David Longaberger; Baskets Entrepreneur


David “Popeye” Longaberger, who founded Longaberger Co., a basket-making concern that grew into a $700-million-a-year operation with a headquarters building shaped like its signature picnic basket, has died. He was 64.

Longaberger died Wednesday of kidney cancer at his central Ohio farm, about 40 miles east of Columbus.

The collectible basket business came naturally. Longaberger’s father, J.W. Longaberger, was a basket weaver who owned a basket-making shop in Dresden, Ohio, and taught all 12 of his children to weave the product--only to have the company go out of business in 1955.


David Longaberger was a stutterer and an epileptic who struggled to get through elementary school and was 21 when he finally got his high school diploma.

But he understood business from early childhood and earned money doing odd jobs for the local grocery store when he was only 6. After high school, he served in the Army, drove a bakery truck, sold Fuller brushes and eventually bought a small restaurant, Popeye’s Dairy Barn, and a grocery store-pharmacy in Dresden, population 1,600.

In 1973, noting the resurgence of baskets for sale in malls, he decided to resurrect the family craft and create a new basket-making company under the Longaberger name. Unable to get a bank loan, he devised a folksy home-sales show emphasizing family craftsmanship to market the product.

From five weavers, the company has grown to more than 7,000 employees and about 47,000 independent sales associates who sold 8.3 million baskets last year.

Longaberger’s well-crafted baskets, ranging from picnic baskets to handbags, sell for $25 to $125, and loyal customers collect them by the dozen. Although other companies have copied the baskets, Longaberger has maintained its hold on the market.

All 11 of Longaberger’s brothers and sisters worked for him at some time, and his two surviving daughters are now the top executives--Tami as president and chief executive officer and Rachel as chief operating officer and director and president of the philanthropic Longaberger Foundation.


Longaberger, who spent two years in first grade and three years in fifth, as an adult became a successful and generous philanthropist who donated more than $5 million to local elementary schools. He gave another $5 million to Ohio State University for the still under-construction Longaberger Alumni House.

“I’m not the best speller and reader, but I’m fair and honest, and I want to make things better,” he said in 1997, summing up his philosophy of business and life.

One of Longaberger’s proudest accomplishments was construction of his “basket-building brainstorm,” a $30-million, seven-story “basket” in Newark, Ohio, that has become a Midwest tourist attraction. The building, 160 times the size of the company’s actual “Medium Market Basket” product, gained the company a nationwide reputation after it opened in December 1997.

About half a million people visit the unusual headquarters annually, shops and village that Longaberger established along a 25-mile corridor on Ohio State Route 16 from Newark to Dresden.

Tourists also frequent his company-owned hotel, Longaberger Golf Club and Longaberger Homestead, a farm where families can enjoy old-fashioned picnics and educational entertainment.

“It’s been a helluva 25 years,” Longaberger said last year when he turned over the presidency to his daughter. He alluded to a string of near-bankruptcies, IRS threats to shut him down, periodic labor unrest and frequent layoffs.


The company has recently added pottery, curtain fabric, wrought iron, bedding and greeting cards to its product line. Longaberger, ever the visionary, left his daughters several more ideas for the future, such as distributing pre-cut materials to build new homes, and a tourist village with every house shaped like a basket.