Brunswick's French-Canadian Heritage

By Emily Williams*

French Canadians migrated to New England in search of new opportunities for themselves and their families. At the closing of the 19th century, families began to settle into communities. Each of these towns, though they shared much in common, created their own unique identity. A variety of factors, including religion, language and relations with other residents, influenced the development of the French-Canadian community in Brunswick.

There were two major waves of immigration to New England. The first occurred from 1840 to 1860, before the Civil War. The immigration consisted of about 30,000 male habitants from Quebec. These men would find work in the town and then later send for their sisters and wives. The clergy of the area attempted to stop the migration but, as of 1850, 150,000 French Canadians had already migrated to New England.

During the war, labor agents traveled to Canada to recruit for the Union Army and succeeded in enlisting more than 40,000 men. The second and larger movement began after the war ended in 1865 and, by 1900, accounted for three-fourths of the French-Canadian migration. In 1880, the French-Canadian population in New England was 400,000; by 1908 that number had more than doubled.

A variety of motivations influenced the French Canadians to migrate. Quebec in the late 19th century was overpopulated and by 1870 there was no new farmland remaining. For national expansion, the residents looked toward the Northwest, but the Trans-Canadian railroad had not yet been built. The rural farming population then began to shift into more urban Quebec cities.

These cities, due to a slow rate of industrialization, could not provide enough jobs for the influx of population. Thus, the industrializing United States offered jobs that could lead to socioeconomic advances. Others wished to escape British dominance and were attracted by America's romanticized appeal of freedom.

Emigrants to Brunswick largely originated from two neighboring counties in Quebec. The first, which contributed the largest number of immigrants, was L'Islet County. Nearby Kamouraska County was the next largest source of French Canadians. Migrants from these counties, known to be depressed areas, most likely sought new economic opportunities.

Numerous migrants from these two counties illustrate chain migration. Close-knit communities most likely heard stories of the better standard of living available in the United States from family members and neighbors. These tales inspired them to move to the United States to experience such success for themselves. The French Canadians from these counties migrated to Brunswick and made their new homes near people who had been their neighbors in Quebec, resulting in an immediately strong community.

The textile industry in Brunswick started with the incorporation of the Brunswick Cotton Manufacturing Co. in 1809. The company's construction was closely followed by the Maine Cotton and Woolen Factory in 1812.

In 1825, fire destroyed both of the mills. After encountering financial problems while rebuilding in 1834, the mills reorganized into the Cabot Manufacturing Co. in 1857. The Cabot Manufacturing Co. originally employed local English and Irish residents of the town. After the expansion of the plant in 1865, the labor force increased from 175 to 550 people. By the end of 1867, the mill had 26,000 spindles in operation.

In order to fill all of the available positions, agents began to travel to Quebec in search of employees. Their recruiting was successful and by 1885, when the state outlawed the import of contract labor, chain migration and employment had become effective.

It is estimated that two-thirds of the Franco-Americans living in Maine inhabited urban areas. Most of the immigrants from Quebec gave up their rural lives of agriculture to work in the mills. This was demonstrated by a poll taken of Franco-Americans from 1907 to 1910 that showed that only 6 percent of the immigrant population was prepared to work in textile mills.

These new inexperienced farmers found the transition into factory life difficult. Eleven hours a day inside enclosed, dusty buildings seemed at times depressing and incomparable to their previous life as agrarians. The economic change that occurred for these people while working in the mills would have been unimaginable in rural Quebec.

Entire families would often go to work in order to earn sufficient funds. The best paid men took the position of mule spinners, earning $9 to $10 a week. More experienced women who could work the looms earned $7 to $8 a week, while inexperienced women often worked in spinning rooms earning $5 to $6 a week.

Until state regulation in 1887, children often began work at age 7. Even after such laws had been put in place, many children would lie about their age in order to help support their family with expenses such as food and rent.

The Cabot Manufacturing Co. owned about 75 tenements along Mill Street, parallel to the river. The company painted the wooden houses, which cost $75 to $100 to build, a mustard yellow color. Tenements were then rented to mill workers for roughly $3 a week. Between rent fees and oil costs, which the mill also manufactured and sold to its employees and other residents, Cabot Manufacturing Co. therefore took significant amounts of money back from the paycheck of Franco-Americans.

Each tenement contained five to seven rooms usually inhabited by 12 people who commonly hung laundry on clothes lines stretching across the street, and pumped their water supply from wells in their backyards. As for sanitation, sinks drained into backyards which contained wells that supplied the tenements with water and one hundred residents on the street shared four public privies.

