Sunday, April 14, 2013

Railroad Man, Pierre Gagnon



In a 2009 interview with Roland Albert, former owner of the Men's Shop, I asked him to tell me about the oldest relative he could recall. He remembered his grandfather, Pierre Gagnon (aka "Pepere Gagnon"), to be a track supervisor on the railroad, and that he was always well dressed at family functions. Roland's sister, Jeanne, also recalled Pierre as the oldest relative when she was interviewed in the same year, but she remembered him as an older man living out his retirement years at Kinney Shores in Saco. Her image of Pepere Gagnon was of him doing something he loved: walking along the beach picking up driftwood logs to later use in the fireplace.

Diana and Pierre Gagnon in their later years.
Pierre Gagnon was born in the municipality of L'Islet, Quebec, Canada in 1863.  He married Diana St. Pierre also from Quebec. Like many families in 19th century rural Canada, the Gagnons wanted to immigrate to another land for a better life. He set his sights for such a move at the very early age of 16 when he first entered the United States.  The career he chose for himself would propel him to be part of one of the great migration movements of the industrial age.  He worked on the railroads for over forty years in Canada, Maine and New Hampshire. The story told here comes with the help of a genealogist's gem of a find: a naturalization record containing an affidavit written in Pierre's own words and signed by him in 1935.

Maine Central Railroad General Office Building in Portland Maine, c.1920

     The naturalization record states that Pierre married in Westbrook in 1886 and resided there while he was employed in the "section gang" for the Portland and Rochester Railroad. Hearing of higher wages being offered at the Maine Central Railroad in North Stratford, New Hampshire, he transferred to that site to work as a foreman. Soon after, Maine Central acquired a railroad in St. Malo, Quebec, and he relocated back to Canada. Pierre's wife and two daughters (Marie and Exilia, both born in Westbrook) were living in Westbrook during these transitions, but she joined her husband when he moved to St. Malo for his new work assignment.

Image taken from the online ebook: 

The Official Railway Guide: North American Freight Service Edition

     
     The census records of Canada show the increasing size of the Gagnon family; by 1901, eight children are enumerated. The family needed larger living quarters than what could be provided by rented apartments so Pierre bought a piece of land and built a residence. As the children approached school age, Pierre and Diana desired for them to be educated in American schools. In 1905, Diana moved back to Westbrook, Maine to enroll her children in the fall term. Even though a request had been put in to change job locations, Pierre would have to wait another three years before the transfer came through. During this time, he continued to work for the Maine Central Railroad in St. Malo, and visited his family in Maine every two weeks.

Signature section from the 1935 document
     
     When Pierre returned to Westbrook in 1908, he would remain a Maine resident the rest of his life. All of his offspring including the children born in Canada would later marry and vote as American citizens by virtue of Pierre's naturalization. Two sons joined the Maine National Guard; one of them enlisted in the Army and served overseas. From the statements provided by Pierre in the naturalization document, a clear picture of his means and motivation for moving to Westbrook became clear; he lived and grew his family in St. Malo because he needed to be there for work, but he and his wife's vision were to have their children be raised and schooled in Westbrook.


Willey Brook Bridge in New Hampshire, circa 1906
Working on the railroads was certainly not a glamorous career, but an important one nonetheless; maybe even an exciting one in the sense of being part of a revolution that paved the way for fast and reliable transportation from and between the remote areas of New England and Canada.  Pierre Gagnon lived a long and fruitful life, and realized his dream of providing a better life for his family.

Postscript: Thanks to David Gagnon of Denmark, Maine for providing a copy of Pierre's naturalization papers. The Maine Central Railroad images (and the NH bridge image) are all sourced from wikipedia.org. Another post on Pierre Gagnon appeared earlier on this blog.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Art of Good Business

The following story won 2nd prize in the first annual history contest sponsored by the Westbrook Historical Society:

The mills represent a large part of Westbrook’s history, but another part comprises the legacies of local businesses making good for its citizens.  During Westbrook’s earliest days, the businesses of lumbering and blacksmith helped to make the town more inhabitable. It was a time “everything was done by hand...here by honest and hard work, a competence was acquired”.  Local made products contributed to successful businesses in Westbrook, but a connection to the community was always a necessary ingredient.

