Madawaska ‘Down East’ with a French Accent

Gédéon Corriveau lives on the edge…on the edge of two countries, the edge of two cultures, the edge of past and future. From his century-old mill in Upper Frenchville Maine, where he runs one of the last buckwheat-grinding operations in the valley, he looks down his long treelined driveway at U. S. Route 1 as it nears the end of its 2,360-mile odyssey from Key West, Florida. Just across the road is the Saint John River and just across the river is the town of St. Hilaire in New Brunswick, Canada.

This is the upper Saint John River Valley, also known as Madawaska. This remote region, where the northernmost stretch of Maine meets the westernmost reach of New Brunswick, lies some 200 miles from either Bangor or Quebec City. It is isolated by the green womblike mountains, the whims of international boundaries, and the quirks of cultural history.

The 60,000 people who live along the hundred miles from Grand Falls, New Brunswick, to Allagash, Maine, think of themselves not so much as Canadians or Americans, but as citizens of a country in between. When I asked 19 year-old Patsy Bernier of Fort Kent Maine, which country she was from, she stated: “The valley is my country.”

Life at this border has its idiosyncrasies. A baby born to an American family living in the town of Madawaska, Maine, will most likely enter the world in Edmundston, New Brunswick – since Madawaska has no hospital – and therefore can claim dual citizenship according to both United States and Canadian law. Intermarriage between the Valley’s Canadians and Americans is so common you need a scorecard to keep track. Money games are even trickier, with exchange rates for Canadian and American dollars fluctuating with the fickleness of the weather. A person who works on one side of the border but lives on the other can make a career of filling out an income tax form. And if he is an American working in Canada, he must get up an hour earlier than his Canadian co-workers, since New Brunswick time is an hour ahead of Maine’s.

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Despite these complications, the three border crossings along the upper Saint John River – at Van Buren, Madawaska, and Fort Kent – are among the busiest along the entire length of the United States-Canada boundary. This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that the blood of family-ties runs thicker here than do the international waters of the Saint John.

And, as much as anyone’s, the story of the Corriveau family is the story of the valley.

Gédéon Corriveau, born in Upper Frenchville, is a loader for Fraser Paper Limited, where he has worked 25 of his 53 years. In the valley, if a man isn’t growing potatoes, he’s likely working for the paper industry. Between the Canadian pulp mill and the U. S. paper mill, Fraser puts something on the table of almost every family.

Gedeon’s wife, Aline, was born in St. Hilaire on the other side of the Saint John – “across.” She teaches French to second and third graders. Several generations back, both their families emigrated from France to Quebec and then made their way to the valley. They are devout Catholics and attend church regularly, where the Mass is celebrated in French.

“This’s gonna be the last year I grind buckwheat,” Gedeon told me in a singsongy patois that managed to combine Maine drawl, Canadian twang, and French twist. He wiped his lean, weatherworn face and dumped a barrelful of grain into the antique grinder. “No matter how I figure it, I will come out in the red.” His eight-year-old daughter Nicole, a blue-eyed blonde, and dark-haired Susan Thibault, one of Nicole’s 42 cousins from across, played on the steps of the mill where buckwheat sprouts peeked through the cracks.

“Buckwheat used to be a major crop in these parts. We used it for everything. The walls of my house are insulated with it. I still heat with buckwheat hulls. But at this point grinding buckwheat is more like a community service for me. Everyone in the valley who makes ployes buys their buckwheat from me.” Ployes are buckwheat pancakes, and everyone in the valley eats them.

In the kitchen Aline poured buckwheat batter on the top of the wood-burning stove. Four handsome blond Corriveau girls bustled and giggled their way around, preparing mashed potatoes, fiddleheads, brisket, and bread, singing a French song.

“We’re probably the only family in town who still use a wood stove,” Aline said apologetically, and didn’t seem to believe me when I said many of my urban friends would envy her that. Stoking the stove, she told me: “I don’t make ployes much any more, Too much time. And people are very particular about their ployes. Some say you shouldn’t flip them. Cook them one side only. Everyone has their own recipe.” Steaming hot and buttered, or layered with baked beans and molasses, then rolled up and eaten with the fingers, Aline’s ployes were impossible to resist.
Mother Tongue Once Forbidden

Over dinner the conversation was politely in English. If I had not been there, they would be speaking the local French, a combination of Canadian French and an archaic idiom traced to 17th-century France and laced with the nautical terminology of those French ancestors who originally settled and farmed a land that they called I’Acadie – Acadia…along the shores of the Bay of Fundy and its inlets. A majority of the people in the upper Saint John Valley speak this dialect as their mother tongue, but until ten years ago Maine forbade children to speak it in school. Then, in 1970, valley educators designed a bilingual education program with a grant under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and it became a model program throughout the U. S.

