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Minnie's Diary #1: Welcoming in 1904

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

Note: The Leaves of Menominee blog this year will recount the life of Marie Amelié "Minnie" Gamache in 1904, based on her diary entries. The entries come from a small daybook published by Laird & Lee. Minnie was 19 years old and living with her parents, Peter and Aurora Gamache, on a farm near Hermansville, Michigan. The quotes below are directly from her diary. To these I have added my own interpretation and narrative, based on historical and genealogical research.

Wed 27 Dec - Ernest over in afternoon. Fred & Del at night. had fun
Thu 31 Dec - Ernest didn’t come.

- Diary of Marie Amelié "Minnie" Gamache, December 1903

New Year’s Eve. It’s frightfully cold on a clear December night on the farm north of Hermansville, and Minnie doesn’t like to be left waiting. Tonight, Ernest didn’t keep his promise to join the Gamache family as they celebrated the New Year of 1904.

“I will have words with you tomorrow, Ernest,” Minnie thought.

When the Gamaches arrived here the late 1890s, stumps from what was once a thick pine-and-hemlock forest covered the rocky ground. Peter and the boys worked hard to clear enough land to pasture their livestock and plant potatoes, grain and vegetables. Their farm sits just over the hill, about three miles north of Hermansville. The Gamache’s neighbors are mostly French-speaking immigrants from Quebec.

Based on a 1912 plat book of Menominee County. In 1912, Peter Gamache owned 120 acres, highlighted in orange.

Welcome to Minnie’s world — a French-speaking Canadien pioneer community in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Dancing in the New Year

Fri 1 Jan - Give Ernest the bounce[?], went with H. Caron, dance to Chenard
Sat 2 Jan - Went with H. Caron to dance at Mr. Raiche

- Diary of Marie Amelié "Minnie" Gamache, January 1904

The year begins with a cold and crisp morning, a clear sky studded with stars giving way to a bright morning sun glistening on the snow. Minnie rises before dawn. She brushes her long, dark hair and pulls on a floor-length, black skirt and long-sleeved shirt, which she then covers with an apron. Minnie’s brothers help Pa milk the cows, feed the heifers and clean the barn, while Aurora bakes buttery rolls and heats up sausage and fèves au lard (baked beans) for breakfast. Minnie fetches milk from the milkhouse. Later, she’ll churn the cream into butter.

“Ma mère, I'm so upset that Ernest didn’t come last night as he promised. Je suis fatigué. I am tired of being treated like this.”

“But Minnie, Ernest is such a nice young man. Perhaps he had a good reason that he couldn’t be here.”

“Ernest never has a good reason, Ma. He just decides to do something else. I’m done with him.”

“Let me tell you, Minnie. You are not a young girl anymore. You need to find a man to marry soon, eh?”

“Oh, ma!”

After breakfast, John Henry Caron stops by the farm on his way to Hermansville. "Henry" is Minnie's age. They grew up together in Champion, Michigan, before both families moved to Hermansville. He wishes the family a Bonne Année and invites Minnie to George Chenard’s New Year’s party that night. For many years, the French have celebrated New Year’s Day with rich food, wine, and parties that last late into the night. With New Year’s Eve falling on a Thursday, the parties are stretching into the weekend this year. The whole neighborhood is invited to Chenard’s.

Minnie smiles and thinks to herself, won’t Ernest be annoyed to see me with Henry?

Oui, Henry, I would be delighted.”

That afternoon, Aurora Gamache puts a frozen tourtiere (pork pie) in the oven to take to the Chenard home. The smell of cinnamon-and-nutmeg-spiced ground pork enclosed in a flaky crust fills the Gamache farmhouse. As the sun begins to set and the twilight cold sets in, Peter and Edmund harness the Percheron horses to a sleigh and the family rides to the nearby Chenard farm. The house is already full of guests. At the door, George and Delia Chenard greet each neighbor with “Bonne année!” followed by a kiss on each cheek.

Joy and laughter fills the Chenard farmhouse. So much food. So many people to see. The food is hearty and delicious: tourtiere, ham, turkey with chestnuts, potatoes, baked beans, pickles and cheese, followed by many cookies and desserts, including a bûche de Noël — the chocolate Yule log. When the feasting subsides, the guests help put away the tables and move the chairs to the side. Soon, the piano and violin come out and the dancing begins.

Minnie and Henry and other couples dance together in the living room while others watch and tap their feet. Small children swing each other around the room, trying to keep up with the adults. Minnie sees Ernest watching from the sidelines with a scowl on his face. He leaves after the third song when Minnie makes it clear she’s not dancing with him tonight.

A Father-Daughter Dance

Soon, the musicians announce it’s time for a father-daughter dance. Peter catches Minnie’s eye, takes her by the hand and they begin dancing to La Bénédiction d’un Père (A Father’s Blessing). A popular call-and-response folk song, it tells the story of a daughter going home to visit her family.

Savez-vous c'qu'une fill’ doit faire, le premier jour de l'an?

Ell’ doit aller voir son pèr', et aller voir tous ses parents, ‘surément.

Oui, je l'aurai dans la mémoir’ longtemps.

Oui, je l'aurai dans la mémoir’ longtemps.

Do you know what a girl must do on New Year’s Day?

She must go to see her father and her whole family, sure enough.

