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Progressive Era to New Era
Immigrants in the Progressive and New Eras
Steve Comeau, French Canadian Immigrant

Steve Comeau was a French Canadian who immigrated to Maine in 1896. The excerpt below about his immigration to the United States is from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. The oral history interview conducted in 1938. What was Comeau's life like in Canada before he immigrated? Why did he migrate? In your opinion, how accurate are his descriptions of immigrants and immigration?

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I was born in Kouchidoudouc [Canada], in 1876. That would make me sixty two years old. That was just a little settlement - maybe two hundred people lived there. My father owned a farm of about 150 acres. Most of the people there owned farms, and they run from 50 to 200 acres. Some of the folks up that way run trap lines, and some of them worked in the woods in the winter and on the drives in the spring. It was pretty much the same up there then as it was in Maine about that time. Some times people up there would go across the line to work in the Maine woods in the winter, and go back to work their farms in the spring. There was practically no business or industry of any kind in the place I was brought up in. It was just a village of farms. There was a small Catholic church there. All the folks were French Catholics.

The school I went to had only one room and one teacher. I guess they had a grade system in the bigger places about like they have here. They always called the high schools "academies." I started going to school when I was about five or six and kept it up until I was twelve years old. I never had to carry any lunch because our farm was only about fifteen minutes walk from the school. The teacher was always a girl that boarded at one of the farmhouses. A few of the pupils that lived farther out had to carry lunches. I can't remember exactly what they had, but I imagine it, was something like a couple of sandwiches made of home made bread and some fish, meat, or cottage cheese. It wouldn't always be the same, of course. They might have cake, cookies, or a doughnut to add to that. There were a lot of things they could carry such as a tomato, a piece of pie, or an apple. They carried tea or milk to drink and unless there was a fire in the stove they had to drink it cold for nobody had any vacuum bottles then.

Living conditions up there when I was a boy were a lot different than they are now. Of course I'm talking about the small villages like the one I lived in. They didn't have any telephones, bathtubs, washing machines, electric lights, radios, or a lot of things people think they have to have today. We used to have dances and parties, but nobody ever thought of a moving picture show then. I think, though, we enjoyed ourselves just as much as people do now.

The fuel was always wood and there wasn't anything automatic about it. Some people had a pump in the kitchen, but usually it was out in the yard. Instead of raising just one crop the farmers went in for general farming. They raised about what they needed and although they generally had plenty to eat, they never had much money. There were no labor saving machines on the farms up there then. Nobody sprayed apple trees, and grain was threshed on the barn floors. I don't think farmers worked any harder then than they do now. If you have tractors or machines that do the work faster, you simply go in for farming on a larger scale, so you keep busy anyway. The trouble with farmers nowadays is that they want to get a living without doing any work. If they'd work as long as people do in the factories they wouldn't be so hard up. When I was a boy on a farm in Canada I helped as much as I could with the work. Same of the farmers raised flax. The women would spin it into yarn and weave the yarn on hand looms into homespun cloth that was used in suits and overcoats. Winter stockings, winter caps, and mittens were always knit. We always kept enough sheep to provide wool.

I couldn't say much about the cost of living in Canada when I was young. About all we had to raise money for was shoes and clothing that we couldn't make, certain kinds of foods that we couldn't raise, and maybe a doctor's bill if we got sick. A lot of farmers had home remedies that were made from herbs, to use for minor ailments. We never had to get money to pay light bills, water rates, fuel bills, etc. We could generally raise or grow enough extra to pay for what we couldn't produce. The more a farmer can raise the better off he is, for he has to sell his stuff at a wholesale price, and he has to pay a retail price for what he buy. Sometimes when a couple of the young folks got married a lot of the people would get together and help build a home for them. The roads were alwas pretty bad in the spring, but they were all right at other times. In the winter people had to travel in sleighs or pungs and if the day was real cold they had to dress pretty warm to keep from freezing. Unless you had hot bricks or something like that to keep your feet warm it was like sitting with them on a cake of ice.

The French Canadians that came to Maine about the time I did, didn't come from any special section of Canada: they came from all parts of it. I guess, though, that the most of them came from Quebec. . . .

There were different reason why they left, I suppose. When a person leaves one place and goes to another, the main reason why he leaves is because he wasn't satisfied in the first place, and he thinks he can better himself by going somewhere else. I know a lot of people up there were hard up. They thought times were better in the states, and I guess they were. Some of the farmers thought they could do better farther south (in Maine) where the growing season would be a little longer. Some of the young fellows, like myself, couldn't see much future for themselves on a small village farm where there were a lot of kids growing up. Some of them wanted a change, or they wanted to see a little of the world. The ones that left were generally of the poorer classes, and they thought they could better across the line.

In early days there were no restrictions whatever on immigration; that is, there were no laws or regulations to prevent any one from coming to the states from Canada. There may have been family objections in a few cases, but they were seldom serious. The greatest obstacle was generally a lack of the necessary cash. Some of those that left were fortunate enough to have relatives here that they could stay with until they found work. I think the first immigration laws were passed soon after the Aroostook War, but for a long time they weren't strictly enforced. The laws have been changed from time to time and a head tax has been added. The laws are strictly enforced now and the quota can't be exceeded. . . .

The French Canadians who come to Maine either go to some town where they have relatives, or they start for some place where they think they can get the kind of work they can do. The towns that have large French populations are pretty well known, and they naturally attract the most immigrants. . . .

The average age of people who came over would be hard to say, but I think it would be in the early twenties . More men came over than women. The women were generally unmarried, and they usually found jobs in hotels or in private families, unless they had some special skill.
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View the entire interview from which this excerpt was taken, from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.