Le Cultivateur

St. Lawrence River 1901 LOC

St. Lawrence River at Riviere du Loup (Library of Congress)


As early as 1536, French pioneers harvested the natural bounty of Quebec’s dense forests. They transported their furs and timber via the rivers of New France to ports along the Atlantic Ocean and thence to France itself. Since even trappers and lumberjacks needed their daily bread, cultivateurs (farmers) soon followed, clearing the rocky land on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in southern Quebec, to raise wheat in a growing season even shorter than Maine’s. Still, the farmers were successful enough that, by the mid- to late-1800s, their families had outgrown the ancestral farms. Desiring homesteads of their own, some families moved to ever more remote villages, such as Hébertville in Chicoutimi.

Unfortunately, the land in the further reaches of Quebec was infertile, had poor access to large markets, and had a shorter growing season. This meant farming in these newer settlements, as in much of Maine, was often subsistence, never yielding a surplus to sell at market. Just as in parts of Maine, farmers worked in other trades such as timber for the better part of the year. The timber industry in Quebec, in fact, was its biggest employer. Many of these businesses took full advantage of their positions, often paying workers with company scrip that could only be spent in company stores. Lumber merchants became richer; les cultivateurs became increasingly indebted, and, thus, poorer.

Asher and Adams' Maine and New Brunswick:with portions of Quebec

From Hébertville (Laq St. Jean), Quebec, to Brunswick, Maine, via Le Chaudiere and the Old Canada Road

Seeing opportunity in both the poverty and great numbers of Québécois, agents from New England mills traveled to Quebec to recruit single men and women, and entire families, to head south for work. Conditions must have been dire for so many to choose to make the arduous journey on foot or in horse-drawn wagons, and later by rail, from French Canada to English-speaking New England. The Québécois left behind close-knit families and traditional rural communities to travel to foreign industrialized cities, all in hopes of landing an unguaranteed and unfamiliar job operating dangerous machinery in a noisy, crowded mill.

Some of those who emigrated from Quebec intended to stay in the United States just long enough to earn the cash denied them at home. Others never looked back.

Les Émigrants

The families of Anastasie Paradis (1868-1934) and Eustache Martin (1870-1915) both relocated from the east bank of the St. Lawrence River to the west bank, both to the farming village of Hébertville in Chicoutimi. The Paradis family left St. André sometime after 1851; the Martins would leave St. Anne thirty years later. The fathers, Olivier Paradis and Eváriste Martin, were just two of the 469 cultivateurs in Hébertville in Canada’s1891 census. More than one quarter of the men in the village of just 1850 people were farmers, including boys as young as fourteen. The handful of other occupations listed included modiste (dressmaker), journalier (day laborer), and cordonnier (shoe maker).

Anastasie Paradis 1891 crpd

Olivier Paradis family in 1891 Canadian census (Ancestry.com)


Eustache Martin census 1891 crpd.jpg

Eváriste Martin family in 1891 Canadian census (Ancestry.com)

The census recorded that both twenty-seven-year-old [sic] Anastasie and twenty-one-year-old Eustache (cultivateur) were of French origin, Roman Catholic, single, and living with their parents and siblings on their families’ farms. Anastasie’s father farmed with the aid of his only son still at home, plus a hired hand. Eustache, two of his brothers, and their father, worked the Martin farm. In the Paradis home, only Anastasie’s mother could read and write. Eustache’s family was the better educated: he, his parents, and three of his siblings were literate.

Twenty-three-year-old Anastasie might well have felt some pressure to find a way to relieve the financial pressures faced by her family of eight. Her choices all involved leaving the farm: marriage in Chicoutimi or finding work – perhaps as a servant or mill hand in a larger Quebec town. She chose emigration and a job: by the following year Anastasie was 375 miles away from Hébertville, working for the Cabot cotton mill at the head of Brunswick’s Maine Street, along with Eustache and other French Canadian expatriates.

Future U.S. Federal censuses would show that Eustache had already come to the United States between 1888 and 1890. It’s possible he hadn’t returned to his parents’ farm but was reported as being there by a parent or sibling who hoped his absence was temporary. If Eustache had returned to Chicoutimi in 1891 it might have been to visit his family, bring home funds earned in the States, or perhaps to encourage others to seek new lives away from Quebec.

Another possibility is that Eustache came home to ask Anastasie to leave Chicoutimi for Brunswick, Maine, and a job at the mill – and, perhaps, a future life with him.

Eustache_Anastasie wedding day

Wedding photo of Eustache and Anastasie (Paradis) Martin. Courtesy of Agnes (Martin) Maynard.

Le Mariage

On Monday, May 6, 1895, Anastasie, in full corset, donned her very modern gown: bell skirt (no bustle!), fitted bodice, and leg-o’-mutton sleeves. Eustache wore the latest waistcoat (vest), low cut to allow more freedom of movement, and a jaunty boutonniere in his coat lapel. It was spring: shade trees were in full leaf and lilacs were just beginning to bud. Far from home, yet surrounded by Quebecois friends, Anastasie and Eustache married. Although a recent flood had left the roads muddy, the newlyweds and their wedding party likely took a celebratory ride in carts “…driven abreast, as rapidly as livery horses can travel…the occupants being all in high glee.”* Perhaps they drove to the local photographer’s studio to have their wedding portrait taken.