I got a look at the bilingual program when I accompanied Nicole to her second-grade French class at the Dr. Levesque School in Upper Frenchville. The teacher, Claudette Paradis Violette, told me before the class started, “The parents who were denied the right to speak French are delighted their children can speak bilingually now.” She knew because she was one of those parents. “Most of these children’s great-great grandfathers were Acadians. But at this age they don’t yet grasp the concept of ancestry – though it’s never too soon to try.”

She opened the lesson with some Acadian history -in French. Turning to the group of young faces, she asked, “Qui étaient cesAcadiens? Who were these Acadians?”

“Indians?” tried one youngster.

Nicole raised her hand, pushing it higher, bubbling with enthusiasm. “They were people who came from France,” she answered, ironically in English. She was right, of course. French colonists came in the 17th century to what is now coastal Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy. They brought their own dialect from the province of Poitou, south of the Loire River – along with their own customs, food, and dress, plus an independent spirit and the farmer’s stubborn streak. Alternately controlled by the French and the English, they were finally ordered to take an oath of allegiance in 1755 to George 11 of England. When they refused, Governor Charles Lawrence of Nova Scotia called all men and boys to the St. Charles Church in Grand Pré and ordered the eviction of all Acadians – “le grand dérangement.” At gunpoint they were herded onto ships and scattered from Quebec to Louisiana.

Over the years small groups made their way back to resettle along the Saint John River. In June of 1785, a band of perhaps ten families came ashore at St. David on the southern banks of the St. John River and soon had settled both sides. The names of those first settlers – Duperre, Daigle, CYR, Fournier – echo today throughout the Madawaska Region.

Local interest in Acadian history is growing as fast as fiddleheads. In 1979 Madawaska, Maine, celebrated its second annual Acadian Festival Week, simultaneously commemorating June28 – declared Acadian Day by the state of Maine in 1978 – and the 375th anniversary of the landing of the Acadians in North America.

For many residents getting their first accurate view of their own history, Roger Paradis of the University of Maine’s Fort Kent branch is the valley’s walking encyclopedia. A slight man with a thin mustache and a tired voice, this historian is the impassioned leader of a move to save bits of valley culture before they are homogenized in the 20th century American mixing bowl. He has put together one of North America’s largest collections of Acadian folklore.

One day he took me off to Edmundston to meet Alfred Morneault, who might be called a nouveau folk artist. At 77, Alfred had a robust laugh and high red cheeks. He welcomed me into his house and with great joie de vivre, though in barely understandable English, he discoursed on his powerful, primitive wood carvings.

“Come,” he said. “Look”.

In the middle of his living room, next to a life-size wooden blue heron, there reposed a replica of a white porcupine, the largest I had ever seen. On its base, scribbled in Alfred’s scratchy hand, was this less than modest description: “I am albino and maybe a unique structure in all the world.”

“I whittled maybe 6,000 toothpicks for its spines,” Alfred said. “I feel it’s my best work. I sold about 50 pieces to the National Museum of Man in Ottawa, though it was hard to separate my collection. If I count my time, materials, and mileage I could get a small fortune for the whole collection.”

“What was your inspiration to start all this?” I asked.

“Roger came to me four or five years ago and said, ‘If you don’t share what you have in your spirit, it will be lost forever.”‘

Roger said, “But I didn’t think it would come to this.”

What it had come to, was a basement full of small carved wooden figures – people, buildings, horses, logging haulers – all displayed on large sheets of plywood in exacting detail to a scale of one inch to a foot.

“These are scenes from the valley logging life – scenes from my life. Histoire vécu – my personal history. Each carved figure represents a real person-in my life.”

“You were a logger?” I asked.

He laughed. “That – and 44 other things.” He pointed to a group of figures. “Here’s the first lumber camp I worked at, back in 1920. This man turns the grindstone while this man and horse pull the logs.”
Logging a Hard Day’s Work

At today’s lumber camps you will see more giant skidders, mammoth harvesters, and merciless mechanical debranchers, than horses and grindstones. But you will still meet families operating in the old ways – like the Landrys, whose 1900 acres of woodlot sit in the saddle of a green valley township on the Canadian side.

