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
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:
Source of the hand car image:

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.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Family Visit to Maine - Part 2

With the help of MaryAnn Albert, many pictures were taken during my recent trip to Maine of the former homes of the Albert and Gagnon ancestors in Westbrook.
These two families both moved to Westbrook from Canada in the early 1900's to work in the mills. Their residences were in close proximity to the mills for obvious reasons of having easy walking assess to their jobs.

Why did our ancestors emigrate to Maine?  The best answer to this question would have come from our great grandparents of course, but we hardly remember what they look like let alone what they ever said about their lives. To get a sense why French Canadian families left their homeland, I studied a document from a website on Quebec history. There I found a paper called "French Canadian Emigration to the United States1840-1930" written by Claude BĂ©langer. He points out that many families left a traditional rural society and "entered an industrial world, alien to them by virtue of its way of life, language and religion".
What pulled people to move away from their traditional roots were the chances of more prosperity than what they currently had. Their traditional ways of life and religion were not left behind. Besides a strong work ethic, French Canadian culture of Westbrook centered around the St. Hyacinth Catholic Church and most of the children attended the Catholic school across the street until grade eight (shown above). Classes were held in French in the mornings and English in the afternoons.

According to Mr. Belanger, the population of Quebec surged in the time period from 1784 and 1844 creating a deficit of farmland. Even before the population growth, agricultural success was limited by other factors such as a short growing season and distant access to major markets. Surely working class families, like the Gagnons of St. Malo, also must have experienced the same economic downturn causing them to look to the growing industrialism in the states.
Genealogy involves research and even though it was not a priority on my trip, I did get to search for records, pictures and newspaper articles with Mary Ann at the Walker library and at the Cumberland County Courthouse land records office. Here she is locating a map in the Plats room of a Pine Point property that Auguste and Bernadette Albert transferred to Jeanne and Ray Lebel in 1959. Auguste Albert had so many properties bought and sold over the years that we grew tired from writing a list of the transactions.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Family Visit to Maine - Part 1

This year I visited Maine in May which is a sweet time to go there - a little rain, a lot of sun and no muggy hot days!  Besides spending time with family, I accomplished four 'family history' related tasks: hosting a picture party, interviewing two family members, taking pictures of ancestor's former residences and researching land records at the county courthouse.In this post, I will cover the first two accomplishments.

The picture party in which some of the Albert cousins were waiting to share family pictures -older than the 1980's- was a great success. They brought the family pictures to the home of Paul Albert in Westbrook, and here is where we hugged and laughed and reminisced about the fun times we all used to have together. Usually these experiences had a beach theme since our grandfather used to own two properties near Old Orchard Beach. If you go back farther to my mother's youth, many stories and memories center around properties my grandfather owned at another water location - Crescent Lake near Casco.The picture above is my mother Pauline as a young child sitting in front of the lake cottage.

The summers really stand out as special times for all the Alberts. Above is a comparison of the Pine Point cottage from yesteryear and the way it looks today. We are talking several renovations here.

Besides his family, there was nothing more important to my grandfather than his business, The Men's Shop.  He started the store in 1923 with two other men (named in the caption below) and it lasted for nearly seventy-five years. This is a story I wanted to tell in more detail so I decided to do some research and interview his son, Roland, and his grandson, Peter, who both chose to carry on the business and together served some sixty years at its helm.
End note: Thanks to Claudia, Nancy and Pauline for providing numerous pictures for scanning and sharing with everyone.I highly recommend a picture party event for other historians and genealogists to try with their families.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Picture Party in Westbrook - an Albert Family Gathering

On May 8, 2010, more than a third of the Albert cousins gathered at the home of Paul Albert in Westbrook, Maine to celebrate family history and mingle in a comfortable setting with great refeshments provided by Janet Albert and the Bernie's girls.  The cousins were well-represented from all families. Albert elders, Roland and Jeanne, were there to represent the oldest generation and Charles Albert (great grandson of Auguste Albert) was there to represent a younger generation. The picture below shows most everyone in attendance.
Front row: Becky Albert, Nancy Albert, Janet Albert, Claudia Gallant, Jeanne Lebel, Roland Albert.
Back row: Diane Bell, Peter Albert, Paul Albert, Paul Lebel, Susan Lebel Young, Craig Siulinski, MaryAnn Albert. Jim Siulinski is taking the photo.

Besides the obvious benefit of keeping in touch with family, an event like this one underscores the point that family history is not just about telling about the ones who lived before us. Family history is also about sharing stories and spending time with any and all family members regardless of age. What better way to generate stories than to take out old family pictures. Many of the pictures shared at the party were not dated or notated with details. Even without any picture details, we can tell that this formal picture of Ferdinand Albert, August Albert's father, is surely the oldest photo shown at the party. Upon further study, I will provide information regarding dress and culture of the time period in which Ferdinand lived. He came to maturity in the mid 1880's.

Of all  the pictures collected, I am particularly fascinated in images of Auguste Albert's generation and before. Nancy Albert offered this image of another fifth generation family member: Pierre Gagnon, the father of  Bernadette Gagnon Albert, shown here with Bernadette's sister, Josephine Gagnon Rocheleau. The picture was taken at a 1960 wedding at St. Hyacinth's Church in Westbrook, Maine.

Other photos scanned at the party were of Pine Point in the 1950's and Florida folks during winter visits. The experience of having family members gather to share and scan old pictures has spurred me on to create more blog posts to highlight certain pictures collected during the trip this month. By doing so, an opportunity will be provided for any family to offer feedback on the pictures by adding a comment at the end of the post or by sending an email directly to me. I look forward to sharing these photos with you all. Finally, a fun way to close my post is to show Diane's brush with fame:

Friday, April 23, 2010

Connecting Canada to France

If you want to know where in France the Alberts came from, then this is the post for you.
The Albert Family Book is a genealogy on Wilfrid Albert, but it also contains information on the area of France where the first Alberts came from. The book was written by Gabriel Drouin and delivered to Wilfrid Albert in March 1948. Gabriel Drouin was the son of Joseph Drouin, who founded the Drouin Genealogical Insitute (Institut genealogique Drouin) in 1899. The institute was for a while the most important company performing genealogical researches in Quebec.
The book is now in the possession of Roland Albert and safely kept at his home in Westbrook, Maine. I took digital images of all the pages last summer. Then I traveled to Lincoln, Maine to the home of my friend, Margo Kelly, who kindly translated the book orally. Margo is a French teacher at Lee Academy. Many thanks go to Margo for taking the time to translate this material during her vacation.

The genealogy of Wilfrid Albert is represented in the hand-written marriage records of the Albert ancestors. The above record shows the marriage of Ferdinand Albert and Georgiana Hebert, the parents of Auguste and Wilfrid Albert. Each marriage record in the book also shows the names of the bridegroom's parents and the bride's parents.
As you can see from page 29 of the book (shown below), the genealogy has been traced back to Pierre Albert with his marriage to Louise Grondin in 1702.  If you notice, the name Lucon has been underlined by Mr. Drouin because it represents the dioceses in France where Pierre comes from.

Upon a google search, I found numerous genealogical references to Pierre Albert including one that calls him the founder of the Albert family in New France. The Roy and Boucher Genealogy site gives his birth year as 1672 and his birth place as Poitou, an area in western France. Lucon is the parish and Poitou is the region. In my few years of genealogy research, this ancester is one of the earliest I have found - Pierre was born 132 years before Napolean became Emperor of France!
A map from the Albert book is shown above pointing out the exact location of Poitou in France. The family tree mentioned above tells about an even earlier ancestor, Rene Albert, born in the same town as Pierre in the year 1650.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Gagnons of Saint Malo

The parents of Bernadette (Gagnon) Albert, Pierre and Diana Gagnon, brought many children into the world. In the 1910 United States Census in Westbrook, Maine, we see the whole gang. Families this size were very common for French Canadians.
Of course, they would never know that having this many children would provide a gold mine for a genealogist interested in tracking family history.
So far, I have located four birth records from the group including Bernadette’s (shown below). Hope you know French…but to help out, Jane Lindsey from the California Genealogical Society provides a loose translation below the image.
30 march 1902  We the undersigned priest of this parish have baptized Bernadette Alexandra born the twenty seventh of this month, legitimate daughter of Pierre Gagnon, day laborer and of Diana St Pierre of this parish.The god father is Wilfred Lemieux? and god mother Delia Gagnon also of this parish of Saint-Venant-de-Hereford and the father has declared he knows the signer. -L E Gendron  Priest
Peter and Diana Gagnon were both born in Canada in the 1860’s. Can you imagine being around at the time of the American Civil War? Of course, the Gagnons did not move to the states until the 1900’s. Their last record in the Canadian Census was in 1901.
While the Gagnon’s hail from Saint Malo, Quebec, the more famous Saint Malo is the one in France. It is a walled port city on the gulf of Saint-Malo, an inlet of the English Channel. A couple of interesting facts from this area of France:  the founder of Canada, Jacques Cartier, was born in Saint Malo, and Saint Malo was a base for French pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries.
One of the neat things about writing a blog is choosing pictures to attach to text. In my writing, I like to relate time and place and try to connect the family context to the context of the larger society (family history to general history). One of the most fascinating achievements of Gothic architecture in Europe is located on the Gulf of Saint Malo - the Benedictine Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel - founded in 708.
The location of Saint Malo in Canada is one of the eastern townships of Quebec province. The website called Eastern Townships describes local residents living in an “environment of forests, farms, and waterways that supply their livelihood”.  At 2100 feet it is the highest municipality in Quebec. The parish of Saint Malo was established in 1863, the same year that Pierre Gagnon was born, and incorporated as a municipality in 1910.
Here is a map of this town’s location and its proximity to New Hampshire. If you are interested in visiting Saint Malo, they have a harvest festival every August.
Sources for some text and pictures in this blog entry:,,
The birth and census records come from

Monday, March 8, 2010

Introducing the Ancestors - Ferdinand Albert (1864-1929)

Ferdinand Albert was the father of August ("Gus") Albert. He was born in Caraquet, New Brunswick (more information on Caraquet) and made his way to Westbrook to work in the mills like so many of our ancestors. In 1900, he was thirty-five living on Winslow Lane, and listed as a silk weaver on the federal census record.  He worked at the Haskell Silk Mill, one of the foremost silk manufacturers in New England.
The Falls located next to the Haskell Silk Mill
"The business began in a wooden building on the west side of Bridge St., very near the falls as this photograph shows.  The Haskell Silk Mill was the only silk mill in Maine and one of the oldest in New England. This was one of the industries that carried the name of Westbrook throughout the entire country and attracted an industrious population to the town." Quoted text and photo courtesy of Westbrook Historical Society.
    Ferdinand emigrated from Canada in 1887 and married a Hebert in 1895. On the Albert gravestone, she is listed as "Georgienne H".
In a taped interview in 1990, Memere reported that Georgienne died of breast cancer at the age of 42 when Pepere was just 11 years old. Many years later, Mr. Albert suffered a stroke. Memere and Pepere became his caretakers. They were living on a second floor apartment on Cole Street in Westbrook at the time. It had four little rooms and was located across the street from St. Hyacinth Church. As the family got larger, Memere and Pepere decided they needed more living space so they bought a lot nearby to have a house built. In December 1927, they moved into the new house on Bridge Street, and had a bathroom installed on the bottom level to accommodate Mr. Albert.                                                                                                               
  Soon after the move to their new residence, Memere and Pepere made arrangements for Mr. Albert to live at  the Marcotte Home in Lewiston, Maine, because it got to be too much to take care of him with four young children - Pauline, their last child, was born in September 1928. Mr. Albert enjoyed going to chapel and chatting with the other residents. He died a few months later of a heart attack having resided at Marcotte for six months. I am hoping some other pictures of Mr. Albert will eventually surface. 
Pictured above: The Albert family headstone at St Hyacinth Cemetary in Westbrook, Maine.