As the sun starts to rise over the treetops at the St. Stephen Powerhouse and groups of harvesters methodically pull sweetgrass, a young girl is participating in pulling for the very first time and continuing her lineage.
Eleven-year-old Madison Horlback is just like any other pre-teen girl. She likes to hang out with her friends and play on her phone. But what sets her apart from other girls is that she is a sixth generation basket weaver. She is just beginning to learn the tradition and primarily sticks to weaving jewelry, such as earrings and bracelets.
“I just like the process,” said Madison. “It’s pretty interesting but sometimes it’s hard because I didn’t do this right, and have to rip this out, but it’s pretty interesting.”
Her mother, Karen, has been weaving baskets since she was six years old, but despite that had not pulled grass before either. She is excited to make something with the sweetgrass she pulled.
“I’ll take it home and you have to dry it out and I’ll make jewelry out of it,” said Karen. “Maybe since it’s my first pull with my own grass I’ll think of something special I can design.”
While this was Karen and Madison’s first time pulling, it was the Charleston District’s second year hosting the Sweetgrass Pulling Day. This year’s pull was a little different from previous years, with the pull date so close to the tragedy at Mother Emanuel Church, this year’s event was dedicated to the victims and a special sweetgrass cross was made, blessed and presented to the church.
The day started at 6:30 a.m. with sweetgrass basket weavers from around the Charleston area ready to pull sweetgrass before they head off to their “other” jobs. They will use the sweetgrass to continue the tradition of the iconic sweetgrass baskets.
Sweetgrass basket makers and their baskets are an integral part of the Lowcountry’s history that was first shaped by the captive Africans and brought to the southern United States. Through oral history of the African slaves, the basket making technique can be traced back to West Africa, their home. The sweetgrass basket has evolved from being an agricultural tool and storage for household items to famous artwork that hangs in the Smithsonian. Sweetgrass baskets and their makers are a vital part of Charleston, South Carolina and the nation’s history.
Due to development along the South Carolina coastline, sweetgrass has become scarce in recent years. The number of sweetgrass basket makers and their stands have been greatly reduced and the basket weaving tradition in the area has been threatened. To help save this endangered history and provide a constant source of material for sweetgrass basket makers, the District created the Sweetgrass Pulling Day event to invite sweetgrass basket makers to harvest the sweetgrass at the St. Stephen Powerhouse.
“Sweetgrass grows naturally on the 2,500 acres at the Powerhouse and it should be harvested yearly for it to be healthy,” said Joe Moran, fisheries biologist. “We have plenty of it out here so we thought asking the sweetgrass basket makers to harvest it was a win-win.”
By providing this opportunity and resource, the District has helped secure the future of sweetgrass basket making for generations to come.