Thursday, July 22, 2021

A Story of an Aluminum Basket

Linking communities, social media, and family

A few weeks ago, I found an aluminum basket at a shop in Massena. In style, it mimics baskets that are traditionally made from black ash. Available information indicated it was made by someone who worked at Alcoa some years ago.

Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America) officially began production at their plant in Massena in 1902. In addition to employment, generations of North Country residents have found an opportunity for creativity at the plant. Using scraps of aluminum from the production process, workers fashioned everything from ash trays to sculptures to give as gifts or display in their own homes. Sometimes photographs of these projects were published in the company newsletter.

Hoping to learn who the maker was we posted this information on our social media. It took a few days, and thanks to dozens of people sharing the post, we were able to get an answer.

basketThe basket was made by John McDonald, Akwesasne, likely in the 1960s. John was employed at Alcoa through the late 60s. His granddaughter Sheila Hill has confirmed that over the years, he made a number of projects from scrap materials at the plant. John caned chairs, but he did not make baskets in black ash, only metal. His daughter-in-law, Rita McMcDonald, is a well-respected Mohawk basketmaker whose black ash and sweetgrass baskets are featured in our current exhibit Folk Arts All Around Us.

Pictured above: Left, John McDonald; Right, John McDonald’s granddaughter, Sheila Hill, with the basket her grandfather made in 1946.
Joseph Savoca, Massena, sent us this photograph of John McDonald that was published in the Massena Alcoan (the company newsletter) in October 1946. In this photograph John is holding an aluminum market basket he made that 75 years later now resides with Sheila. She reports that she uses it regularly to carry work supplies. The basket was out of the family for a number of years, and through a set of circumstances came back into the family not so many years ago. When we spoke to her, Sheila told us she is really happy to have the basket in the family to pass down to her children and grandchildren.

We are pleased to have been able to share with the McDonald family a photo of John at the time he made the basket that is in the family. Many thanks to all of you who helped make these connections and sent us photos of other aluminum projects made by Alcoa employees.

knitting basket

Pictured here: Knitting Basket by Rita McDonald in Folk Arts All Around Us exhibition. All photos courtesy of TAUNY

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Executive Director Jill Breit joined TAUNY in 1993, just before the organization opened its first public gallery in Canton. A graduate of St. Lawrence University, Jill earned her M.A. in Folk Studies at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky. As Executive Director, in addition to oversight of programming, Jill is in charge of long-range planning, cultivation of funding sources, and staff development. She also continues to be involved in research and programs. TAUNY, Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people understand and appreciate the folk traditions and local culture of everyday life—present and past—in the North Country. To do so, TAUNY seeks to research and preserve a record of diverse groups, customs and traditions; to recognize and empower traditional arts and artists; to identify and promote regional identity; and to provide opportunities for people of all ages to learn about folklore and culture. More information is available at

One Response

  1. Ed Burke says:

    Neat story!

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