📷 A birds-eye view of the audience for Dr. Elizabeth Blood’s presentation at Jacob Edwards Library. Blood recently translated Félix Gatineau’s account of French Canadian history in Southbridge. Photo by Helen Boyle Valentino.
Gatineau’s account of French Canadian history in Southbridge contains valuable historic and genealogical information, alongside humorous accounts of community life.
By Sarah Champagne, Managing Editor
SOUTHBRIDGE – As Dr. Elizabeth Blood’s presentation began at Jacob Edwards Library, the sound system required for the large audience was tested and adjusted. A few voices from the audience could be heard saying, “I can’t hear!”
The unusually large crowd, counted by the library staff to be at least 170 people, filled the lobby, the reading room and surrounding areas of the library. Some in attendance were able to get a bird’s eye view of the presentation from the second-floor balcony of the library.
Dr. Elizabeth Blood, who was presenting the evening’s material, tested the new settings on the sound system by asking, “Parlez Français? Un peu?” (Do you speak French? A little?)
Responses of “Oui!” and “I can hear now!” could be heard in the audience as the audio requirements for the large crowd were resolved and the program began.
This enthusiastic audience arrived at Jacob Edwards Library the evening of Thursday, Sept. 27, for a presentation titled Southbridge 100 Years Ago: Explaining the Franco-American Experience. Dr. Blood, of Salem State University, had translated Félix Gatineau’s 1919 work L’Histoire des Franco Americains de Southbridge for the first time in the near-century since the book was first published. Audiences were eager to hear about new insights from the book.
A large crowd was not completely unexpected, considering that historically, Southridge had been one of the “Little Canadas” of New England, marked by a large settlement of French Canadians. Even amongst “Little Canadas,” Southbridge’s population had a large concentration of French Canadian residents, at 60 percent of the population in 1919. The descendants of these local French Canadians would have a particular interest in the material for historical, genealogical or personal reasons. The audience expanded beyond the local area though, with visitors from as far as Florida and beyond in attendance.
“There was such a wonderful outpouring of interest from the community, near and far,” remarked library director Margaret Morrissey.
The audience included descendants of Gatineau himself, arriving from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut to learn more about their ancestor. Present-day members of the St. Jean Baptiste Society, an organization that Gatineau was active in and whose many contributions to Southbridge he documented, were also present, along with representatives from the event’s co-presenter, The Last Green Valley.
Other academics and writers with an interest in French Canadian history attended the event as well. Dr. Cynthia Fox of the University at Albany, State University of New York and Dr. Leslie Choquette of the French Institute at Assumption college were present. Choquette wrote the introduction to the new translation and Assumption’s French Institute holds a collection of Gatineau’s documents and an online biography of Gatineau. Patrice Demers Kaneda, author of A Tale of Two Migrations, was also present to learn more and to share her interaction with Gatineau’s legacy.
Gatineau, or “Félix” as he is known to locals familiar with a memorial statue standing at South and Main Streets in Southbridge, was a fastidious recorder of local history. The book contains detailed information and many lists recording the contributions of French Canadians in Southbridge. Many readers will find new access to historical and genealogical information with this translation.
Dr. Blood found that Gatineau shared several amusing anecdotes from the French Canadian populace of Southbridge of his time, in addition to the historic data found in the author’s many lists. In one story, Southbridge is set to celebrate the very first Patriot’s Day, or Paul Revere Day, in Massachusetts in 1896. A local group celebrating both French Canadian and American patriotism locally, Le Cercle Canadien, had planned a re-enactment of Paul Revere’s ride and the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill. According to Gatineau, over 5,000 people attended the Southbridge event, as Southbridge was the first town in Massachusetts to observe the new holiday in such an elaborate manner.
Gatineau was set to play the part of Paul Revere. But before Gatineau could arrive in Webster to pick up the white horse to be used in the re-enactment, he was foiled by a prankster. Gatineau relays his experience as he set out to Webster to claim the horse:
“…a young American charged by on a white horse, a horse that Paul Revere was supposed to have ridden but that was refused to him at the last minute for certain reasons. These reasons were very apparent: the young man wanted to use the horse himself to trick the crowd that was anxiously awaiting the event. All of a sudden, the young Paul charges by at full speed…”
In Gatineau’s account, the prankster gave Paul Revere’s historic call, initiating Southbridge’s dramatic interpretation of the battle, including gunshots, lights and flares. Gatineau shares his account of how he arrived after the prankster had ruined his entrance, “on a horse that was afraid of everything and was terror-stricken by the slightest noise, jumping fences and throwing himself on the ground because he was so scared of the cannon blasts.”
Gatineau recalls that he was “unable to walk for almost a week, a consequence of his bumpy ride from Webster to Southbridge, mumbling swears at the president Joseph LeClair for having roped him into such a hellish chore.”
Another humorous story revealed from Gatineau’s account of local history involves a large community celebration of St. Jean Baptiste Day in 1881, which was subject to a problem in planning; two members of the same committee had each ordered an intended 600 pies from a bakery in Webster. Gatineau describes the difficulty in getting all 1,200 pies to the picnic grounds and of managing the surplus, especially considering rainfall on the day of the event:
“The visitors had not yet even had the privilege of gazing lovingly at the first offerings, when the storm, that ruthless storm, intervened and ruined at least half of them. Oh, our cherished St. Jean Baptiste pies, what a cruel fate awaited you!”
Of the remaining pies, some sold door-to-door after the event, Gatineau comments, “Were they any less delicious, these cherished pies from Webster? History has been silent on the matter. Doctors tell us, however that there were several rather serious cases of indigestion in the community around that time.”
In a playful spirit that many local French Canadians may recognize from their own families, those that had ordered the pies were teased and called “the pie committee” for the rest of their lives.
We have the historic writings of Félix Gatineau, and the modern translation of Dr. Elizabeth Blood, to thank for knowledge of these humorous stories from the history of Southbridge, alongside the wealth of genealogical, historical and local knowledge that the book preserves.
The History of the Franco-Americans of Southbridge, Massachusetts is published in translation by Via Appia Press and is available on Amazon.com. Copies of the original in French are also available both at Amazon and in the Jacob Edwards Library.