Some French Canadians brought livestock with them from their homeland. Pigs would be penned between the houses, while cows were kept in sheds and all animals received a diet of kitchen garbage. In such filth, children would play barefoot outside while the women of the community conversed through their windows in what was characterized by some French-Canadian immigrants as "guttural" French. The unsanitary factors of the Mill Street neighborhood made a breeding ground for disease and an eyesore for the French elites and English community.

The Irish were one of the original groups of employees that worked for Cabot Manufacturing Co. Irish immigrants came to Brunswick while building the railroad; when the mill expanded during the Civil War the Irish stayed to fill positions.

After the second mill expansion, French Canadians began to work at the mill. The French were willing to work for less pay and were reluctant to unionize, making them a valuable bargaining tool for the company against organized labor attempts of the Irish.

Thus, the Irish began to view the Canadians as the "Chinese of the East." The Chinese were often used by employers in the era to discourage labor unions, just as the Francos were then being used in the textile industry.

Another conflict between the Irish and the French was that of religion. During the first wave of immigration the French attended Irish-Catholic churches because of the small amount of French priests in America. As their numbers grew, the Francos became upset with sermons that were not in their native language, higher pew prices and the absence of the old Quebec plain chant.

Many communities in Maine began to form their own French Catholic churches. In Brunswick, the French so greatly outnumbered the Irish that they instead began to take over the parish, importing a priest from Quebec and assigning Francos to leadership positions.

An entirely different group in the Brunswick community was the French-Canadian migrant agrarians. Instead of being of habitant descent, as were the urban Franco-Americans of Brunswick, these farmers were descendants of the Acadian people.

During the Diaspora, British forces scattered the Acadians across North America and a small group came to live and farm in eastern Quebec. After receiving news of available, fertile land in Maine and facing pressures from incoming English loyalists in the 1780s and 1790s, they began to cross the St. John's River into America. The result was the formation of a number of Acadian communities located in northern Maine towns such as Wallagrass.

In Wallagrass, large families tended their farms and overcame hardship for a number of years. Eventually, younger residents turned elsewhere for a more prosperous life. This search brought a number of Acadian farmers to the southern Maine, farmland of Brunswick. Immigrants would buy farms from Englishmen whose families had left farming for other occupations, and a French agrarian population began to form.

After purchasing farms from English speakers, the French began to change the crops in order to produce more traditional Acadian resources. A census, taken in 1860, shows that the amount of livestock, kept by both the English and French farmers, was approximately the same. However, one apparent difference was that the English usually kept a pair of oxen for clearing land and building ships.

Since the French bought the land already cleared, and did not take part in the shipbuilding industry, they had no need for the large animals. Instead, horses were used to plow fields as they were faster, more versatile and less expensive to maintain. This would explain the French departure from the original English hay crop, fed to oxen, to oats, fed to horses. Another difference was that the French farmers grew buckwheat while the English did not.

This can be explained by the economic status of the French farmers. Being poor people from the North, they did not have the money of successful English farmers and could not afford to buy large quantities of buckwheat.

An example of Acadian culture brought to Brunswick was the cash crop, potatoes. The French grew significantly more potatoes than English farmers ever did. This is evident since many of their dishes were based around this vegetable.

Their rural location on the outskirts of Brunswick and their financial situation caused many farm wives to create their own medicinal practices. Wives often treated a chest cold with a compress consisting of diluted dry mustard and flour that was too hot to remain on the chest for long amounts of time. They treated a common cold with molasses, ginger, lemon and honey. Ear aches they cured with smoke from a burning pipe and burns were dressed with lard and horse manure. Someone with a sore throat would often be given apple cider vinegar to gargle and then swallow.

Fever was a most serious ailment, for it often led to more serious diseases. In order to cure this, female farmers used potato slices or a cold compress of ice water and apple cider vinegar.
Through these many treatments the women of the household aided their family in times of sickness.

By 1890, more then half of Brunswick's population was of French-Canadian descent. Large numbers of immigrants led to the development of Brunswick's Franco-American community. One important aspect of community life was recreation. The residents began to organize plays, operettas, dances and picnics. Church-run marching bands and fairs called levees added a sense of community to the French in the town. The local newspaper describes marriages as "gay affairs," emulating a party-like environment.

The English residents of Brunswick did not approve of such playful behavior but could do little to keep the Francos from their celebrations.

Unlike many other ethnic groups that immigrated to America at the turn of the 20th century, the Franco-Americans did not assimilate but, instead, kept a distinct sense of culture.

