25 March 2014

Remembering Frenchtown

Frenchtown, probably in the 1930s
In the latter half of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th, nearly a million French Canadians emigrated to the United States. They went to New England to work in textile mills and to the Upper Great Lakes region to work in the lumber camps.

My Plourde ancestors did both, settling for a time in Lowell, Mass., then uprooting themselves again for Michigan. The many children of Honoré and Angelique Plourde established themselves in Canada, in Massachusetts and in Michigan.

French Canadians tended to settle in neighborhoods, which then acquired the names "Little Canada," or "Frenchtown." Here they often intermarried, reared fairly large families, and often clung to French Canadian traditions, like tourtiére (meat) and Reveillon (after-mass Christmas celebration). It was not unusual to hear French spoken, at least into the 1960s.

Two of the three French Canadian families from which I am descended made their home in our own Frenchtown, an area bounded by a river to the south and farms and woodland to the north.

The neighborhood had its own commercial district, made up of grocery stores, a hardware store, a restaurant, a tavern or two, and a general store. When the area was settled, most men worked in the woods or in lumber mills. Later, men could walk to work at a sash and door company, a brewery, a packing plant, a dairy and a boiler works.

Frenchtown had its own public school, a behemoth of brick that burned in 1952. It was replaced by a L-shaped building the following year, which served as a polling place for decades. Toward the center of town was a Catholic church and school, founded by French Canadians in the 1880s. It was a short walk for classes or Sunday mass.

The neighborhood offered ample room for adventurous children to explore, with fields, swamps and river islands on its perimeter.

In those days - just a century ago and on into the 1970s - neighbors helped each other, providing rides to church in winter and offering vegetable bounty from backyard gardens. Some families shared origins back in Quebec; this brought them closer in their new home. Still, rivalries existed.

In the heart of Frenchtown, the building my great-grandfather bought about 1883 was most likely constructed over time, beginning soon after the neighborhood was platted 20 years earlier. On a corner with little setback, the two-story building was a general store on the ground floor with a flat on the second floor. Initially, my great-grandfather rented the ground floor to another French Canadian. He and his young family lived above the store.

In the 1920s, when he retired from the lumber mills, he and my great-grandmother moved to Milwaukee for a time where he used his considerable carpentry skills to earn money to turn his home into a family two-flat. He did this in 1930.

The building served as a family home until 2003, when it was sold to a loving family who have remodeled it and put their own stamp on it, making new memories there.


Entering Frenchtown from the old bridge.

8 comments:

Jann said...

this was so interesting.......I enjoyed the photos,too....thanks for sharing all this information.I love the name........

Mimi said...

It was a colorful place to grow up. In my great-grandmother's day there were brawls in nearby taverns' in my grandmother's time, speakeasies and ragpickers. I loved to hear my grandmother talk about the old days and it must have fired my child's imagination.

Glenna said...

I love photos and stories like this. It's important to keep these personal histories alive. Thanks for sharing this with us! And funny, as you talked about loading up the van, I thought of how often we see Amish wagons loading up at the local Sam's with food stuff they don't grow themselves, like orange soda. I'm really not kidding. I think it's great! The kids are always happy, like it's the biggest party of the year. It's the same kidn of memories for them.

Mimi said...

I've seen that, too, Glenna!

Food is so inextricably linked to memory.

That reminds me, I should dig out the madeline molds I bought. . .

christine said...

What a wonderful post Mimi. I love reminiscences of my grandmother's and great grandmother's times. Your photos are priceless.

~~louise~~ said...

I too nejoyed this post, Mimi. I only get a chance to visit out "old" neighborhood every 10 years or so and unfortunately, those who live there now are not aware of the rich and sometimes torrid history.

I so appreciate you sharing this history and images with us. A true pleasure to share...Thank you:)

editrix said...

Very interesting, MJ!

M.D. Johns said...

Thank you, Louise and Mary, for visiting and for commenting.

I love the old neighborhood!