When Dyke Hendrickson was a journalist covering Biddeford in the 1970s, he couldn’t help notice the French accents and French last names.

Like many Maine mill towns, Biddeford had a significant French population, descendents of French Canadians who came from Quebec to find work and a better life. Later, while working at the Portland Press Herald, he did a series of stories about Franco-American history and culture in Maine.

The series garnered lots of positive response, and prompted Hendrickson in 1980 to write a book, “Quiet Presence: Stories of Franco-Americans in New England.” Thirty years later, Hendrickson is no longer a full-time journalist, but has come out with a sequel: “Franco-Americans of Maine” (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99).

The book, part of Arcadia’s “Images of America” series, includes more than 200 vintage photographs chronicling the lives of Franco-American families in Maine in the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s.

Hendrickson, 64, works as a public relations consultant and writer. He splits his time between Newburyport, Mass., and a vacation home in New Sharon.

Q: What prompted you to do this latest book on Franco-Americans, 30 years after the first?

A: The first one found a sweet spot; I kept getting letters on it for years. I wanted to get it re-published, but I couldn’t. I still felt like the full story of Franco-Americans hadn’t been told. I noticed the list of Arcadia’s books, and thought this would fit. About a third of everyone in Maine, some 400,000 people, have some French heritage, so I figured there’d be interest in a book like this.

Also, a lot of the major industries in Maine that Francos helped build — textile mills, pulp mills, woodworking — are disappearing. So I thought this would be a good historical tool to help get in touch with those things.

 

Q: What sort of changes did you find after 30 years, both in terms of what Franco-Americans are doing now and their perception of their own heritage?

A: When I covered Biddeford in the 1970s, you still heard French spoken on the streets, and some city councilors would mutter to each other in French when they didn’t want reporters to hear. That’s not the case now. You don’t hear as much French spoken.

I think today it’s a much more educated group, and you have some high-profile, accomplished people, like (U.S. Rep.) Mike Michaud, or (Republican candidate for governor) Paul LePage.

There is more awareness today. I think the more people learn about their history, the more they find to be proud of. Since 2002, there’s been a Franco day at the state house in Augusta, and there’s talk of having a Franco component taught in history classes in school.

 

Q: What are some of the things that made Franco-Americans stand out among immigrant groups in Maine?

A: Germans or Italians who came here couldn’t go back very often. But Maine had many French people who went back and forth from here to Quebec, so that really helped keep the language and culture alive. There’s a picture in the book of young people in Sanford who spent the winters working in Maine then spent the summer working a farm in Quebec. So there was a constant shuttle going on.

 

Q: Where did you find your photos, especially the ones that show family life, from weddings to picnics to parades?

A: I went to a lot of institutions that focus on the French, like the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College, the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston, and the McArthur Public Library in Biddeford.

I wanted pictures that stressed institutions that were central to Franco-Americans in Maine, like the church and family. That’s why the picture on the cover (of a 1957 wedding in Lewiston, with dozens of well-dressed people crowding the church steps) worked so well. I got a lot of response. Women look at it closely to see if it was their wedding.

So many photos you see (of Franco-Americans) are workers in a mill, looking a little dirty and tired. But I wanted to show the other parts of their lives too. These were people who bought houses and put their kids through school, and were proud of the lives they built here.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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