The above image, courtesy of Maine Historical Society, shows two of Westbrook's early Main Street buildings:  the Presumpscot House and the Brigham Block.  This image is from 1880 but later the The Brigham Block would house Porell's and The Men's Shop.
A story about such a connection can be told by hearing about one of Westbrook’s successful, long-term businesses of the twentieth century.  In the 1926 Directory of Westbrook, Gorham and Windham, there amongst the residential listings is the name of a clothing business that was founded only a few years before: The Men’s Shop.  The three proprietors of the business were named as Hormidas Vincent, Auguste Albert, and Emile Thuotte along with its address as 874 Main Street.

The business would later lose a partner but my grandfather, Auguste “Gus” Albert, would remain at its heart and soul until his death in 1982.  Over the years, The Men’s Shop never lost its focus on quality products and personalized customer service.  Certainly, these characteristics held true for other long-term Westbrook businesses as well, such as McLellan's Department Store, or A. H. Benoit Co., where my grandfather worked as a clerk when he was a young boy. 

The legacy of Auguste Albert’s salesmanship and personal connection to his customers was carried on through his son Roland, and later through his grandson Peter.  Of course, there were other major players in the success of The Men’s Shop, but the Alberts may have been the key contributors for turning the business into a culture.  The business acumen of Auguste and Roland were extended to the community with their involvement and leadership in the Westbrook Chamber of Commerce.    Motivated by the pride I felt for my grandfather’s business and his standing in the community, I created a family history blog in his honor called August Legacy.

In May 2010, I was fortunate to sit down with Peter Albert at his home in Westbrook as he reflected on his twenty years of experience with the business.  Three themes that emerged from that conversation could easily be themes that relate the stories of other businesses in Westbrook that proved the test of time.  Quality products, knowing your customers, and adjusting to the changing local economy stood out as factors that led the Men's Shop to serve the residents of Westbrook for seventy-five years.  In describing how the business thrived in the heyday, Peter gave a picture of Westbrook as "a close-knit town, everybody knew everyone, the shops on Main Street were busy, and people supported the downtown businesses".

Sources:  
1. Karen Sherman Ketover (ed.), Fabius M. Ray's Story of Westbrook (Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books, 1998), p. 184-185.
2. Portland Directory Company. Directory of Westbrook, Gorham and Windham (Maine). (Portland, Maine: Portland Directory Company/Fred L Tower Companies, 1926), p. 172.


Saturday, December 31, 2011

Clarifying the Albert Line

In an earlier post (Connecting Canada to France), the Albert's earliest ancestor was known to be Pierre Albert based on a genealogy book written by Gabriel Drouin. I have since discovered that information is apparently a mistake. As I trace the ancestry back from Ferdinand Albert (Auguste Albert's father), I see the line to be represented in the following graphic:

The Albert book written by Mr. Drouin did not include sources so I cannot confirm the lineage that he suggested. What I have confirmed is that Gabriel Albert did have a son named Pierre but the Drouin book references another Pierre Albert who came from Lucon area of France. I have seen no linkage of this Pierre Albert to our Ferdinand Albert. The Pierre Albert line described and highlighted in the Drouin book derived from the Kamouraska area of Canada, but we know that Ferdinand's ascendants (our correct lineage shown above) came from Normandy in France and Caraquet in Canada.  What I believe is the spot in the Drouin book where the mistake begins is shown to the right.

Source: Acadiensis, Vol VII, 1907, David Russell Jack, ed.
Gabriel Albert's first son was Pierre and they both were among the founding families of Caraquet who received land grants from the British government. The image above shows an early map of Caraquet with the Albert names among the founding families of the town. The map also shows Caraquet Island where Gabriel moved his family to after the turmoil of the Acadian expulsion in 1755. Gabriel's second son was Jean Baptiste (see green arrow below) whose descendants included Ferdinand, Auguste, myself and the other Albert recipients of this blog.


