French Canadian Tales and Legends

Sep 27, 2012

First published in the Montague Reporter, September 17, 2012. Story By Anne Harding.

Great Falls - If the crowd gets any larger at the Turners Falls RiverCulture “Legends and Tales” series they’ll have to move over to the Shea Theater.

Local historian Vicki Valley and town administrator Frank Abbondanzio led more than 100 visitors through the French Canadian immigrant story and their influence in Alvah Crocker’s planned industrial community of Turners Falls last Friday.

Citing the statistic of a 32 percent foreign-born population residing in Montague by 1880, with most of those immigrants living in Turners Falls, Abbondanzio noted the French Canadian population accounted for 40 percent of that number.

Among the earlier immigrants to arrive, French Canadians began arriving in the late 1860s and were active in building the infrastructure of the town.  Some French Canadians worked for a Montreal-based firm involved in the construction of the Hoosac Tunnel. They followed the construction trade to Turners Falls for the building of the dam and the excavation of the power canal.

The earlier immigrants to Turners included many still-familiar family names – LaPointe, LaPorte, Ducharme, Desautelles, Nadeau, Vivier, LaPean and Moreau.

Another project of Alvah Crocker, the 4¾ mile long Hoosac Tunnel was blasted through the Hoosac Mountain between the Deerfield River on the east and the Hoosac River on the west, creating rail passage from Florida, MA to North Adams. From its 1851 groundbreaking to its eventual grand opening in 1876, the project was fraught with geological, logistical, financial and political setbacks, and numerous workers met their deaths in its construction.

B. N. Farren, another notable Montague industrialist, managed the final construction stages of the tunnel, including the widening of narrow spots and the reinforcement of some of the weaker areas with brick arching. Some areas that passed through “porridge stone” rather than granite were lined with six to eight layers of brick. Much of the brick came from the brickyards of Montague City, where French Canadians were often employed.

The Montague brickyard of R.L. Goss was producing 30,000 brick per day by 1872, and many were earmarked for the Hoosac Tunnel. The previous year the Goss brickyard sold more than two million bricks for construction in Turners Falls in addition to trainloads that were shipped to projects in outlying regions including Fitchburg, Worcester and parts of Connecticut. At the same time another Montague brickyard by the name of Adams was producing about 25,000 bricks per day, and was credited with selling more than 800,000 bricks just for the construction of the new Turners Falls Keith Paper Company in 1872. The stack is still standing today.

The French Canadian population swelled in the spring with the arrival of the lumberjacks during the annual log drive. It is likely that some of this transient population eventually settled in Turners Falls and the surrounding villages. Other immigrants worked in the sawmill and the Montague Pulp and Paper Mill.

A larger wave of immigrants arrived in the late 1870s with the opening of the Griswold Cotton Mill. Like many European immigrants, the Quebecois often came from rural environments where overcrowding and lack of arable land contributed to high poverty levels. The promise of jobs drew French Canadians to New England from the Richelieu River Valley, with many from Trois Riviere and other small towns of the region.

They gained a reputation as good mill workers and by the end of the 19th century New England mills were actively recruiting Quebecois. In their search for stable employment, the Turners Falls immigrants often took a meandering route through New York, Vermont or eastern Massachusetts.

As for the Polish arrivals, the church was the center of the French Canadian community and helped keep the Quebecois heritage alive. Upon their arrival in Turners, the only Catholic Church option was at St. Mary’s (now Our Lady of Peace) where masses were held in English, until 1874 when a special 9 a.m. service was initiated for the French speaking parishioners.

The Quebec immigrants were ambivalent about their immigration and it seems many travelled back and forth between the two countries depending on the economic times and other events in their lives. Fierce pride in their French heritage kept traditions and language alive.

The Saint Jean Baptiste Society formed a local chapter in 1881 and advocated for the building of a French church in town, and recruitment of a French priest. By 1884, Father Perreault was assigned as the first French Canadian pastor and coordinated the planning and construction of Ste. Anne’s Church in 1885.

Father Perreault was renowned for his involvement in community and family life. He encouraged his parishioners to become citizens so they could vote, and formed the French Canadian Naturalization Club. The right to vote was considered critical and necessary to repel the efforts of the “Yankee Protestants” to impose their values on the newcomers.

One such effort resisted by the French Canadians was prohibition. Led by Perreault, the French Canadians deemed the answer was moderate alcohol consumption rather than abstinence. They formed a society that grew to 220 members. They were self-governed with threat of expulsion for overindulgence. Their credo was to avoid saloons, partake moderately of alcohol at home or with friends, and for good measure they took a pledge against profanity.

According to Abbondanzio, this approach worked for the most part and with the exception of the notoriously drunk and disorderly loggers, French Canadian names were rarely found in the police logs of the 1880s.

The Baptiste Society was an important aspect of the French Canadian community as they sponsored many social and recreation events in addition to their advocacy for a French Catholic Church and later a French parochial school. They brought nuns and priests from Quebec to instruct their children, and by 1895 their school was built. Many audience participants recalled their elder relatives would only respond to the children when they spoke French, and most attended Ste. Anne’s School.

They reminisced about their times at Ste. Anne’s Church where children sat up front with the strict nuns. They recalled the lively times ringing the church bells – the largest ones would literally lift them off their feet on the upswing. Memories of Ste. Anne’s School also abounded. Classes were taught in French in the morning and English in the afternoon; however, by the time fourth generation Donna DuSell was ready to attend school Ste. Anne’s was closed and children were encouraged to use only English.

Another audience member talked of her father Joseph Girard’s times at Ste. Anne’s with his best friend Harold Fugere and the time they infuriated one of the nuns until she threw a statue of the Virgin Mary that narrowly missed them – flying right out the window. There was much laughter and nodding of heads following these and other stories.

There followed tales of ice skating parties, hair-raising toboggan rides down L Street to the river, card parties, wine making and New Year’s traditions where the eldest male family member would take each child aside and offer them a blessing for the upcoming year. Among the highlights of the evening was a recording of Tom Bergeron’s grandfather who was interviewed in the 1980s at 90 years old talking of his immigration in 1917. He told tales of “fishing” the Connecticut River with dynamite.

Another treat was viewing a 1990s Woody Brown interview with Lionel Girard where the audience heard tales of chestnut harvesting, sneaking down to the river to see the 1915 log drive, ice harvesting, cock fighting, and even some of the Turners Falls gangs back in the day – the Dutch Tigers (2nd Street denizens noted for their heavy drinking) and the Slippery Gap Gang.

The evening closed with lively traditional Quebecois music – Cynthia Thomas on fiddle, Doug Feeney on banjo and Ken Karpowicz on accordion. At times it was difficult to hear the music because the audience members were so busy reacquainting themselves and sharing stories with one another.

This Friday, September 28th at 6:30 p.m., the descendants of Irish immigrants will have their chance to tell their stories when the final episode of “Legends and Tales” takes place at the Great Falls Discovery Center.

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