As did his father and his father’s father, Elude Landry along with his eight sons and one daughter harvest their own wood, putting strong backs to heavy chains, hauling 50-foot logs with a hefty horse – the whole day laughing, cajoling, cavorting, taunting, and having a grand old time. They are people whose strength – of back and character -bear out the local boast that Paul Bunyan was born in the valley.

“This land is my life,” Elude shouted above the noise of the flatbed truck as we bumped along a dirt lane into the woods for a day’s work. Three Landry boys – Luc 17, Georges 21, and Claude 25 – horsed around in the back of the truck. “Some guy from Toronto offered me $24,000 for a parcel I paid practically nothing for just after World War II. But I’ll never sell. My children will always be able to work this land.”

It’s bard to imagine anyone working the land harder. A well-drilled team, they cut, split, and loaded three cords of hardwood in two hours. They sell 1,000 cords a year.

Most of the wood that comes out of the region’s rich spruce and fir concentrations is harvested by companies like Fraser, the valley’s biggest, founded by a sagacious Scot named Donald Fraser. The company started a sulfite pulp mill in Edmundston in 1918, and in 1925 opened the paper mill in Madawaska. Today Fraser Inc. is harvesting 1.8million acres of prime timberland (of which it owns more than 40 percent), and it manufactures more than 400,000 tons of fine paper a year. If you have ever read a Sears Roebuck catalog, you have touched Fraser paper.

Five-mile-long pipes pump 950 tons of pulp every day under the international bridge from Edmundston to Madawaska, a symbolic umbilical cord of international cooperation. Fraser, a Canadian company, exports pulp duty free to its American paper-producing mill, eliminating the high tariffs levied on Canadian paper imported to the United States. That pipe is the lifeline of the 2,200 valley people employed at the Edmundston and Madawaska mills and offices.

From Fraser’s administrative office in Edmundston I drove 40 miles of unpaved roads with 37-year-old Jeff Leach, a Canadian who oversees close to two million acres as woodlands manager. We were heading north to Camp 69, one of Fraser’s typical harvesting operations, driving parallel to the Madawaska River.

“It’s hard to believe now, but the Madawaska River was completely covered with wood for 14 miles-you couldn’t even see the water, eh?-until 1969 when we stopped using the river as a means of transportation and storage. We found out there was more wood underwater than above. When we cleaned the river out, we pulled 100,000 cords of wood from the bottom.”

Camp 69 was buzzing with activity when got there-literally buzzing from the deafening sounds of chain saws, tree harvestors, grapple skidders, and house-size slashers. Like an angry, gnawing, single-clawed big yellow monster, a harvester was dropping trees as though they were annoying weeds. Relentlessly closing in on one particularly formidable tree, the monster grabbed it at its base. Two sheets of heavy metal cut through the trunk. The crunching wood sounded like bones being ground. You could almost hear the tree cry out. The brute yanked the tree from its home of 80 years and turned slowly, the tree dangling from its claw until it was dropped onto a pile.

Gerald Quimper supervises the camp of 85 men who produce 58,000 cords of wood a year. It is a life of cold, cut, and splintered hands, unshaven faces, tired eyes, weary bodies. They live in long bare-metal Quonset huts or in newer, sterile five-room trailers, two men to a room. Privacy is minimal.

“Yes, it can get lonely up here for us,” Gerald admitted, relaxing by the wood stove. But the supervisor’s salary compensates for the loneliness.”
Living Between Two Worlds

“We were the forgotten territory,” said Oneil Clavet of Edmundston, who is doing everything he can to help people remember it. “I would say it has to do with the fact that Madawaskans had to live so long without knowing whether they belonged to the United States or Canada. Look here,” he said, pushing a map at me. “For 59 years this area was a bone of border contention because of vagueness in the 1783 Treaty of Versailles. Not until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 could the people of the valley claim a country. But by declaring seventy miles of the Saint John River the border, that treaty effectively made, an international community of the valley, and in many instances divided families into two nationalities.

“I prefer to call myself a citizen of La République du – Madawaska,” Oneil earnestly declared. He was referring to the original name for the territory, borrowed from the Malecite word meaning “land of the porcupines,” an apt image for the sometimes prickly valley characters. Now Oneil unfurled a flag of the republic, then pulled out a draft of the republic’s constitution.
Wait a second! Is this a real republic? In North America? Or am I cornered with the leader of an international conspiracy?

But before my mind could run wild, Oneil was quick to remind me the republic is a myth. The Republic of Madawaska has no political clout but is playing The Mouse That Roared to attract attention to itself.

To that end Edmundston played host last summer to the first annual Foire Brayonne. (A bray– a tool regional farmers used for breaking flax, has become a modern-day symbol for Madawaskans.) If there was not a Mardi Gras of the north before, there is now. The downtown streets were blocked off and jammed for a week with 70,000 people. Their high-spirited French blood ran hot as they celebrated their ancestry in cuisine, dance, dress, parades, and competitions.

The highlight of the occasion was the attempt by Jeannine Albert and Alberic Pelletier and their families and friends to make the world’s largest ploye, with bulky and uncooperative pans, poles, paddles, forklifts, and tractors. When they finally poured the batter, it oozed to eight feet in diameter and they gleefully joined hands and broke into spontaneous song and dance around the implausible ploye.

But around here even the largest pancake is humbled by the lowly potato, as this local “Potato Song” laments:


I am a farmer on the Saint John River.

I plant potatoes to pay the income tax.

The collectors have arrived and they are encamped at St. Agatha.

They’ve come to take what little money we’ve lately saved.

“Baked, mashed, or French fries?” the waitress asked, as all waitresses in the valley automatically inquire.

“No potatoes today, thanks,” I deferred, still remembering an overindulgence in oversize ployes. By the look on her face I knew I had committed the ultimate insult here in potato country.

The valley is, and has been for along time, one of the largest potato-producing regions in the United States. The American side is part of Maine’s Aroostook County, which accounts for 90 percent of the state’s harvested acreage. In potato production, Maine ranks just behind Idaho and Washington.

From the air the valley appears as a patch-work of brown corduroy overalls, held up by long green suspenders leading to the Saint John River – remnants of a centuries-old method of farming which gave every farmer access to the river water. Part of the reason potatoes grow so well here is the valley’s natural drainage system plus a good ratio of clay, sand, and organic components.

Potato farming in the valley is a gamble, akin to Russian roulette. Why the average price per barrel for U. S. No. 1 grade potatoes was $16.44 in one year and $2.08 the next, keeps brokers at the New York Mercantile Exchange perplexed – and Maine potato farmers poor.

Against such heavy odds, I wondered, why did people choose this way of life.

“We were born in the business,” was Adrian Morin’s fast reply. Across the kitchen table his wife, Riola, threw up her hands and laughed, “We were born to starve.”

Certainly they were not born to get rich. In 1977 the per capita income in Aroostook County was under $4,000. In St. Agatha, not far from the Morins, it was even less.

Adrian said: “My father worked this farm. I was born at my brother Roland’s place, up the hill, where grandpa had his farm. For a while I worked construction down in East Hartford – 20 years ago there was big money down there in Connecticut. But I didn’t like that city life. Then I built the sawmill in 1957. In 1958 it burned – lost all my money. When my father retired, my brothers and I took over the farm.

Today my sons are planting their own three acres. That’s how I started. My father gave me three acres to work. They were shining like gold. I was more proud of those three acres than of what I got today.

In 1965 there were three and a half million farmers in the nation. Now we’re less than two and a half. It gets us to wondering whether our boys should go into another business. But what can we do? Nothin’. It’s just sometbin’ we got in our blood.”

The river, like the land, is also in the blood. The valley folk sing of their River Saint John:

Blessed be our heavenly Father.

Who placed our cradle upon these shores;

May the pure waters of the river someday

caress my grave.

The Indians called it Oo-las-tuk, the Goodly River. From its source deep in the woods of northern Maine, the Saint John River flows more than 400 miles before emptying into the Bay of Fundy. At the eastern end of the river is Saint John, New Brunswick (population 90,000). Far to the west is Allagash,Maine (population 650). If the valley is a place apart, then Allagash – or Moosetown, as people downriver call the isolated town – is a place beyond that.
“Damn Dam” Threatens Scotch-Irish

The names on the mailboxes change suddenly as you approach town. Pelletier and Sirois and Daigle turn to McBreairty and Kelly and Gardner. The Scotch-Irish came here in the early 1800s, looking for a place the French hadn’t already settled. They are a clannish lot. Marriages between cousins and other relatives are not uncommon.

The woods and the river are what these people know best. Driveways and lawns are strewn with skidders and haulers on one side, canoes and outboard motors on the other. But now this whole way of life is scheduled for demolition.

Allagash, I feel, may become only a footnote in the wake of the proposed two-headed Dickey-Lincoln School hydro electric project. “That damn dam, as the dual facility is referred to in some valley circles, is the largest public-works project in New England’s history and one of the most controversial. Ever since authorized by Congress in 1965, it has pushed emotions to overflowing from Maine to Washington D.C.

Some chamber of commerce elements, looking toward a boom economy during construction, voted in favor of it. Environmentalists, on the other hand, condemned it for the potential destruction of wilderness, not to mention the rare Furbish lousewort. Still others pointed to it as a nonpolluting renewable source of an even rarer resource energy – and as a means of controlling the spring flooding that damages urban properties and potato fields.

With construction slated to begin in 1983, the fate of the project is unresolved. But if built, its impact will be tremendous. The 944 – megawatt facility will cost about $925,000,000; the larger Dickey Dam will rise 27 stories and stretch two miles across the valley just above the confluence of the Saint John and Allagash Rivers. It will flood 278 miles of rivers and streams, 76,000 acres of timberland – and part of Allagash. That last item irked Allagash teacher Bob O’Leary. “What does the dam mean to me? It means 112 families here in Allagash will be displaced. Mine will be one. I just finished building a $40,000. home along the banks of the Allagash a mile from here. It will be lost if they build the dam. And, you know those people in Washington can tell us to the penny what the dam will cost, but they still haven’t told us what they’ll pay us for our homes.”
One Family’s Most Precious Crop

If you surmise that home and family are important in the valley, you miss the point – they are everything.

I was introduced to the Minal Caron family of Fort Kent as one of the most successful potato-farming families in the valley. But according to Mrs. Caron, potatoes were not the family’s most important product. She pinched my elbow and asked, “Would you like to see our best crop?”

The living room was like a shrine to her family, its walls lined with photographs, portraits, snapshops, cameos, tintypes, degrees, trophies. One by one, I was introduced by proxy, to her brood of 12 children, 48 grandchildren, and a couple of great-grandchildren. “Some have moved to Connecticut, but we are all very close. Family reunions are very special occasions. The most special is Mother’s Day.”

Nowadays three to five children in a family, are not out of the ordinary. A generation ago, it was nine to 13. For sheer numbers, the CYR’s of St. Francois de Madawaska, New Brunswick, must take the cake. Heliodore and Marie Cyr have had 27 children. Next to family is Faith.

“Qui perd sa langue, perd sa Foi.”— “Who loses his language, loses his Faith.”

The strength of Faith in the valley, is visible everywhere. In the schools, children are allowed to leave their classes for “release time”during which they receive religious instructions, otherwise not permitted in Maine schools. In the homes, a picture of the family priest shares the wall with the children’s portraits. In the fields each fall, priests go through the valley performing Masses in potato houses where potatoes are stored before shipment.

But it’s the church itself that impresses most as you drive through any town: it is invariably the largest, most elaborate edifice, and the focal point of every village. The only traffic jams in town, are on Sundays.
A Temptation and a Proposal

Months after leaving the valley – back in my urban environment where I sometimes wonder whether all the amenities are worth the price, where it sometimes seems unnatural to be living 250 miles from my parents, where I sometimes feel anonymous in the city’s sea of humanity – I find myself valuing the virtues of these valley people more and more. I am often tempted to trade urban lick for country hick and a warming evening singing old songs with old friends.

But of all my valley memories, it is the face of eight-year-old Nicole Corriveau that keeps coming back to me, circled in gold, angelically pure. Bright eyed, naive, but learning fast, Nicole is the upper Saint John River Valley. Child of a mélange of cultures, a child of our times – the valley’s most valuable natural resources.

“If I come back in 15 years, will you marry me?” I asked her one day. She smiled coyly but did not answer, later giggling over my proposal with her cousin. It was I who was being naive. In 15 years, Nicole would change – as the valley would change. But one could hope.


The above noted is a re-print (with thanks) of article by Perry Garfinkel which appeared in the National Geographic September 1980 edition. I am grateful to Ed Daigle of Prince Albert Ontario, for having provided me a copy.