WESTPORT - "If you want to find the Franco-American community, go to the rivers of New England," said Dr. Claire Quintal. Dr. Quintal spoke at a panel discussion on June 17 on French-Canadian immigration to Westport, which was sponsored by the Westport Historical Society.
Between 1880 and 1910, many factors pushed French-Canadians south into United States. Dr. Quintal cited lack of cash, the short growing season, poor soil and too many children to share in the inheritance of a family's land. What pulled the French Canadians into the states was the ready cash provided by the textile mills, many of which were located in Fall River and New Bedford.
The June 17 panel discussion was the second in a series of meetings focusing on the role ethnic groups have played in the history of Westport. Along with Dr. Quintal, who is a retired professor of French and the founder of the French Institute at Assumption College in Worcester, the panel included Jean-Louis Clapin, president of the Franco-American Civic League; Normand Ouellette, vice president of the Franco-American Civic League; and Westporter Claude Ledoux, an immigrant from Canada.
A map showing Franco-American population centers in New England in 1900 shows that Southeastern Massachusetts had one of the largest concentrations of French immigrants in the Northeast. French-Canadians who came south into New England discovered they were only an overnight train trip from their families in the north. Immigrants found affordable housing and close knit communities, often called "Little Canadas," in the three deckers of Fall River and New Bedford. The churches they built became magnets for holding together French-Canadian customs, language and culture. Many of these immigrants and their descendants, including the families of Clapin and Ouellette, found their way into Westport.
Mr. Clapin, who moved to Westport from Fall River 46 years ago, noted that in the 1930's many French in the Flint section of Fall River discovered they could build summer shacks on South Watuppa Pond for $100. As a result, they kept moving further south into Westport.
In the 1990 U.S. Census, 13 million people claimed to have French ancestry. Surveying the list of personnel in Westport town government, Mr.Clapin identidfied 23 French surnames out of of 75 names.
The local VFW is named after a French family and one of Westport's highly regarded philanthropists is Dr. Violette, after whom a UMass Dartmouth building is named.
Mr. Clapin's family operated L'Independant, the last daily French newspaper in the United States (see related story).
Mr. Ouellette, a native of the Flint section of Fall River, has been a Westport resident since 1968. He's been involved in Boy Scout troops in Westport since 1952, the same year he became involved in the Franco-American Civic League.
"Our culture is very much alive," he said. His parish, St. George's, has held fund raisers for firefighters, police and the Westport High School Band.
Claude Ledoux's 1949 route to Westport was a long ride in the family's 1940 Ford, with 13-year old Claude following in the bed of an open truck. The caravan wound its way south from Canada through narrow back roads of New Hampshire and Vermont.
The next few days of Mr. Ledoux's life illustrate the depth of the French connection in Westport. He recalled that two days after the family's arrival, the town nurse, who happened to speak French, showed up on the Ledoux family doorstep. After checking out the six children, she gave Mrs. Ledoux a note.
The next day, Claude took a bus to school and found that the teacher in charge of the 30 students in his class also spoke French. One can only imagine the relief this must have been to an immigrant family.
Claude spent his teenage years working at the family farm near Gifford Road. Like many other immigrants, he remained in Westport. He married in 1958 and raised a family. A marine corps veteran and retired electronics engineer, he remains active in town activities.
In their own personal journeys, Mr. Clapin, Mr. Ouellette and Mr. Ledoux represent the ways the Franco-American community has contributed to civic life in Westport.
During the summer, the Westport Historical Society plans to continue its series on the roles various ethnic groups have played in Westport's history.