A tisket, a tasket ... who's got a mill basket?

By Janet Harron | Feb. 24, 2012

Nicole Penney is a basket case. Or more specifically, she’s making a case for baskets.

The master of arts student is currently employed as an intern with the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador and is working with the Intangible Cultural Heritage Development Office to catalogue baskets and baskets makers in Newfoundland.

The office will be hosting two forums, one in Corner Brook on Sunday, March 18, and another in Grand Falls on Sunday, March 25. Individuals who have a mill basket of their own are encouraged to attend, show their basket and tell their stories.

The overall project is focused on Mi’kmaq root baskets and trout baskets, but Ms. Penny has developed a special fondness for the mill basket.

“There’s so much sentimental value wrapped around them,” she said. “Mother would pack the basket and the children would take the basket down to the mill so lunch would still be hot.”

As families themselves are considered folk groups -- people who share something in common be it geography, ethnicity, occupation -- the mill basket and the stories stemming from it are a virtual treasure trove for a folklorist.

According to Ms. Penny, the exact origin of the mill basket is unknown. The oldest basket she has tracked down to date is dated 1928 and was made by the Peterborough Basket Company of New Hampshire. Eventually, Newfoundlanders deconstructed the original baskets and they began to be manufactured on the island. One of the most prolific basket makers was Angus Gunn of Grand Falls-Windsor.

“His first mill baskets were made from broken hockey sticks,” Ms. Penney said. “He only switched over to birch strips once they started using synthetic material in hockey sticks.”

Ms. Penney hopes to meet with Mr. Gunn’s daughter during the March 25 workshop in Grand Falls-Windsor.

“People seem to brighten up when they talk about the baskets,” she said. “They bring back a lot of nice memories and for many are a symbol of hard work, a permanent job and taking care of your family.”

Many of the baskets were personalized with the worker’s name etched or marked upon it. Some were covered in union stickers or decorated with doodles and photographs.

For Ms. Penny, the workshops are an opportunity to get out and talk to people, which was what initially attracted her to the field of folklore.

“Doing something in folklore incorporates lots of things I enjoy doing – writing, both formally and informally, talking and interviewing people, and event planning,” she said. “Folklore teaches you a lot of different skills, so you can go into a variety of areas in the public sector. I came through the program at a great time with the digitalization of photos and audio files.”

Anyone with photos or stories about mill baskets can contact Ms. Penney by email at ichprograms@gmail.com. More information on the March workshops can be found at www.mun.ca/ich/events/baskets.php.

Ultimately the results of Ms. Penney’s project will be archived in the QEII’s Digital Archives Initiative.

Ms. Penny is part of the first cohort and second work term of the master of arts with Public and Applied Folklore Co-operative Education Program, which is believed to be the only folklore co-operative master of arts program in North America. Students spend two full terms at culture and heritage-related placements, including museums, archives, festivals, cultural and economic development organizations, tourism destinations and more.



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