In the 1950s the Meadowbrook Corporation bought large swaths of land between upper Maine St. and Harpswell Rd. Properties included farms owned by families named Coffin, Allen, Raymond, and LeBel, as well as the former farm of Randall Doyle Jr. whose father was buried in Skolfield-Doyle Cemetery at nearby Middle Bay (See Anna’s Boys). The corporation subdivided the land into single-family house lots, naming the development Meadowbrook Village.
In the backyard of one Meadowbrook home is the tombstone of Joseph Henri Deschenes (also spelled Dechene, Deschene, Deschine, and Deshain).
Joseph Henri’s story begins with his birth on July 5, 1895. The second child of Joseph and Leopoldine (Dumont) Deschenes, his story ended on Sept 15th, a little more than two months later, when he died of “weak”[ness], and was buried in the rural farming tradition on an embankment overlooking a gully.
If Joseph Henri had been a member of a family such as the Skolfields of our previous two blogs, we would find books written about the family that would help fill in the blanks of a too brief life.
We might even find the grand homes they left behind such as this Skolfield home on Park Row, a monument to one of Brunswick’s important founding families.
But Joseph Henri’s parents were French Canadian immigrants, married in St. Alexandre, Kamourska, Quebec, Canada, in 1893. His father, Joseph Sr., was the eldest son of farmer Celestin and Adela (Berube) Deschenes. He was employed as a voyageur/vagus out of Hull on the Ottowa/Quebec border, which may mean he was engaged in transporting products such as fur across land or via river. Leopoldine, was the eldest daughter of farmer Pascal and Victoire (Belanger) Dumont, of St. Eleuthere, Quebec, along the Maine border. One of hundreds of French Canadians who moved to Maine between 1860 and 1900 to escape a depressed agricultural economy, Leopoldine was already a resident of Brunswick, Maine, when she travelled back to Quebec for her wedding. She may have boarded a Maine Central train north at the train depot on Maine St. then, upon arriving in Quebec, headed to her parents’ farm by horse and wagon.
Joseph Henri’s birth and death entries recorded by the Town of Brunswick tell us the couple settled in Brunswick where his father was a laborer. Perhaps he was a farm laborer on what I believe was the Octave LeBel farm. Why else would the child of Catholics, who usually buried their dead in St John’s Cemetery, be buried on a farm his family didn’t own? Joseph Henri’s death record stated he was the second child of the couple, though I was unable to find either a birth or death record for a previous sibling. It may be that the child was born elsewhere. Infant mortality was high in the late 1800s; it may be that the first child died soon after birth and neither event was recorded.
Joseph Henri’s 1895 death is the last conclusive mention of his father, Joseph Sr. Traditionally, French Canadian Catholics selected Joseph for a males’ first name and Marie for each girl, in honor of the biblical Mary and Joseph. Most children used a middle name in everyday life. In this particular case, Joseph was used as the given name of several Brunswick men named Deschenes listed in vital records, U.S. Federal census listings, town directories, and on tombstones in St. John’s Cemetery. None were Joseph Henri’s father. Perhaps Joseph Sr. died shortly after his son. Voyageurs, in fact, had a high mortality rate from hernias they developed during heavy lifting of furs and other items, and from the rigors of paddling canoes from port to port to deliver their product. As a laborer, Joseph Sr. would have continued to tax his body. Additionally, in late 1800 Brunswick, diseases such as dyptheria and cholera killed many, adults and children alike. Or, perhaps Joseph Sr. abandoned his wife and returned to Canada. We may never know why he seemingly dropped from view.
For a while Leopoldine (Dumont) Deschenes, too, disappeared from the public record — unless she was the Leopoldine Dumont who gave birth to Joseph Dominique Dumont in Brunswick on April 4th, 1899. Joseph Dominique’s father was listed as unknown. Since the baby’s surname was the same as his mother’s maiden name, it may be that Joseph Deschenes Sr. was not the father. It’s also possible that Leopoldine was a Dumont family name and there were multiple Leopoldines in the family.
Leopoldine (Dumont) Deschenes reappeared in 1903 when she married Joseph Gagnon. It was the second marriage for each of them. Joseph’s first wife was Emelie Brillant, daughter of Zepherin and Amelie (Dumont) Brillant. Perhaps Leopoldine and Emelie were cousins, a common enough path to marriage partners.
In 1910 Leopoldine and Joseph Dumont lived at 20 Oak St., in one of several single and multi-family homes built just south of Mill St. to as residences for cotton-mill workers. Leopoldine was one such worker; Joseph was employed by the railroad. The census taker noted that Leopoldine was the mother of 4 children, all of whom had died by 1910. So far, we can identify only 2 children: Joseph Henri Deschenes, and possibly Joseph Dominique Dumont.
Leopoldine’s brief obituary appeared in the Brunswick Record in 1916:
Mrs. Leopoldine Dumont Gagnon, wife of Joseph Gagnon, died at St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston, Aug. 29th. The funeral was held from St. John’s Church of this town Thursday, Aug. 31st. Rev. Fr. A. Label S.M. officiated.
By 1920, Joseph Gagnon had relocated two doors down to an apartment at 16 Oak St. (in 2015 a vacant lot). There he roomed with the Doyon family of 6, and still worked for the railroad. Finding no future mention of Joseph Gagnon, I was unable to determine his date of death but think it likely to have been before the 1930 census in which he is absent.
The French Canadian families in this story didn’t leave much of themselves behind, which is not that unusual for those who owned no property, didn’t cause trouble, and who may have been unimportant to those who recorded Brunswick history. If not for Joseph Henri Deschenes’s tombstone erected on a former farm off Maine St., we might know nothing of the lives of his father Joseph Deschenes, Sr., possible half-brother Joseph Dominique Dumont, their two siblings, their step-father Joseph Gagnon, and his mother who united them all — Leopoldine (Dumont) Deschenes Gagnon.
Next Blog in Two Weeks: One Thing Leads to Another
- Ancestry.com: Various including City Directories, Family Trees, United States Federal and State Censuses, Vital Records (Birth, Death, and Marriage)
- From the Falls to the Bay, A tour of historic Brunswick, Maine, Bath-Brunswick Branch, American Association of University Women, Brunswick, 1980
- Cumberland County Registry of Deeds, 25 Pearl St., Portland, Maine and https://me.uslandrecords.com/ME/Cumberland/D/Default.aspx
- Brunswick Record, Curtis Memorial Library
- Town Directories 1867-1985, Curtis Memorial Library, http://www.curtislibrary.com/research/topical-directory/brunswick-history/town-directories-1867-1960/
- Brunswick’s Golden Age, Edward Chase Kirkland, Lewiston, Maine: Loring, 1941
- Marriages of St. John the Baptist (1877-1779) and of St. Charles Borromeo (1930-1980) Brunswick, Maine, compiled by Youville Labonte, Auburn, Maine, c 1980
- Maine State Archives, https://portal.maine.gov/marriage/archdev.marriage_archive.list
- Oxford Dictionary, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/voyageur
- Past Ottowa, http://www.pastottawa.com/quartier/hull/
- Town of Brunswick 1724-1910 CD 2 of 4, Picton’s Original Record Series, Picton Press, Rockland, ME 2005
- Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_name
- Ibid, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hull,_Quebec
- Ibid, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyageurs
- Brunswick’s French-Canadian Heritage, Emily Williams, http://www.francoamericanconnection.com/documents/Emily-Williams-essay.htm