MANCHESTER, N.H. - Waitress Carla Holden didn’t miss a beat when we asked her where to find the city’s touchstones of French-Canadian heritage. “Well, you have to start here,” she said, gesturing around at the faux wood plastic tables, the long counter, and the blue vinyl-clad aluminum stools of the casual breakfast and lunch joint Chez Vachon.
She had a point. In one of the two dining rooms, 10 men had shoved their tables together to solve the world’s problems over lunch. As he does about three times a week, former mayor Emile Beaulieu stopped in for a daily special. Sister Rita waited at the counter for a big order of take-out. And heaping plates of food kept pouring out of the kitchen.
Even though it was past noon, Holden assured us that the breakfast special plates were still available, and recommended the slice of pork pie (an old-time dish that survives in Franco-American New England but has largely vanished in French Canada) with fried eggs. She also warned us that the “small” plate of poutine would be more than one person could eat, and advised us to stick to the Manchester-favorite chicken gravy. How could we resist? The mash-up of fried potatoes, gravy, and fresh cheese curds is practically the national dish of Quebec.
In fact, when Manchester’s textile mills were at their apogee about a century ago, half the workforce consisted of French speakers whose families had emigrated primarily from the province of Quebec. When they completed their 12-hour shifts at the Amoskeag mills, they trudged up the steep hill on the west bank of the Merrimack River to the neighborhood known as Petit Canada — now styled Rimmon Heights, as the gateway arch embellished with a fleur-de-lis announces.
The neighborhood got its own parish church, Sainte-Marie, in 1880. The majestic brick and granite Gothic-style building perches at the lip of the hill just across Notre-Dame bridge from the Amoskeag mills. Much of the striking interior decoration was carried out by noted Quebec artist Ozias Leduc based on a 1906 commission from Monsignor Pierre Hévey. The stained glass windows, which range from pastel neo-Renaissance style to vivid expressionism, were installed at different points across the 20th century as gifts from the D’Amours, Phaneuf, Beaudet, Plante, Dufour, and other families.
Monsignor Hévey looked after the fiscal as well as the spiritual welfare of his parishioners. In 1908 he joined forces with Alphonse Desjardins, the founder of credit unions in Quebec, and local lawyer Joseph Boivin to create La Caisse Populaire Ste.-Marie (St. Mary’s Cooperative Credit Association). The first US credit union, it was also the first banking enterprise in the country organized for the welfare of its members rather than to maximize profit. For generations, St. Mary’s (now St. Mary’s Bank) was the first place that Manchester’s Franco-American population turned for a home or business loan and the place where workers deposited their wages.
Boivin’s home, just a few blocks from the church, served as the first headquarters of the credit union. The building is now the Credit Union Museum, and preserves the first floor of the house largely as it was during the Boivin family’s tenure, including the lawyer’s office and the hallway where workers would wait to conduct their business. When the museum was created about 10 years ago, Boivin’s daughter Gilberte provided a first-hand account of the credit union’s early years. Many of her reminiscences are recounted on wall plaques. Particularly moving is her description of children who would deposit a nickel or a dime in the tin box Madame Boivin kept locked in a special drawer. In 1908, children worked 12-hour shifts at the textile mills for 60 to 90 cents per day.
By 1915, the mills of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Co. (or AMC) constituted the largest cotton textile manufacturer in the world, eclipsing even Lowell and Lawrence farther down the Merrimack. A century later, the handsome red-brick-and-granite mills still stretch more than a mile along the river, many of the buildings redeveloped into house offices, restaurants, and even a brewery. Two museums are located in Mill No. 3, built in 1844 and enlarged in 1870 to 440 feet long by five stories high.
The SEE Science Center, devoted largely to educating children, occupies the top two floors of one wing. In a stroke of genius, volunteers worked intermittently for more than two years to construct a scale model of the Amoskeag mills as they appeared circa 1900 — and they did it all with approximately 3 million Lego bricks. The Lego Millyard Project, the largest permanent Lego installation at its scale in the world, captures the sprawling magnitude of a portion of the mill complex and an adjacent neighborhood.
The industrial and social history is recounted vividly in the Millyard Museum on the first floor of Mill No. 3. Exhibits reach back 11,000 years when Native Americans first fished at the Amoskeag Falls. Channeled with canals and dams, that same 54-foot drop provided the raw power for the AMC’s industrial complex. The AMC began building mills along the river in 1838. At the company’s peak just before World War I, 8,500 men and 7,000 women worked there, turning out 600 miles of cloth per day. Manchester’s main drag, Elm Street, bustled with shoppers on payday Thursday evenings. Displays of looms and other manufacturing equipment, oral histories, and evocative photographs conjure a way of life that abruptly disappeared when the company went bankrupt and closed the mills in 1935.
The mills may be gone, but the Franco-Americans remain — less as a diaspora from French-speaking Canada than as a now indigenous culture with roots (and cousins) in the north. More than 1,500 people belong to the American-Canadian Genealogical Society, founded in 1973 to help research family histories. But anyone who wants to do genealogical research is welcome. The simple shelves filled with plain bound books hardly hint at the depth of the resources.
In one form or another, the society’s library contains about 20 million records of births, baptisms, and marriages from Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia as well as Franco-American records from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. The earliest notations go back to the founding of New France in the early 1600s. Some of the many books of records are photographic reproductions of the original parish records.
“From a genealogical standpoint, that’s the gold standard,” said Gerry Savard, current president of the nonprofit group. “Those are primary records as written in the priest’s hand. There’s no question about transcription error creeping in. The Catholic Church kept excellent records.”
Savard has traced his family back to Paris and their first landing at the Île d’Orléans near Quebec City in the 1600s. His great-grandfather worked in the Manchester mills in the 1880s, but later returned to Canada.
“If you’re Franco-American from New England,” Savard said, “chances are we have records of your family.”