Friday, September 30, 2011

A Life of Devotion and Education

     Thanks to the documents provided by the Presentation of Mary Manchester Province Archives, we can know much more about the life of Rebecca Albert (1908-1996). As her grand nephew, I called her Aunt Rebecca but most people called her Sister Rebecca due to her chosen profession and service to the church. Her death and burial records recorded her name as "Sr. Rebecca Albert". She lived to the ripe old age of eighty-eight.  
Rebecca Albert in 1930
     Rebecca's childhood included a tragic life event - the loss of her mother to cancer. Like her siblings, she was raised by different relatives. In a recent conversation with her nephew, Roland Albert, he recalls that Rebecca lived with the family of an her aunt after the death of her mother. Upon graduating from grammar school at St. Hyacinths in Westbrook, she was sent to a girls boarding school in New Hampshire. The Diocese of Portland apparently provided financing for orphaned children to receive a Catholic education. Other Albert girls were sent to boarding schools in New Hampshire as well, including my mother, but only one went on to become a nun. In February 1933, Rebecca received her Profession of Vows and chose the religious name of "Sister Wilfrid-Marie" presumably to honor her brother-priest, Wilfrid Albert, whom she had a special affinity for. She took her final vows in the Order of the Presentation of Mary on August 15, 1938. 
St. Marie Parish in Manchester, NH
     The other lifelong passion of Rebecca's was teaching. Her teaching assignments detailed in the archive document shows she taught at nine different elementary and high schools from 1933 to 1987 which allays my concern of the numbers of schools I have taught at. Most years she taught at St. Marie High School in Manchester, NH. The subjects she taught were English, Writing and Art. She also taught writing skills to her fellow sisters in a college extension program. 
     In 1987, Rebecca retired to St. Marie Residence in Manchester, NH. She passed on March 23, 1996. Her life was devoted to God and education. Although I have not been able to confirm that she received a college degree, an obituary printed in the Portland Press Herald of March 26, 1996 reported that she obtained a bachelor of arts degree from the University of New Hampshire. In a call to the UNH Alumni office, she was not listed in the database.
Notes:  Much of the information in this post was taken from a short biography written by Sister Gabrielle Messier, and the source of the Manchester picture came from Susan Bailey's website.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Westbrook Memories

1912 Postcard of Bridge Street
What comes to mind when you think of the town that the Alberts and Gagnons decided to raise their families?  Both these families were deeply rooted in the very traditions that shaped the city to what it is today - industry and businesses. The Alberts created one of Westbrooks longest and most successful businesses, the Men's Shop, Inc., of which I intend to write a longer story about. The Gagnons worked the mills and bettered their families in the process. Westbrook can also be remembered by its buildings. Remember the Star Theatre shown here and the old classic and westerns that were shown on its stage?

...and before my time, the theater had another history:
The Star Theater was built on the corner of Main and Central Streets in 1912. It hosted stage and minstrel shows until the advent of motion pictures when a large screen was built over the stage and movies were shown. Many a Westbrook child spent his or her Saturday afternoons at the Theater. Hubert Prior Vallee, later known as Rudy Vallee, worked as an usher here before going on to star in the movies himself.
Photo and text courtesy of Westbrook Historical Society and  Mike Sanphy.

If you ever wanted to know the stories of the people of Westbrook's past, pick up a copy of "Remembering Westbrook" by Andrea Vasquez. I purchased a copy on Amazon. The book's cover is shown here.
The stories comprise many of the names that bare locations and businesses in the city today. For example, the man who founded the Dana Warp Mill, Woodbury K. Dana (1840-1924), overcame learning disabilities to finish school and also served in the Civil War. This man could have served as a mentor to my grandfather who would become a successful businessman in his own right. A picture of the Dana Warp Mill and Falls is shown below. The first school I attended in Westbrook, the Warren School, was named after Cornelia L. Warren (1857-1921). A woman born into money, she became very educated and influenced Westbrook by her philanthropy. An advocate of recreation, she even financed tennis courts for the city maybe even the ones I played on as a youth.

Dana Warp Mill
 Source: epodunk.com
Westbrook became its own town in 1814 after breaking away from the area that was called Falmouth. The name originated from an early settler, Thomas Westbrook, who was also a mill worker matching the lasting image that the mills would provide for the town over the years. In 1871, the town's size was reduced by the formation of Deering which later became part of Portland. Finally in 1891, Westbrook became incorporated as a city. 

The city seal of Westbrook above shows a ship said to be a rough sketch of the boat Colonel Westbrook used to travel to Maine. The armored boot on the top is copied from the Westbrook family crest of England.

Source of Bridge Street postcard image: Wikipedia

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"Pepere Gagnon" 1863-1961

His affectionate name was "Pepere Gagnon". His given name was Pierre or Peter. Like a number of Albert and Gagnon family members, he lived to a ripe old age. See a photo of Mr. Gagnon with one of his daughters in the May 31, 2010 post on this blog. It was my discovery of a newspaper article at the Walker Library in Westbrook this year that interested me in writing this post. The article printed in the Westbrook American (page 9) on July 1, 1953 was entitled "Peter Gagnon Honored On His 90th Birthday". There was a picture of Mr. Gagnon holding a pet but I am not showing it here because its photo clarity was so bad. The caption said "Peter Gagnon with Freidi". I am assuming Frieda was one of Aunt Jo's cats. Mr. Gagnon's birthday party in 1953 was described as an open house at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Auguste Albert, of Oceanside Drive in Kinney Shores. Other information given was he was born in Canada on June 28, 1863 and moved to Westbrook in 1878.

