worked to perfect her artistry as a basket maker. Frances’ husband, Stewart, an accomplished woodworker, built a cabin just steps from their Bull Creek hollow home. The cabin is a space where husband and wife hone their crafts, side by side. Every morning, through rain or snow or heat, Frances heads out to the cabin at 6 a.m. to weave baskets. Although heading into her ninth decade, she moves with the grace and fortitude of someone half her age.
Her log cabin studio is filled floor to ceiling with basket-weaving supplies. Cane, handles, dyes, hoops, tools, and both finished and failed baskets line the walls. Because Frances sees each basket is an opportunity to learn and grow in the craft, she is the first to show off her past basket-making mistakes. This determination for excellence in her artistry has given her both a loyal following and a deep respect from her basket-making students.
Below her studio is Stewart’s woodworking shop. There, he makes many of the intricate handles, bases and lids Frances incorporates into her baskets. She radiates joy talking about the partnership she and Stewart share, both in their hobbies and in 60 years of life together. She says the days together in their log cabin studio are some of the happiest of their lives.