Ranco Basketmakers: Baskets and gift items made by the Ranco family from 1906 to the mid-1900s
This exhibit may be seen at Boothbay Region Historical Society when Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
From the advent of summer colonies in 1870s coastal Maine, Penobscot Indians seasonally came from the reservation in Old Town to make and sell their baskets to local buyers where there were summer visitors. In the Boothbay region, the Sockalexis family came to Squirrel Island in the 1870s. A daughter married John Ranco from the reservation, and that Indian family continued to come to Squirrel and Boothbay Harbor until the 1970s. There are descendants today living in the region year-round.
When we requested information about the Rancos in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they were well-remembered by 14 residents who called us. Many were good friends with the Rancos, providing them with places to stay, visiting them, going on hunting trips with them, and so on. Those who called were delighted to pass on information about their old friends. The Rancos traveled throughout the region to gather the raw material for the baskets: sweetgrass and ash. Those residents who lived near local wetlands remembered them coming to gather sweetgrass around the wetland’s edges. From the ash they made splints, thin flexible strips of wood which they wove into baskets. Sweetgrass was either interwoven in the baskets or baskets were wholly made of it. Besides baskets, the Rancos made other saleable souvenirs—the war club was very popular. Baskets and gift items were donated by Chetley Rittall, Emily Gove, Jean Chenoweth, and Alfred Pinkham.
The wheel basket was developed by John Ranco and Squirrel Islander Henry Faxon some time after 1906. No private vehicles were allowed on the island, so it was used by islanders to cart their purchases while shopping in the Harbor. It also allowed them to pull their groceries onto the boat for the trip back to the island and finally to pull them to the cottage. We are grateful to Alfred Pinkham for donating this fine example of Ranco craftsmanship. It was acquired by Alfred’s grandfather Douglass while he was the Squirrel Island superintendent from 1937 to 1943 and from 1961 to 1966.
The pack basket was given to donor Alfred Pinkham’s father Alfred Sr. while his father Douglass was the Squirrel Island superintendent from 1937 to 1943. The superintendent was the island corporation’s caretaker. The pack basket is an ancient design and was used to carry belongings for all outdoor activities: hunting, fishing, picnicking, hiking, and anything else people could conceive of. We are grateful that Alfred chose to send back to the Boothbay region the wheel and pack baskets, handcrafted treasures of Boothbay history.
This basket and its cover were acquired by Jean Huskins Chenoweth in the late 1940s or early 1950s because “I loved Indian baskets even when I was little.” She came by it when she was young and Indians were peddling baskets door to door in her West Harbor neighborhood. Such baskets were popular as sewing baskets. While she is not sure it was made by the Rancos, it seems likely.
Chetley Rittal, born in 1933, was friends with the Ranco family. When Chetley was a Boy Scout leader in the 1960s, he had Nick Ranco instruct the scouts in basketmaking. Nick Ranco gave Chetley this basket.
War clubs were among the most popular souvenir items the Rancos created. The club was made from an alder root that included a length of the trunk. They were often intricately carved with patterns. Emily Gove gave us the rightmost war club; Ernie Giles gave us the one on the left.
The Rancos also created little paddles as souvenir items. This one was made on Squirrel Island where Allen Gove was superintendent. It is incised with a pattern of a squirrel holding an acorn. At the base of the paddle is the incised date of 1906. Allen’s daughter Emily gave us the paddle.