Minnie's Diary #7: Happy Birthday & Carnaval
Monday, 8 February - Come home today. Went to Hville. My birthday. 20 yrs. Had a present from Em.
-- Minnie Gamache Diary, 1904
Bonne fête à toi
Bonne fête à toi
Bonne fête à Minnie
Bonne fête à toi!
“Merci! Thank you,” said Minnie, as Mrs. Menard placed a small birthday cake before her at breakfast. Minnie and her mother had slept in the cook’s quarters at the lumber camp with the Menard family. After breakfast, they rode back home with Deleon Menard, who needed to go to Hermansville to pick up food and camp supplies.
Minnie asked Mr. Menard to take her to Hermansville, so she could visit the library and stop by the Lavigne home.
“What’s happened with Emily?” Mamie Lavigne asked.
“She is trying to do her job, just as she always has,” Minnie said. “I don’t know who is trying to sabotage her.”
“Unimaginable. She is such a good teacher, especially with the little ones. Let me know if I can do anything to help her.”
When Minnie returned home that afternoon, she found a package on the kitchen table. Emily had stopped by with a gift of a book: Lady Rose’s Daughter by Mrs. Humphrey Ward, the number one book in America in 1903.
“This should keep me occupied for a while,” Minnie thought, paging through the book’s first pages, where she met the clever and mysterious protagonist, Mademoiselle Le Breton, who worked as a personal assistant to the aging Lady Henry in London.
Tuesday, 9 February - Mother sick. Cold. Sewing quilt blocks.
Aurora Gamache stayed in bed most of the day with a cough and chills. Minnie made sure her mother had hot tea with honey and Dr. Shoop’s cough medicine. She stayed close by in case her mother needed her, since she saw no reason to go out. By evening, Aurora started to feel a little better.
Sault Ste Marie Evening News, Sault Ste Marie, Mich., February 9, 1904
Wednesday, 10 February - Nice dance at Hville. Did not go. Not so cold. Went to Mrs. Alore. Not at home. Stayed to Mrs. Paquin.
“Minnie, I’m happy to see you,” said Mrs. Paquin. “Could you help me? I need to make boeuf a la mode for the dance on Saturday and also six fruit pies.”
“Of course. Mother is still not feeling well, so she sent me to Mrs. Alore’s to help prepare food for the dance. But Mrs. Alore wasn’t home.”
“That Jessie,” Mrs. Paquin said. “Sometimes she doesn’t know which way is right and which way is left. I think she’s out cutting brush and gathering pine cones for the decorations on Saturday night.”
During the weekend, Mr. Paquin had butchered one of last year’s young steers. Preparations for Saturday's dance, sponsored by the Ordre des Forestiers Franco-Américain, involved everyone in the community. Members of the Foresters paid monthly dues of 50 cents and helped raised money with events like Saturday’s Carnaval celebration. If a member were injured or hospitalized, the Order would pay them a dollar a day in benefits until they recovered.
Minnie helped Mrs. Paquin chop onions and cut the beef into small pieces. They sautéed the onions in salt pork fat in a large pot until it turned golden. To that mixture they added beef cut into small pieces, along with salt and pepper. Then they added red wine and let it simmer for four hours, until the beef had become soft and tender.
“We can let this cool and keep it on the porch until Saturday,” Mrs. Paquin said. “I can thaw it on the stove on Saturday morning. It’s always better after the flavors have a chance to mingle for a few days.”
As the beef simmered, the women turned to making pies. Minnie peeled, cored and sliced apples from the root cellar while Mrs. Paquin made the pie crust. Minnie added sugar and cinnamon to the apples, and put them into the crust. They dotted the apple filling with bits of butter before adding the top crust and putting the pies into the oven.
By then, the youngest Paquin children had come home from school.
“May I help?” said 8-year-old Jennie.
“Moi! Moi! Je veux aider,” said 6-year-old Laura. “I want to help!”
“Of course you can,” Minnie said, giving each of the girls some leftover pie crust and showing them how to roll out the dough. When the girls had made little rectangles, Minnie brushed melted butter on top and showed them how to sprinkle cinnamon and brown sugar and roll the dough in to a log. Minnie helped them cut the dough into little spirals and bake them until the brown sugar carmelized.
“Do you know what we call these?” Minnie asked.
“What?” asked Laura.
“Pets de sœurs,” said Minnie.
“Pets de sœurs? Nun’s farts?!”
“Because nun’s farts can only be deliciously sweet,” explained Minnie.
Jennie and Laura couldn’t stop giggling as they enjoyed their treats.
