April 25, 2013

Juliana L’Heureux: A family story of life in the '40s and '50s

By Juliana L’Heureux

Brunswick native Robert N. Biette gives local history and genealogy readers a fresh point of view about Maine’s Franco-Americans heritage in a newly published family memoir.

“As It Was in the Thirties and Forties: With Ancestral History," explains the Biette family’s roots as a hard-working middle-class Franco-American family living in the Pennellville area of Brunswick.  This family story describes a rural point of view on the Franco-American immigration experience. 

“I wrote this book to leave my family with the story about why my French-Canadian ancestors came to Maine and stayed here,” he says.

Biette, 86, and his wife Mary have been married for over 50 years and still live in the picturesque Pennellville community, where his ancestors established their Maine roots.  His story is written in a neatly documented series of time capsule-sized articles, beginning with his ancestral roots in the Normandy region of France.

Among Biette’s colonial ancestors was one “Filles Du Roi” or “Daughter of the King," a mademoiselle named Anne Julienne-Dumont, who sailed to Quebec in the 17th century, to marry and, thereby, help to populate the French colony.

Although Maine’s Franco-Americans comprise a third of the state’s population, many stories focus on the group’s industrial history.  Cities such as  Biddeford, Waterville, Lewiston-Auburn, Sanford and Rumford attracted French Canadian immigrants between the years 1840-1950, when they came to work in bustling manufacturing mills. Although tens of thousands of French-Canadians immigrated to find industrial jobs, the stories about those who struggled to build family farms in rural areas of the state are often overlooked.

Biette’s stories are written in the first person with ample documentation, including local vintage photographs to underscore the highlights of his most vivid memories.

Growing up on a family farm required everyone to participate in the daily chores.  In a chapter titled “Chores Galore," Biette describes working side by side with his parents and siblings to assure that essential projects were completed to sustain the family. 

Each month of the year had a particular work focus.  For example, November brought the family together for Thanksgiving, but it was also a time to “flail the beans."  A “flail” is a manual threshing tool used to clean the shells from the beans.  Every December, the family harvested ice.  Biette described helping his father to harvest ice from a location he called “Mr. Berry’s pond," on Mere Point Road.

“This was a major and necessary chore,” he writes of the ice harvest.  His father Leo made a reservation early in the fall to harvest a certain quantity of ice each December. 

“I loved to watch the process of getting into a large cake of ice,” he writes.  “It was always cold (at the pond) because the tall trees obscured the sun,” he recalls.  But, the pond was fed by a spring, with no undergrowth, making for very clean ice.  There were also the fun times when Mr. Berry allowed ice skating on his pond and “many people would go."

Growing up on a family farm in Brunswick was challenging, but it didn’t prepare him for some startling personal experiences he saw in the world beyond Maine, when he was stationed in the 1950s, in Savannah, Ga., with the National Guard.  Biette describes being stunned by the racial discrimination he witnessed in the racially segregated South.

Mid Coast Maine’s historic building followers will appreciate the pictures and descriptions Biette publishes of 10 stately colonial homes in the Pennellville community, including his family’s home.

Biette’s charming stories lovingly describe his lifetime of experiences. His stories also mirror the pride shared by hundreds of thousands of Franco-American families who proudly worked hard, like the Biettes, to achieve the American dream.

Contact Biette for more information at bmbiette@gmail.com.

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