Several factors prevented the French Canadians of Brunswick from assimilating. Their low standard of living separated them from the majority of the English in the town. A Brunswick-Lewiston poll conducted by David Bradstreet Walker, a professor at Bowdoin College, showed that the most ethnically involved of the Franco-Americans were the lower class. This is most likely because of their separation from the rest of the town economically and geographically.
Franco-American societies, whose focus was shown by the motto "Notre langue, notre foi et nos moeurs," also played a key role in preserving their culture. Societies offered many benefits for paying members. Some of these opportunities included life and health insurance, scholarships, libraries, bulletins with activities, and libraries.

The societies encouraged cultural preservation by awarding prizes to individuals for ethnic accomplishments. Another society specific to Brunswick was the Société Historique. This group was established in 1899 to preserve facts and history pertaining to the French Canadians residing in Brunswick.

St. John's Church also played a key part in cultural preservation. Parish priests created French Catholic publications and formed clubs. Through such organizations, the Franco-American community in Brunswick retained its culture throughout the 20th century.

St. John's Parish provided the primary means of preserving the French-Canadian culture. Originally, the Catholic Church in Brunswick was a mission from Bath founded in 1855. Father Peter McLaughlin made weekly visits to Brunswick to preach in local Catholics' homes.

It was not until 1866, when Father Bartley purchased the former Methodist church on Federal Street, that the Francos created a regular meeting place. During the years that followed, many French Canadians immigrated to Brunswick.By 1875, 477 people of the 667 person congregation were of French-Canadian origin.

Conflicts with Irish parishioners led the French people to request a priest from their home province of Quebec. Their request was answered when the Rev. J.H. Noiseux christened the meeting house after Saint John the Baptist and became the permanent priest. In 1893 Father Skenger bought land in order to build a convent and a parochial school. St. John's school became an important aspect in maintaining the Franco-American culture.

As the Brunswick community progressed, societal leaders became an important aid to their community. The first of these was a medical doctor by the name of Dr. Onésime Paré. He was born in Canada, educated at the University of Michigan, and received his medical degree in 1884. Immediately after finishing his education, Dr. Paré began to practice medicine in Brunswick.

In the spring of 1886, there was an outbreak of diphtheria on Mill Street. By the summer of 1886, Dr. Paré had begun to fight the disease with his full effort. It was during this outbreak that he made acquaintances with A.G. Tenney, the editor of the Brunswick Telegraph.

Tenney used the newspaper to make the citizens aware of the poor living conditions the mill provided. Between May 1 and Sept. 10 he managed to rile most of the town into pressing the mill for reform of the tenements and to elect a French-Canadian man, named Despeaux, to the town board of health.

When Dr. Paré died of pneumonia in January 1887 at age 32, the mill closed for a day to honor his death. By the end of the outbreak, 74 people in the Franco-American community had died and the disease had spread into other sections of the town, lowering admissions at Bowdoin College.

Had it not been for Dr. Paré's work, many more could have died and the Franco-Americans would never have gained the support of the press.

Another societal leader who had much influence in the business world of Brunswick was Adjutor E. Tondreau. His father, Louis Barthelemy Tondreau, worked as a notaire, one who gave deeds for the sale of estates and for successions, and who distributed marriage certificates, in Princeville, Quebec.

He also served as a professional auctioneer and sold crops wholesale for farmers. While on a trip to sell potatoes in Maine in the 1880s, he passed through Brunswick and was amazed by the town. Although the family was well off in Canada, Louis felt that his children would have a better chance of success in the growing economy of the United States, rather than in Canada's failing one.

Achieving success

His wife, Flore Bettez Tondreau, opposed the move. She had lived her entire life in Princeville and did not want to leave her friends and family. When the family reached a decision to migrate she wearily followed her husband and sons.

Upon arriving in Brunswick in 1891, the French-speaking Tondreaus found themselves in an English-speaking community. Louis managed to get a job with a local grocer as a bookkeeper and the older children went to work at the mill. When Louis had visited the town, he had expected to live in one of the more expensive houses on Mill Street. Flore, however, did not approve of the street and its lack of sanitation.

The family instead moved to Noble Street to a house next to the railroad station. The house was not insulated properly and was often filled with ashes released by the nearby trains. Upon seeing his family's condition, Louis considered returning to Princeville, but Flore would not allow him. She felt that leaving Brunswick would be a sign of failure.

Soon after, Louis bought a bakery on Maine Street. His new business was the first of a line of progressions that would create equality between the Tondreaus and the English-speaking community of Brunswick.

When Adjutor Tondreau was about 12 years old, he and his brother, Omer, started shining shoes at the railroad station, earning about $4.80 a day. At the time that was more than a mill worker made in a week. This success at the station led the two boys at 14 and 16 to become managers of the station restaurant. The extra money the boys earned from this job allowed the family to buy a better quality house on the corner of Mill and Cushing streets.

