Potato basket made by Richard Silliboy. MSM 2022.44.1
“It’s sad to see the fields all grown up today where there used to be farms,” said Richard Silliboy, a Mi’kmaq artisan who specializes in making utility baskets. Basketmaking goes back for generations in Richard’s family.
Richard’s mother Mary Ann used to make and sell potato baskets to farmers and businesses in Aroostook County. “One hundred twenty baskets a week,” Richard said. “At 50 cents apiece, she would make $60.”
The Maine State Museum met Richard Silliboy in one of its recent Listening Tour events. He is also the vice chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. Richard shared some fascinating stories and history that resulted in the museum adding one of his handmade baskets to the permanent collection. It is a brown ash potato basket that he made in his home in Littleton, Maine.
Richard helped his mother make baskets. He stopped at age 13, but started again in his late 30s out of concern that basketmaking was a dying art. In recent decades, tribal efforts and basketmaking workshops have inspired new interest and increased the number of Wabanaki artisans.
One of Richard’s accomplishments is the “World’s Largest Potato Basket,” a towering piece of 7 ½ feet that is on display at the Southern Aroostook Agricultural Museum. He created it in 2017 with help from family members.
Potato baskets were once a key part of the annual harvest. Pickers gathered about 30 pounds of potatoes into a basket, then emptied that basket into a barrel for transportation to a farm’s potato house. Pickers were paid by the barrel.
Basketmaking was just one Native contribution to the potato harvest in the mid 1900s. Richard Silliboy was one of many Wabanaki potato pickers. He explained that Aroostook County farmers needed help to harvest the massive crop, so they hired Native Americans – the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet, and Mi’kmaq.
“They had to harvest before the heavy frost in late October. So the farmers would put sideboards on their trucks, canvas over the top, and go to the reservations as far as Nova Scotia. And they would get a truckload of Mi’kmaqs and bring them over. They all came to Aroostook County after blueberrying.
If the farmer only needed 20 pickers and 40 of them wanted to get on that truck, he would bring them all to make sure that the neighbor farmers had enough help.”
Richard pointed out that Wabanaki harvesters had a lasting impact on the County:
“People were brought in on an empty truck with nothing in their pocket. And [when they left] they wouldn’t have much more than they had when they first came over, because they spent all their money in the local economy. So Aroostook County wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for the Native Americans.”
The Maine State Museum is grateful to Richard for sharing both his memories and his artistic skill with future generations.