Minnie and Mrs. Paquin used canned blueberries and cherries from last summer to make more pies. By the end of the day, Minnie didn't even consider going to the Wednesday night dance in Hermansville. She slept at the Paquin house, enjoying time with the girls and waking early to help Mrs. Paquin get them off to school,
Thursday, 11 February - Wrote to Eva Riopelle. Mother over to Mrs. Paquin’s.
In her letter to Eva, Minnie shared her prayers and concerns for the people of Champion, where the iron mine was still idle. She also told her old schoolteacher of Emily’s troubles with the school board.
“I’m worried that she’ll leave Hermansville when school is over. I wouldn’t blame her, but I would miss her so much.”
Aurora Gamache felt much better by Thursday afternoon. When she arrived at the Paquins’, Minnie and Mrs. Paquin were cutting up beef fat to make tallow. It took many hours of cooking on a slow fire to separate the tallow from rest of the fat. After it cooled a bit, they poured it into wooden forms to make cakes that could be stored away. The women also poured tallow into jars to make candles.
Friday, 12 February - Went to Hville. Mrs. P., Mrs. C., Ma and I. Em over. Ride up with me. Slept. Went over at Maud’s. Played cards, had fun.
On Friday, the women decorated the hall for Saturday’s Carnaval dinner and dance. They framed the doorways and windows with pine and cedar brush. They spruced up the drab walls with snowshoes, greenery and blue, green, red and gold ribbons. Minnie created centerpieces with pine cones, fresh pine needles and candles.
“It’s nice to have the electricity here in town, but candles will make the night more special,” Mrs. Paquin said, admiring their work.
That night, Maud Raiche invited Minnie and Emily over to play cards. Ed, Fred and Del Paquin stopped by on their way home from Camp 20.
“You want to build what?” Minnie asked.
“An ice fort,” said Del.
“Haven’t you heard about the winter Carnaval in Quebec?” asked Ed. “It's a grand party. They have tobogganing, snowshoeing, skating, curling and even a canoe race in the St. Lawrence river.”
“And ice statues all over the city,” Del said. “We should build an ice fort in Hermansville. Wouldn’t that be perfect for the Carnaval tomorrow night?”
“I don't know about an ice fort, but I want to go to the Carnaval ball at Le Chateau Frontenac in Quebec,” said Maud.
“Well, it’s no Chateau Frontenac, but the town hall will have to do tomorrow,” said Ed.
“Winter in Quebec... The streets of the city are filled with sleighs, many of quaint French design, which go dashing up and down filled with merry, fur clad people. The young people, both men and women, form snowshoeing parties and tramp for miles over the snow covered hills. They skate in big rinks, which are ablaze with electricity, and glide on toboggans over the well kept slides of Dufferin terrace. Snow forts and ice palaces are met at every turn, the lower as well as the upper town. To many, however, these are the least attractive features of the carnival period in northern Canada. More delightful are the rosy checked, dark eyed French-Canadian girls, clad in warm furs or gay blanket suits; the gorgeous, rollicking snowshoers and their merry French songs and the social festivities, all of which are unchangeable.”
-- Lead Daily Call (Lead, South Dakota) · 12 Apr 1902
Saturday, 13 February - Em scrubbed floor with me. Went to dance with Del, Em with John. Didn’t miss a dance.
Minnie helped Emily scrub the schoolroom floor on Saturday morning, then they washed the Gamache kitchen floor, before getting ready for the dance.
At the town hall, the decorations combined with the smell of hearty food brought a festive winter atmosphere. Minnie ladled Mrs. Paquin’s boeuf a la mode onto mashed potatoes and rutabagas, with a side of baked beans and some French bread. Everyone ate and drank with abandon, knowing that the long Lenten fast lurked just around the corner.
Tickets for the dance were 75 cents per couple, with a cash bar offering wine, beer, whiskey and brandy. More than 200 people crowded into the hall.
Emily, on her first date with John St. Onge, looked happy but guarded. Reluctant to laugh too loud or appear to be having too much fun, she carefully navigated the party, lest she receive another letter from the school board complaining about her "behavior."
The band started things off with the Grand March, led by the Foresters' Chief Ranger, Vice Chief Ranger and other officers. They played polkas, waltzes, square dances and French folk songs late into the night. Minnie danced with Del, and also with many other young men who asked for a turn on the dance floor.
“Chicken in the Bread Pan!” shouted someone from the floor, and away they went.
And on went the evening. The band played several encores before the crowd allowed them to pack up and head home.
Sunday, 14 February - Em over. John & Chas. Del over at night. Played cards. Del went home 10:00 pm. Em slept.
On Sunday, Minnie played euchre all afternoon with Emily, John and Charlie Arsenault, her cousin from Champion. Del arrived after supper to call on Minnie, and they relived the dance the night before, enjoying leftover food the Gamaches brought home from the party.
