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Ken Hurst recalls the days of ‘willow willpower’

— Next month — God-willing — Ken Hurst will turn 95.

But before he does, he’ll sit down to reminisce about livin’ in Liverpool in the 1920s at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 19, at Liverpool Public Library, 310 Tulip St. 457-0310; lpl.org. Admission is free and open to the public.

I first got to know Ken when he ran the S&K, a quintessential mom-and-pop grocery store on Second Street where I would buy bottles of White Rock soda pop, comic books, bubble gum, Pez and plenty of penny candy.

Little did I know that Ken, the kindly proprietor wearing a white apron, embodied the last vestiges of Liverpool’s glorious willow-weaving industry that thrived here from the mid-19th century until about 1929. That cottage industry sustained hundreds of families in Liverpool during that time, and as a child Ken worked with his parents and siblings as they wove laundry baskets, hand baskets and willow furniture.

While Liverpool’s willow products became nationally known between 1892 and 1920, baskets were still being made here up until 1971, notably by John Hetnar on Oswego Street.

The willow industry began here in 1852 when John Fischer, a German-born salt boiler, noticed willow bushes growing profusely in nearby swamps. That willow closely resembled the German domestic willow that was used for basketry. The wood of willow branches is flexible enough to be bent and shaped once it has been soaked in water.

Soaking branches and stripping the bark were likely among young Ken’s earliest assignments.

On June 19, he’ll talk about that hard work and how, in 1992, he donated his family’s willow shop to the village. The shop, now known as The Willow Museum, sits on the grounds of the Gleason Mansion at 314 Second St.

By the way, Ken’s birthday is July 5.

The library program, called “Willow Willpower,” is sponsored by the Historical Association of Greater Liverpool, which also runs the museum.

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