Franco-American labor history in Old Town Maine

French-Canadian immigration into New England was driven by the opportunities for finding employment in the logging and various textile manufacturing industries.  “The First Franco-Americans: New England Life Histories From the Federal Writers’ Project 1938-1939” was published in 1985, by C. Steward Doty, at the University of Maine. This anthology described the motivation to find work, from interviews with French-Canadians, who became Franco-Americans.

Published in 1985 from interviews conducted during The Federal Writers' Project

The First Franco-Americans anthology by C. Stewart Doty, published in 1985, with interviews conducted during the Federal Writers’ Project (L’Heureux photograph)

One chapter in the anthology is dedicated to the  histories about the French-Canadians who settled in Old Town, Maine. Several interviews  described how the immigrants settled in Old Town, to work in the lumber industry along Maine’s Penobscot River.  Although the oral histories were transcribed for the anthology published in 1985, the annual commemoration of Labor Day is a time to recall and recognize how the First Franco-Americans were, first of all, immigrants, who provided the labor needed to help grow Maine’s economy, by harvesting wood to sell to the nation and doing other essential jobs.

Doty described how Old Town originally attracted Yankee and Irish (English speaking) workers, rather than French-speaking Canadians. In 1880, the city’s 3,395 population counted only 15 percent being Franco-Americans.  This ethnic mix changed by 1900, when one-third of Old Town’s 5,765 residents were counted as being Franco-Americans.  “This sudden rise in the Franco-American population during the late 19th century was made possible by the completion of railroad service between Maine and the Canadian Maritime Provinces,” wrote Doty.  Most of the Franco-Americans (who were French-Canadians when they arrived) settled on an island named “French Island” and it was connected to downtown Old Town by a bridge.

The Federal Writers' Project

Franco-American histories from the immigrants living in Old Town during the Federal Writers’ Project interviews (L’Heureux photograph)

Among the oral histories collected in the Federal Writers’ Project and published in “The First Franco-Americans“, was the experience of Steve Comeau, a French-Canadian from South River, in New Brunswick, Canada.  In 1901, Comeau was 25 years old when he came to Old Town to work in a woolen mill, as a weaver.  He worked at several different labor jobs, up until 1936. At the time of his interview for the Federal Writers’ Project, he was unemployed and not eligible for federal help, because his son earned $14 a week working in a plumbing shop. Comeau lost his job as a night weaver in 1936, when the mill closed during The Great Depression.

French-Canadians who came to Maine went to places where they had relatives or they looked for places where they could get work.  Usually, they went where there was already a French speaking population.  “There weren’t many who went back to Canada, summer or winter, once they got here, I can tell you that,” Comeau is quoted as saying.  “Some did, but they were exceptions. The majority of the people…intended to stay.”

Another interview with Mr. Ovide Morin, described his experience learning how to become a brick layer.  “My father was a mason.  I went to work with him after I left my job at the saw mill and I never went back. I worked on St. Joseph’s, the new brick church, down here in Old Town.  I was doing rough work and one day the boss came around and says, ‘Morin, your father was a good brick mason. I haven’t got enough masons. Can you lay bricks?’. I told him I built lots of chimneys and I probably could, if he wanted me to.  ” ‘ All right.’ he says, ‘come over here and start on this corner’ ”.

An interview with David Morin, the brother of Ovide, described how important it was for French-Canadian workers to provide the needed labor for New England’s manufacturing industries. “There were no immigration laws when we came here” (circa 1883).  Those laws only came into effect long after he arrived to find work.  “Companies used to go up to Canada, in those days, to get workers. They didn’t have people enough here to run the cotton mills and the factories. They used to go up there and offer people good jobs at good wages and paid their fare to any place they wanted to go.”

The Federal Writers’ Project, was a program established in the United States in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of the New Deal struggle against the Great Depression. It provided jobs for unemployed writers, editors, and research workers. These histories have become priceless narratives that would otherwise have been lost, without the investment of resources used to record and print them for historical purposes.

Author of “The First Franco-Americans” anthology, Doty was himself an advocate for collective bargaining rights. C. Stewart Doty, was a University of Maine professor for 31 years and a union activist who played an instrumental role in leading a group responsible for earning collective bargaining rights for the University of Maine faculty members, through the Maine Teachers Association.  Doty died in 2011, at his home in Albuquerque, N.M., from complications of prostate cancer, according to family members. He was a Korean War veteran. He composed several publications from the writings he collected from The Federal Writers Project.

A link to “The First Franco-Americans: New England Life Histories From The Federal Writers’ Project 1936-1939is here.


Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.