After, the couple might have strolled across the new pedestrian bridge between Brunswick and Topsham to watch the sunset. Perhaps, finally, they went to their room or apartment in one of Cabot Mill’s tenement houses on the banks of the Androscoggin River. Imagine the sigh of relief as Anastasie loosened her whalebone corset and Eustache removed his spit-shined leather shoes.

The Martins would not have been lonely – by the early 1890s, French Canadians and their American-born children were a third of Brunswick’s population.

Cabot Mil MS_0419_Folder_W_Z_031

The Cabot Company

Unfortunately, unlike companions, money was scarce. Just like the timber companies in Quebec, the Cabot Mill initially ran a grocery store where their employees were expected to shop. The Martins would see this change, partly at the urging of Brunswick merchants who were anxious to profit from 2500 potential new customers in a town of just over 6000. Recognizing the necessity of having French-speaking clerks, some merchants hired mill hands’ children and grandchildren. This would soon pave the way for French Canadians and their children to start their own businesses.

Money was tight, but when Anastasie and Eustache first arrived in Brunswick, the living conditions were worse. The Cabot Company spent as little as possible on employee accommodations. The apartments were small, the families large. The company saw no need to invest in sewers: the tenements discharged waste directly into the river that was also the source of the workers’ drinking water. Both the close quarters and unsanitary conditions contributed to typhoid and diphtheria epidemics in the French community. When the epidemics touched the families of Brunswick “natives,” the town began a three-year sewer project, laying down nine miles of pipe between 1894 and ’97.

Little girl and Pig LOC crpd

“Take a ‘poon piggie.” Library of Congress

Though at the beginning of their marriage both worked six days a week at the mill, Anastasie and Eustache were only a handful of years away from the farm and still cultivateurs at heart. On the farm, their families had likely raised pigs, using every part of the animals to feed their large families through the long, cold winters. Requiring little more than a sturdy pen, water from the nearby river, and scraps for food, the couple could have raised a spring piglet to a butcher-ready hog by early autumn. The animal would yield thick slabs of bacon, chops, and roasts. Wasting no part of the animal, Anastasie would have rendered lard to spread on homemade bread and for pastries such as tourtière (meat pie). Finally, she would have used the rest of the animal to make headcheese (lunch meat) and cretons (pork pâté).

Eustache Martin census 1910 crpd

Eustache and Anastasie Martin family in 1910 census. Ancestry.com

 La Famille; Le Travail

Employed, housed, and fed, the Martins started their family in earnest. First came Eustache Jr (1896-1964), then twins Marie and Marion (1897-by1900). The unhealthful living conditions took a toll on the family. By 1910, Anastasie had given birth to thirteen children. Only seven were still alive: sons Eustache Jr and Ovila, and daughters Rose, Eva, Alfreda, Marie Anne, and Noella.

Maintaining a family of nine was as labor-intensive in a modern mill town as it was at the farm. The boys no doubt chopped wood or carried coal to fuel the cook stove, fired on all but the hottest days for cooking and heating water. The girls sewed and mended clothing, cooked, and cleaned the house. Each week there was the muscle-building work of doing laundry. Someone, probably Anastasie, lifted heavy kettles of water to heat on the stove. Then she would have boiled and bleached the whites to remove stains made by coal and wood smoke, sweat, and work grime. Starching came next to protect the color, allay wrinkles (no permanent press), and repel dirt. Then the girls might have hung the clothes to dry outdoors in the sun or inside on lines strung overhead during inclement weather. Finally, for the better part of the following day, one of the Martin women heated a heavy flat iron on the stove to use in smoothing the wrinkled clothing, stopping to reheat the iron each time it cooled.

Back Boy Mule Room03119r

Back boy – Mule room – 14 years. Berkshire Mill. by Lewis W. Hine, 1916. Library of Congress.

Mill hands Eustache Sr and Jr both put in long days of their own, working ten to twelve hours, six days a week. As a weaver Eustache Sr watched the looms, waiting for a thread to break, then repairing it by weaving in a new one. Though fourteen-year-old Eustache Jr seems a child to us, back in Quebec he would have been a full-fledged cultivateur, working along side his father. Now he worked at the mill instead, as a back boy in the spinning room, tending the bobbins. Cotton dust floated freely in the factory, dampening the light from the tall windows, thickening the air they breathed. Perhaps at noontime one of the younger Martin girls brought their father and brother a lunch of homemade bread layered with cretons or headcheese.


Image from gulagbound.com.

At the mill, Sr and Jr were required to speak English, partly for ease in communication with English-speaking workers and bosses, partly to assuage the bosses’ pride as they sought to prevent unintelligible personal insults or, worse yet, seeds of strike. At home and throughout Little Canada, though, both Eustaches spoke their native tongue, the only language Anastasie and her girls understood.

Eustache Sr, unafraid of hard work, may have struggled with the rhythm of a workday designed around the starts and stops of machines, rather than the more natural and familiar cycle determined by seasons, crops, and livestock. Still hoping to save enough money for his own farm, he supplemented his income with stone masonry and by 1910 operated his own business, a wood-sawing machine.

Three years later, Eustache’s hard work would change the family’s circumstances, both for the better and the worse.

Next Blog: The Farmer



About Barbara Desmarais

Writer and amateur historian
This entry was posted in Bernier & Martin Genealogy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Le Cultivateur

  1. Fascinating! I can’t wait for the next bit. Thank you!

  2. don smith says:

    i work in the cabot mill in the spinning room in 1948 very hot in there

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