LEWISTON, Me – “Celebrate Maine 2020”, bicentennial will include an exhibit about Franco-Americans who participated in building the state’s economy. In fact, the Board of Directors, with the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College (USM LAC FAC), are preparing to participate in the state’s bicentennial history by organizing an exhibit to tribute Franco-American entrepreneurs.
Several well known business families will be included in the exhibit, scheduled to open at the LAC in March, 2020, during “le mois de la Francophone” (the month of the Francophone). A primary focus will be to exhibit histories about the families Leblanc, Lepage, Bonneau and Marcotte.
A theme for the exhibit is “Le Pain Quotidien”, a concept meant to reflect the ways in which the entrepreneurs saw to basic, everyday human needs.
This exhibit will eventually include other entrepreneurs and their families, in a sequel, proposed for 2021.
- Leblanc- established the Lewiston steam dye house or “bleachery”
- Lepage – established a bakery
- Bonneau – the Bonneau Brothers market
- F.X. Marcotte- created the furniture sales company helping immigrants to furnish their residences.
Oral histories have been recorded with surviving family members who also volunteered to loan, or donate photographs and visual artifacts to display in the planned exhibits. Doris Belisle Bonneau, of Auburn, is the chair of the exhibition committee. Mary Rice-Defosse, a French professor who teaches at Bates College in Lewiston, is assisting with the exhibit and Celia McGuckian, a FAC board member, is among others who are volunteering on the committee.
Anna Faherty, a professional archivist who works with the FAC, is providing technical expertise.
Franco-American families who descended from the French Canadian immigrants that arrived in Lewiston, during the second half of the 19th century, were essential to the economic prosperity of the Lewiston and Auburn cities. Some saw how meeting the daily living needs required by the immigrants was also an opportunity to build economic security for themselves, while also helping their French speaking neighbors. They provided needed services to the thousands of laborers who worked in the mills, built along the Androscoggin River during the late 19th and into the middle 20th centuries. Their business investments were successful because they met the expectations of the Franco-Americans and the citizens who lived in the Androscoggin County’s twin cities. Rice-Defosse said, “Entrepreneurship offered the immigrant families an escape from the alienation of industrial labor and a means to control one’s own destiny.”
French-Canadian immigrants who arrived in Maine by foot, in horse drawn carts and on the Grand Trunk Railroad, caused the City of Lewiston to grow into a commercial hub.
This growth was documented in a fascinating on-line history book, made available by Harvard, titled, “Leading Business Men of Lewiston Augusta and Vicinity”, published in 1892, (at this link) by Mercentile Press.
On page 58 of the on-line edition, Mr. Leblanc, who established the “bleachery”, was described as one among those “leading business men”. Written in language peculiar to the late 19th century with excessive use of capital letters, this description presented a compelling advertisement for the cleansing services provided. The narrative, as I transcribed it, from the book reads: “Mr. Leblanc is a native of Canada and inaugurated his present enterprise in this city (Lewiston) in 1886. He began operations with no flourish or trumpets whatever, confident that the merits of his work had only to become known to assure him of a large patronage and the progress of time has proved his confidence to be well founded. Premises are occupied at No.141 Maine Street…employment is given to five assistants and a specialty is made of the handling of clothing of all descriptions, the same being Cleansed, Dyed and Neatly Repaired at the shortest possible notice. Ladies Dresses’ are Cleansed, Dyed and Finished without Ripping, and a feature of the business which will be of particular interest to all housekeepers is that thorough steam cleansing of feather beds, pillows, Bolsters, Curled Hair, etc.. House Furnishings goods are dyed in the most fashionable colors and finished in the most skillful manner and Ostrich plumes are given the utmost attention and are Curled, Cleansed and Dyed any desired shade.” (Mon Dieu! Personally speaking, this service sounds like something I could pay for today, because my pillows could surely use a “thorough steam cleansing”!)
Sponsors who can help to support this exhibit are encouraged to contact Doris Bonneau at this email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Check the social media announcement for more information.
The FAC website is at this site here.