The town in Quebec where Pepere Gagnon was born is called L'Islet-sur-Mer, a tourist village according to a website entitled quebecvacances. They also decribe the village as having its "lands caressed by the tides". This map provided by Google shows its proximity to northern Maine. Shown to the right is an image of the Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Church in the town as it looks today. Pepere Gagnon may well have attended this church as a child.

The article goes on to say that Mr. Gagnon worked on the railroad for nearly fifty years. In a taped recording from 1990, his daughter, Bernadette, recalled that he was gone so often that he was like a guest in the house. She remembered as a child that he would bring gifts home such as tubs of butter or bars of maple syrup. In the 1926 Westbrook City Directory (pg. 127), he was listed as a foreman for the Portland Terminal Company. On Wikipedia, the Portland Terminal Company is listed as a terminal railroad and was known for its control of switching activity for the Maine Central Railroad. PTM's activities were vital to Portland's role as a winter seaport receiving Canadian products for shipments to Europe.


In doing my research for this article, I found a really cool 1930 map (above) showing all the railroad lines in New England. Mr. Gagnon worked on the Rochester, NH to Portland segment for five years according to the Westbrook American article. In a recent conversation with his grandson, Roland Albert said that he held a pretty important well-paying position for someone without an education.
Roland described the position of "track foreman" as one which led a team of about twenty men. These men worked on the section of the Maine Central Railroad between Portland and Standish. Hand cars were used by his men to maintain the integrity of the rail line.The last twenty years of his life he lived with his daughter, Josephine, at Kinney Shores in Saco. He was remembered as always being dressed formally, but my mother tells of times when he must have looked very informal: "He liked walking along the beach picking up logs of driftwood. He would then cut and prepare them for use as logs on the fire," thus the reason I posted a driftwood scene to open the piece.

Other guests who attended Mr. Gagnon's 90th birthday party included four daughters and two sons: Mrs. Ovide Harvey, Mrs. Albert, Mrs. Rocheleau, Armand Gagnon all from Westbrook, Mrs. Leon Casey from Philadelphia, and Edward Gagnon from Lewiston. Also in attendence: 35 grandchildren and 29 great grandchildren!

Source of the map: http://trainguy.dyn.dhs.org/bmrrhs/archives/system_map_c1930.gif.
Source of the hand car image: http://www.hobbylinc.com/~hobbylinc/htm/idm/idm1008202.htm.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sister Rebecca Albert (1908-1996)

Pepere’s younger sister was a devout, educated and artistic person. In 1930, she was living with Pepere on Bridge Street in Westbrook as shown on the 1930 US Census. That same year in September, an article appeared in a local paper announcing she was to enter the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary in St. Hyacinthe, Canada to continue her studies to become a nun.  She was 22 at the time. Before living with Pepere, she lived with his sister, Mrs. Emmanuel Gallant (Antoinette Albert) on King Street in Westbrook.
Did you know there was a town in Quebec called St. Hyacinthe? It is located due northwest of Montreal. Below is an image of the town and its park taken from Wikipedia.
Sister Rebecca would later be transferred to Manchester, NH to continue her vows, teach and practice her art. She painted many pictures including a few images hanging over the piano at the home of Roland and Janet Albert in Westbrook. One of these paintings is shown in the Family Treasures post on this blog. The newspaper article goes on to say that she was trained in art at Coaticook High School in Canada where she graduated in 1929 as valedictorian. Later she attended the University of New Hampshire which was a real accomplishment considering that it was uncommon at that time for women to work on advanced degrees.

If you are an older Albert, what do you remember about Sister Rebecca? I remember visiting her with my family on regular visits to New Hampshire. For an older, seemingly sedentary person, she also had an animated quality about her.  She was always asking me questions about my lessons and somehow she knew I’d become a teacher. Sometime around the age of ten, she gave me a book on Longfellow poems as a birthday present. 
Note regarding source of the newspaper article: 
The article was clipped and attached to a handwritten letter but did not include the date or the name of the paper. Since she was living in Westbrook at the time, I assumed it was a local paper - either the Westbrook American or the Portland Press Herald.