Yes, I’ll keep this memory for a long, long time.

Yes, I’ll keep this memory for a long, long time.

It's a long-standing tradition for Canadien fathers to bless their children on New Year's Day. In the song, the young woman arrives home and asks her mother, “my dear Papa, is he away?” No, he’s nearby. Papa emerges from the barn and trots toward the house through the snow, gesturing with his mitten. He gives his daughter a New Year’s blessing:

"Je te souhaite la richess’ et un p’tit mari avant c’printemps".

Ça c’est c’que les fill’s demandent quand ça vient le Jour de l’an, ‘surément.

Oui, je l'aurai dans la mémoir’ longtemps.

Oui, je l'aurai dans la mémoir’ longtemps.

“I wish you wealth and a good husband before next Spring.”

That’s what girls all ask for when New Year’s Day arrives, sure enough.

Yes, I’ll keep this memory for a long, long time.

Yes, I’ll keep this memory for a long, long time.

As the song finishes, Peter and Minnie bow to each other and smile.

“I’ll take the wealth, Papa. The good husband, I haven’t been able to find yet,” Minnie says with a wink.

The dancing continues into the night. Later, on the Gamaches' front doorstep, Henry kisses Minnie once on each cheek and bids her a good night. Saturday night, they will celebrate the New Year again, with more food, drink and dancing at the home of Frank and Christine Raiche. The hard work of rural life in Upper Michigan will wait for a few days. Now, it's time to laugh, dance and celebrate with friends and family.

Happy New Year and Bonne Année to all!



French Canadian New Year Traditions

Historian Patrick Lacroix has unearthed an 1888 issue of the Magazine of American History, in which Prosper Bender describes French Canadian holiday traditions. Of the New Year holiday, Bender writes:

"The most notable holiday of the year is New Year’s day (le Jour de l’An), rendered specially attractive by tradition and the recollection of ancient customs, many of which are intertwined with religious and domestic observances. Free rein is given to the spirits of the people as the last night of the old year wears on, its successor being as joyously hailed as though it were the advent of a valued friend. Then comes one of the most characteristic and notable features of Canadian life. Those polite and cordial visits, beginning early in the morning of the first, and lasting some days of the new year. In the olden times, it was quite a picturesque sight to see, on a New Year’s morning, some of the citizens of Quebec paying their calls carrying their hats under their arms, indifferent to a temperature of 20° below zero, with the queues of their wigs blown to and fro by the wintry winds."

Historical Context from Minnie's Diary

To provide some context for the times, here are some pages reproduced from the daybook. About the size of an iPhone, the daybook is similar to any pocket calendar a woman might carry today in her purse.

The front pages include various references and statistics, including some data on "Woman's Chances of Marrying," apparently designed to encourage young women to marry before it's too late.

"Out of every 100 girls aged 15 to 20, 13 marry.
"Out of every 100 girls 20 to 25, 36 marry.
"Out of every 100 girls 25 to 30, 22 marry.
"Out of every 100 maidens aged 30 to 35, 12 marry...."

The "odds" get worse from there.

The daybook also predicts a girl's character based on the month she was born. Minnie, born on Feb. 8, is destined to be "an affectionate wife and tender mother." A woman born in July, such as this writer, will be "passably handsome, but with a sulky temper." Well, then.

You'll also find "Help in Case of Accidents." In case of lightning strike, you're advised to "dash cold water over a person struck." For drowning, there's an 8-step process of artificial respiration that includes the admonition, "DON'T GIVE UP! People have been saved after HOURS of patient, vigorous effort." For accidental poisoning from Arsenic, Rat Poison or Paris Green, you should "give milk, raw eggs, sweet oil, flour and water in large doses." Chemists created "Paris Green" in the 1800s as a new green tint for paint, but found it too dangerous. The emerald green powder included more than 50 percent arsenic acid combined with lime and copper oxide. Farmers discovered it could be a very effective insecticide and rodenticide. It was highly toxic; just one-eighth of a teaspoon could kill a person.

The "Civilized World" in 1904

Another page in the daybook contains a list of countries in the "Civilized World" and their rulers. Teddy Roosevelt was president of the United States. It's striking to see how much of Europe, Asia and the Middle East was still ruled by kings, sultans, emperors and other monarchs. King Edward VII was on the throne over the British Empire, which then included Australia, Canada and India. Canada had become a British "dominium" in 1867, but didn't achieve full independent nation status equal to England until 1931. Countries in South America and Central America, though ostensibly ruled by elected "presidents," were in a post-colonial period in 1904. Many governments there were oligarchies or dictatorships that sought to maintain the traditional colonial ruling classes and corporate powers. British corporations dominated much of the Americas, extracting timber, metals and other raw materials.

For Your Further Enjoyment

A rural painter, Edmond-Joseph Massicotte (1875-1929) illustrated several scenes representing the folklore, customs and popular traditions of Quebec at the beginning of the twentieth century. This link contains five images, from midnight mass returns, Christmas awakenings and New Year's Day festivities.

From the Canadian archives, this video features French Canadian New Year celebrations from the 1950s and 1960s. They show the great tradition of gathering family and friends to celebrate. Perhaps the gatherings in Hermansville were much like these.

Some traditional Quebecois music for New Year celebrations can be found at this Youtube link.


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