Company counts down the last logs in the lumber yard.
If you are in the neighborhood between Hanger Hill and the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport at 7:30 a.m., you’ll hear a whistle blow. That’s the steam whistle at Little Rock Crate and Basket Co. signaling the start of the work day. But after 102 years in business, the whistle soon will no longer sound. The basket manufacturer — one of only six in the country — is closing its doors.
Little Rock Crate and Basket (LRC&B) has gone by a few different names since owner Dudley Swann Sr. started managing the business in 1957. Swann Sr. was hired from his position at a basket manufacturer in Jacksonville, Texas, and moved his family to Little Rock. He was 27 years old.
The company, then called Cummer Graham, had five owners at the time, none of whom knew anything about making baskets. “They needed somebody that had been in the business for a while,” Dudley Swann Jr., who now owns LRC&B, said. Swann Sr. began managing the business, and by 1965 he had bought out all of the owners and gained controlling interest in the company. He changed the name to Little Rock Containers, then later renamed it Little Rock Crate & Basket.
Swann Sr. wanted to expand operations, and he needed a million-dollar loan to do so. He was laughed out of the first bank, Swann said. “So he went out of the bank, walked across the street to another bank, walked in, sat down with the teller, and told him what he was wanting to do and how he wanted to do it,” Swann said. “The banker leaned across the desk, extended his hand out, and said, ‘Do you have an account with us yet?’ He goes, ‘Not yet,’ and the teller said, ‘We’ll start you an account, and we’ll just put the money in your account.’ And they shook hands. And that was the deal.”
“On a handshake,” Kathy Swann, Swann’s wife, said. “A million dollars on a handshake. But that’s the charisma your dad had.”
Within 10 years, Swann Sr. had paid that note off.
Swann Sr.’s father, Dudley Douglas Swann, developed the paperliner and form for the round-bottom bushel basket, which was instrumental to the success of LRC&B. The basket was uniquely suited for spinach, as pink parchment paper is stapled into the basket at the same time the bands around the basket are put in place. The spinach is then placed in the basket, the parchment paper folded over it, and ice placed on top to keep the spinach fresh. LRC&B sold millions of these baskets until the dawn of the reusable plastic container.
“RPCs came, and within one season’s time it went from 40 truckloads of spinach baskets to nothing,” Swann said. “So we developed a different kind of basket to sell to fishermen on the East Coast. That’s when we started the crab basket.” The crab baskets are designed with space between each stave — the individual narrow lengths of wood that make up the basket — that allow the crabs to breathe.
Swann Jr. began working at LRC&B full time in 1976, at age 21. His father had just had a heart attack at age 39, and his mother asked her son to put school on hold and join his father at the factory. “There would be times Dad would go to the post office the night before we were doing payroll just to see if there was enough money coming in to meet payroll,” Swann said. With two years completed at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, mostly prerequisites in his pursuit of a psychiatry degree, Swann left school to help his dad, and he never went back.
“Nobody respected me because I was a little snot-nosed kid, but I could run the machines better than anybody else out there,” Swann said. “I knew how to do it all. I started working when I was 8 years old, sweeping the shop, cutting off parts with a hacksaw. Man, I thought I was really something. Everybody realized, ‘He does know what he’s doing,’ so I started getting everything up and going.”
While Swann never did become a psychiatrist, Kathy Swann said it’s his empathetic temperament that makes him suited to manage the factory. “He’s in the perfect place to be dealing with people,” she said. “He knows how to talk to people, how to solve problems. You’ve got to be naturally good at it.”
While Swann helped manage the factory, his younger brother, Doug Swann, also assumed a leadership role. He had grown up traveling with their father to visit customers, so he handled the business’ sales, logistics and shipping, and finding their loggers. “He enjoyed it,” Swann said. “He always said he could sell a bag of ice to an eskimo.”
At its peak during the ’80s and ’90s, LRC&B employed 130 people and operated five days a week. It produced 10,000 baskets per day. In an eight-hour workday, that’s 1,250 baskets an hour, almost 21 baskets a minute. It shipped baskets by rail car and by tractor-trailer truck.
The Swann family also owned a mill in Nashville (Howard County), called Nashville Crate. Doug Swann worked there for a period, but after being shot at by an employee, his uncle, Henry Swann, brother of Swann Sr., ran it. The mill supplied crates and covers — lids for the baskets that are included in the merchandise shipment, so customers can seal up the contents after filling them — and employed 50 people. The Swann family ran Nasvhille Crate from 1972 until 2003.
The business had some really good years, Swann said. “We made good money and everything was going smooth,” he said. Then, fighting among his employees caused Swann to begin requiring drug testing, and he lost about a quarter of his workforce. He spent a few years building it back up. In 2011, Swann Sr. died. Business changed, and the Swann brothers developed ways to make the company more profitable, including selling their trucks, letting go of their drivers and hiring out their deliveries.
Just as they were preparing to implement those changes in March 2015, Doug stopped to help a driver whose car was stuck on a hill in his neighborhood. “He was a good Samaritan, Doug was,” Kathy Swann said. There had been a ice storm, and roads were slick. Doug fell and hurt his knee in the process, and a week later, while recovering from knee surgery, he suffered a massive heart attack and died. He was 55.
“It was pretty devastating,” Swann said. “He just bought a new truck, a new bass boat. He was still really excited for things to come.”
In the years since Doug Swann’s death, the business hasn’t made much money, but it hasn’t lost any, either. Swann has cut his employees from around 90 to fewer than 50 people. And as soon as the last of the logs in the lumber yard runs out, LRC&B is shutting down.
The family is in the process of trying to sell the factory, and they’ve had some interest. Swann said they would love to have the business continue operations in Arkansas.
After running the factory for his entire adult life, Swann is ready to rest. “I’ve been doing it pretty much on my own and I’m tired,” he said. “It’s taken its toll on me.”
Swann Jr. and Kathy have been married for 40 years, and for all those years, Swann Jr. was on call for the factory all day, every day.
“I’ve known a lot of hard-working men, but nobody like this man,” Kathy said. “He never gets angry, unless he really needs to. He deserves this break. I think it’s wonderful. I can’t wait. … Hopefully God will give us a good amount of time.”