“I still think we should have built an ice fort,” Del said.
“Not an ice fort, an ice palace,” said Minnie. “Then we could dress in furs from head to toe and reign as the king and queen of the palace.”
“Perfect! That’s just what we’ll do next year,” Del said. His kiss lingered on Minnie's cheek long after he'd gone home.
Notes & Further Reading
Disclaimer: While the diary entries above are real, the stories I've created to illustrate Minnie's life are fictional. The stories are based on my research into the history of the time and the characters, but are largely the product of my imagination. I welcome your corrections and alternate interpretations.
-- Jodi Perras, Minnie's Great-Granddaughter
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Bon anniversaire! Happy birthday to my great-grandmother, Minnie Gamache Perras! Earlier this week, my cousins and I celebrated the 137th anniversary of Minnie's birth. We all feel like we have come to know her through her diary.
Characters: Mrs. Jessie Alore is a new character in the diary this week, and she gets only a brief mention when Minnie goes to her house and finds she’s not home. Louis and Jessie Alore had many children. In 1904, those likely at home included Eugene, 18; Adolph, 16; Mary Elsie, 13; Elvina, 11; Louis, 9; Alexander, 8; Jeremiah, 5; Olivia, 4; and Exilda, 2. Their son Joseph Alore married Marian DesJardins in Hermansville in 1902. Salamay, 22, and Aurora, 19, may have already left home, but I haven’t had a chance to look up their records.
Minnie mentions “John” for the first time this week. Several 20-something single men named John lived in Hermansville at that time, and Minnie doesn’t give any other clues about Emily’s date for the dance. The candidates included John St. Onge, a department store clerk; John Massie Jr., a laborer and former miner whose family lived in Champion in 1900; John Bonneau, a laborer; and possibly John Radford, a bookkeeper and nephew of Edwin P. Radford, general superintendent of the Wisconsin Land & Lumber Co. Since Emily taught school, she might have met John Radford through his cousin, Frances, also a teacher. However, the Radfords were prominent citizens as well as members of the Methodist Church. You just didn't date outside your religion in those days. Since Minnie mentions a "Jack" in a later diary entry, I've decided John Massie Jr. was "Jack" and John St. Onge was "John."
Notes: Since I haven’t been able to do any in-person research during the pandemic, I don’t know who hosted the two dances in Hermansville this week, or who played the music. I've envisioned a Quebecois band playing traditional folk music, likely including violin, accordion and perhaps a hurdy-gurdy. I don’t know for certain if Hermansville had an Order of Foresters, but in the 1890s the Foresters were one of North America's leading fraternal benefit societies. St. Bruno's Church in nearby Nadeau had a Foresters branch at one time.
Canadien Music: If you’re interested in traditional Quebecois music, I highly recommend the award-winning, Quebecois group Le Vent du Nord (the North Wind). If you ever have a chance to see them in person, don’t miss it. Their combination of violin, accordion, hurdy-gurdy and guitar creates an amazing energy on stage. Le Vent du Nord appeared on National Public Radio in 2008 to talk about Dans Les Airs, their album of 400-year-old traditional French Canadian music. You can listen to them below and at this link, along with the NPR story. The songs from their 2007 album are mislabeled at the NPR link. The first song is Rosette, the second is Le Vieux Cheval (The Old Horse) and the third is La Fille Et Le Dragons (The Girl And The Dragons).
Lent: Lent began with Ash Wednesday on Feb. 17, 1904. I’ve noticed that Minnie’s diary mentions no dances or parties during the Lenten period. The French Canadian families are about to enter a lengthy period of prayer, fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter. I’ll write more about Lent in next week’s blog. If you want to brush up on the rules for Lent in the early 1900s, here’s an overview.
Carnaval: Quebec City hosted its first Winter Carnaval in 1894, featuring an ice fort, fireworks, dances, a parade and other events. They celebrated sporadically for several years, and then took a hiatus during the two world wars and Great Depression. Organizers revived the festival in 1955 and it now draws thousands of people to Quebec each winter (outside of pandemic times).
In that first year, organizers staged a mock attack on the ice fort, featuring snowshoers armed with Roman candle-type fireworks. They lit the night sky with fireworks while an “Army” on scaffolding defended the fort. It must have been quite a spectacle. Beyond the pyrotechnics, an annual canoe race across the St. Lawrence River features death-defying paddlers dodging chunks of ice. Here’s a photo of the ice canoe race in 1894.
Here's a partial 1902 account of Carnival Week in Quebec from a South Dakota newspaper in 1902:
Here's a 1902 account of the Quebec Carnaval sports competitions from the Montreal Gazette: