In the late 1930, as a way to put thousands of people back to work Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Authority as a part of his New Deal. One part of that was the Federal Writers Project which employed Americans to go around the country and record the oral histories of average Americans. Number 1808 was entitled "French Canadian Mill Work" as told be Philippe Lemay. From this history we get a first hand look at another time in Manchester history and learn a lot about the French Canadian immigrant history of New Hampshire. Exchange Executive Producer, Keith Shields gives a profile of French Canadian mill worker, Philippe Lemay.
You’ve probably never heard the name Philippe Lemay, after all his life wasn’t that significant. Lemay was one of tens of thousands of French Canadians immigrants who came to New Hampshire a century ago to work in its large textile mills.
But in the late 1930s, the Federal Writers Project, part of the Works Progress Administration and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal employed writers to collect histories of average Americans across the country, and number 1801 was called “French Canadian Textile worker’ as told by Philippe Lemay.
I am going to tell you as well as I can the story of the French Canadian textile worker; what brought him here; how he came, lived, worked, played and suffered until he was recognized as a patriotic, useful and respected citizen. The picture of one French Canadian textile worker and the picture of another are just as much alike as we have learned to say in English, like two peas in a pod.
“He gives us a beautiful narrative”
Robert Maceski is an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire in Manchester who specializes in immigration and labor history
“Its very difficult to find workers voices to be honest. The lower you go down the social ladder, the fewer remnants in history that people find. He’s providing really a major history not just the mills but of the FC community.”
Philippe Lemay was born in St. Ephrem, d’Upton in the province of Quebec in 1856. At the age of 8 he moved down with his family to Lowell, Massachusetts, and in 1872 he came to Manchester, New Hampshire to work at its Amoskeag Mills. By the time he arrived, there were about two thousand French Canadians living in the Queen City and that number seemed to grow every single day. Robert Perreault is a historian of New England Franco American culture
“In 72 you’ve already got a couple things that have happened. You’ve got a newspaper that was founded. They founded a parish, St. Augustine’s parish. There was a society, they St. John the Baptist society which was like a fraternal social type society with insurance. There were so many people coming in every year, it was pretty evident that this was going to be something permanent.”
Every day of the week, in summer as in winter, the working hours of mill hands were from 6 in the morning till 6 at night and that schedule was continued for many years. Nobody complain because everybody was happy and contented. It was good to have a steady job and steady pay with the assurance that you didn’t’ have to loaf until you wanted to.
Conditions were tough for the mill worker of Lemay’s time. Long hours, hot and humid rooms, the air was saturated with dust and industrial accidents were a part of work life. But French Canadians gained a reputation of being good workers who hardly ever complained and because of this, recruiters sought them out to work their mills. Once again Robert Perreault
“They were known for being industrious and docile, that was the way they were described. And so if you were a good worker, what could happen, if you were intelligent enough to hone your skills, you could eventually rise up”
And that’s what happened for Lemay, he was one of the first Franco Americans to become an overseer at Amoskeag, a decision that he says was a hard sell to the higher ups of that time.
One day I asked the super if he wouldn’t give me the chance. He was so surprised that he couldn’t speak for a long time. He was looking at me as if he had been struck by thunder and lightning. What! A Frenchman has the crust to think he could be an overseer! That was something unheard of, absolutely shocking. The next day, he came to me and still with a doubting expression spread all over his face, said he try me for 6 months. No six months for me. One month, that’s all I wanted to show what I could do.
“What Amoskeag tended to do, was they took people of certain ethnic groups and they would promote them that way, so that they could control people. In other words, if you take one of their countrymen who speaks the language and you promote that person, that person could act as a go between, the superintendent wants something. He’ll tell that smaller boss who speaks the language and so they’ll listen to their own countryman. It’s great because one of their people is a boss, so it looks as if, whoa maybe if I do a good job, I could perhaps one day be a boss as well."
In his long interview Philippe Lemay talks about the harsh conflicts between Irish and Franco Americans, the music and dancing that emanated from the homes of Franco Americans after a long hard work week and the strike of 1922 which economically devastated Manchester. Lemay retired from the mills in 1924 and by the time he was interviewed in 1938 Manchester was a very different place. Amoskeag had shut down several years before while new business, many now run by second and third generation immigrants were popping up all over Manchester. And the French Canadians were the dominant culture of the city with their own churches, societies, schools and even a string of Franco American mayors. Lemay was witness to this 65 year history that completely transformed his city of Manchester, and as he concludes his interview... he takes a step back to look with pride of the contributions that he and tens of thousands of other Franco Americans have made to the city, the state, and the country...
Yes, we surely have found our place in the sun of American liberty. To what do we owe our success? I believe we owe it to the self sacrificing French Canadian immigrants from old Quebec, to the courage that made them refuse to accept defeat and quit when that would have seemed the natural things to do; to the cheerfulness that carried us through our trials and tribulations and helps us old timers to wait happily for the final bell calling us home to rest after our long hard life in the textile mills.