In 1897, Adjutor and Omer both started working at Mr. Emmon's grocery store, located on the corner of Maine Street and Bank Street. In 1906, the elderly Mr. Emmon sold the store to the boys. When the grocery store prospered, the Tondreau brothers expanded their business. Between 1911 and 1917, they purchased the rest of the stores on the block.

In 1917, Tondreau reached the pinnacle of his success, buying 20 acres of land on a point located in Casco Bay. Tondreau served as an example of success to the Franco-American community. He also earned the respect of the English-speaking residents, laying the foundation for a time of equality that would follow.

Encountering prejudice

As the French-Canadian community progressed, the immigrants began to raise the issue of naturalization. On Aug. 23, 1884, French Canadians held council in the courtroom of Brunswick's town hall. Among the many topics discussed, the most important was that of naturalization.

The council unanimously decided at the meeting that immigrants living in Brunswick should naturalize as soon as possible. A motivation for naturalization was the ability to vote for elected officials in the town. Another driving factor was the Yankee reaction. The people believed that by naturalizing they would win some respect from the English. Their predictions came true, though not as quickly as some might have hoped.

Another aspect that influenced the Franco-American community of Brunswick was the attitude of the English residents. During the beginning of their migration, the French-Canadian immigrants were ignored in the Brunswick Telegraph. Residents felt that they would be a temporary addition to the work force and would never become permanent residents of the town.

When the French-Canadian population began to grow, the English began to worry about their control of the town. At first a number of newspaper editorials and town meetings criticized the Cabot Manufacturing Company for importing an inexpensive "alien" workforce. They then turned to driving out the immigrants.

Some English began to vandalize Mill Street houses and to start quarrels in the streets. During the early 1900s, a weekly town event developed from such happenings. On Saturdays, Franco-American mill workers would walk up Maine Street to receive their mail from the post office.
The English, who for the most part lived at the upper end of Maine Street, would meet the French halfway and challenge them to a fight. The Francos always managed to beat back the English enough to receive their mail. Each week the two groups would gather to fight and elites and others began to observe from the sidewalks. As time went on and the town slowly accepted the French, the weekly activity continued as a friendly town sport and tradition.

According to residents, after the Franco-Americans "limited themselves in their first years to factory work," they began specialize into other occupations. These new contributions to the community gained the Francos the respect of English residents.

The French, upon earning more money, were able to afford homes in what were before solely English neighborhoods. By 1939, Brunswick's Bicentenary Program commended the Franco-Americans for "They have adopted Brunswick and Brunswick [has] adopted them without reservation."

Mixing of the cultures

This view supports the belief that Franco-Americans reached a point of compromise with their English neighbors without being assimilated or sacrificing their advancement in the community. Brunswick became a community where French and English residents could live together as equals.

In 1900, a town census showed that the Franco-Americans of Brunswick owned only one third of the town's properties as the other residents. As time progressed, however, this began to change. As Francos became more specialized and advanced in the community, they expanded outwards towards the town limits.

With the purchase of these farms, homes and businesses, the Franco community began to mingle with that of the English.

Another sign of the mixing of the cultures was the appearance of intercultural marriages. St. John's marriage records show that at the turn of the century, Francos began to marry outside of their ethnic community. The most common of these were between the French and Irish but there were also some marriages with non-Catholics. These mixed marriages are helpful in explaining the community that arose in Brunswick.

The people of Brunswick developed an identity unique from those in the surrounding towns. First, in comparison to other industrial towns in the area, Brunswick had a very small population of Franco-Americans. In Lewiston, for example, it was possible for the residents to carry out their daily activities solely in French due to the "petit Canada" located in the town.

This was not possible for the Francophone population of Brunswick, where commerce was not separated by language and the town was not large enough to support a strictly French district.

Another difference was the French-Irish relations in connection with the Catholic Church. In many Franco-American communities the French and Irish residents would separate into two different parishes. In Brunswick, however, the two groups remained in the St. John's parish, perhaps due to the overwhelming majority of French Catholic members in the community. Again, Brunswick was a small community that at the time would not have had enough people or resources to support two Catholic churches.

These differences helped Brunswick develop into a unique community with various ethnic groups.


Throughout the 20th century, the Franco-American population prospered along with the rest of the town of Brunswick. The Anglophone population accepted them, and together the two cultures developed Brunswick into the town it is today.

Even while such cultural mingling occurred, the Franco-Americans retained much of their culture. People with such names as Labbe, Gerard and Tondreau still attend Mass at St. John's Church and listen to French-speaking relatives tell tales of the past at family gatherings.

The French-Canadian culture continues to develop in the Brunswick community and will continue to do so for many years.

Emily Williams of Brunswick is a student at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone.

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