A couple of times in the past, I’ve mentioned “Bernier the Lumberjack “ to you. Over the recent years, we at the Saco Museum have purchased a few of his smaller woodcarvings but his very best pieces, tour-de-force works of folk art, were always beyond our means. And yet, this local man very much deserved to have his pieces exhibited in a museum like ours.

His story seemed almost apocryphal: a French-Canadian lumberjack who lived in Biddeford was crippled by a falling tree. Later, he began to carve little animals from wood and sell them on the street for very small sums in order to support himself. By 1985, he was worthy of mention by folk art scholar and collector Robert Bishop in his book “American Folk Sculpture.” “Bernier was a lumberman who took up wood carving after he was injured in an accident,” Bishop wrote. “Only a few pieces of his are known.” Bishop also reported that Bernier lived in the Saco/Biddeford area around 1900. That was all anyone in the antiques field knew about the man.

After the Saco Museum acquired two pieces of his work, we tried hard to find out more about the man, but our efforts were frustrated. With no solid information, in June of 2009 I wrote a column for The Courier, telling what we knew about Bernier and asking for help from the community. To my astonishment, help came pouring in! I received a call from Richard Boissonneault telling me that Bernier had been his great uncle. The following day Richard and his cousin, Lorraine Patt, came in to see me. Lorraine could remember the carver from her childhood, an impoverished man living with his wife in a tiny house on West Street in Biddeford. He sported a pencil thin moustache and often sat in a rocking chair, constantly engaged in carving the birds and animals that he would either sell (the smaller pieces) or give to his family (the more elaborate ones.)

He was born Joseph Ramual Bernier in Quebec in April of 1873. During a period of significant emigration from Quebec to Maine, with workers filling often low paying jobs at the large textile mills along the Saco River, Bernier came south. Many immigrants rented rooms or small apartments in triple-decker houses, attended Catholic churches, and developed a rich ethnic community that continues today. Sometime before 1922, while working as a lumberjack in a northern Maine or Quebec logging camp, a tree fell on him, breaking his back. Long-term survival rates for victims of spinal cord injuries were not very good at that time but Bernier soldiered on. By the early 1930s, he had begun his second career as a woodcarver. He carved constantly, generally just using a pocket knife and whatever wood he could acquire. We know that he typically painted his carvings with house paint, often in bright colors, and that the paint, over the year, has crackled. Most of the pieces that have been sold, eagerly sought by folk art collectors, have been small.

But now Richard has gifted to the Saco Museum from his family what surely must have been one of Bernier’s grandest works — a life-sized eagle with outspread wings, holding a dead bird in its talons. How Bernier carved such a grand piece while seated is a mystery, but surely also a triumph of the human soul over significant adversity. Please come in and take a look at the work of our own local, no longer anonymous, world-renown folk artist!

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