It was no easy find. First, there was the hassle of getting there — to St. Johnsbury, Vermont, in the northern part of the state, a mere 49 miles from Canada. Then there was the matter of trying to find the home where the family had lived in 1880. The Census provided an address, the wrong address it turned out. Adding to the complication, the house numbers on the street had changed.
Thankfully, we were attending a wedding near Portland, Maine, the city from which my great-great grandmother, Marie Cecile Gingras, had set out by boat to be with her own true love, Fred Pickering, in San Fransisco. Genealogists hired by my cousin had traced Marie’s family back to St. Johnsbury, one of many New England towns to which French-Canadians emigrated after the Civil War. They were drawn by the prospect of industrial employment and propelled by the lack of unfarmed acreage in Canada. St. Johnsbury was the hometown of Fairbanks Scales, the maker of the first platform scale, used to weigh hemp. The company went on to “weigh the world,” according to a local historian.
Isaie Gingras (1812-1887) and Rose Deveau (1823-1900) probably relocated their family from Levis, Quebec, Canada, to St. Johnsbury, Vermont, in about 1869. That’s the year in which several of their children told the Census that they arrived in the U.S. The 1880 Census, digitized by ancestry.com, reported that they lived at 241 Clarks Street. But if you look closely at the actual Census form, the 241 applies to something else. And the real name of the street is Clarks Avenue. The census taker had written down the wrong name.
So where did they live? A visit to the St. Johnsbury Anthenaeum was in order. In fact, a visit to the beautiful landmark building, built by the Fairbanks family in 1871, was in order even if it didn’t have what I was looking for. The library/museum houses the few genealogical records in town, including city directories that date back to the 1880s. There, on a second floor balcony accessible only by circular stairs, in a tattered volume from 1883 was a listing for I. Gingras at 25 Clarks Avenue.
The only problem, affable and extremely helpful Director Bob Joly told me, was that numbers on the houses had changed over the years. Thankfully, volunteers, in one of those incredibly generous gestures that genealogists often make, had painstakingly produced a large document that showed the changes. Turns out that 25 and 27 Clarks Avenue became 85 Clarks Avenue. All that was left to do was drive over and see if the building was still standing. (Suppose I could have used Google maps, but what fun is that?)
It was. And, as luck would have it, the owner of the unit on the right was painting. She confirmed from her ladder that the duplex was built before 1860; she had seen documents. She also confidently reported that the building hadn’t changed much through the years. She had recently been visited by two sisters in their 60s who had grown up in one of the units. They confirmed that the building had always been divided into two residences.
The Gingras probably lived in the house on the left, since it would have been the lower number on the block. Who knows why the two houses share the same number today. The owner/painter confirmed that on the inside the two units are nearly identical with living, dining, and kitchen on the first floor; two bedrooms and a bath (no doubt added later) on the second; and two more bedrooms on the third floor.
French Canadians (nearly all of them Catholic) tended to settle in the same neighborhood, near the church. Turns out Clarks Street is right in the middle of this part of town, according to a memoir from the 1920s I found in the library. The immigrants spoke French and sent their children to French-speaking schools. Many homes in the neighborhood were carved up into apartments. They endured discrimination from the English-speaking community.
The family no doubt attended the first Notre Dame Catholic church, which was built in 1860. After only 26 years, its foundation proved unstable. A new church, described as one of the finest buildings of its kind in Vermont, was built in 1889. Services were in Latin. A separate Catholic church for the Irish had to be established seven years later — the factions couldn’t get along. Only after Notre Dame was burned down by a former alter boy in 1965 did the congregations reunite.
By 1880, when the error-prone census taker came around, my great-great grandmother had already left for San Francisco. Several of her siblings, though, were still living in the house, including Louis (27, a painter), Peter (23, who worked in the scale shop), Matilda (17, who worked at home), and George (a 6-year-old grandson). My cousin, Sue Wolfe, figured out that George was probably Louis’ son by a first marriage. His wife had died.
The 1880 Census lists Isaie’s occupation as farmer. The barely competent census taker was tasked with finding out whether residents were disabled or sick. He or she wrote down that Isaie was “broke down with old age” and presumably couldn’t farm any more. Well, that’s not surprising, considering he was 70. I’m only 63, and I don’t think I’d be much good on a farm today, though I’d have the advantage of some incredible machinery that didn’t exist in Isaie’s day.
The find raises some key questions. The first would be why the family emigrated to Vermont. Perhaps they joined relatives who had already made the pilgrimage. An F. Gingras is listed as a painter in an 1883 City Directory. Isaie had a brother named Franscois, but he died in 1840. Maybe F. Gingras was a cousin. Maybe Louis was working with him.
At least one of Isaie’s older children, Rosalie, was living in St. Johnsbury at the time. She married Louis Demers, a carpenter and joiner. They moved to St. Johnsbury in 1870 after marrying in Canada, according to the 1900 Census. Isaie’s oldest son, Isaie, was living in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1880 and working as a machinist. Let’s take a look at the roster of children and see if they provide any hints.
Isaie (1843). Emigrated to Manchester, New Hampshire.
Rosalie (1844). She married Louis Demers, a carpenter and joiner. They moved to St. Johnsbury after marrying in Canada.
Marie Sara (1846). She married Francis Gingras and never left Canada.
Celina (1848). She married a painter, Edmond Henault. They lived in St. Johnsbury then Connecticut.
Louis Mathias (1851). He’s in the house, working as a painter.
Thomas (1852). He’s tough to track down, but it looks like he stayed in Canada.
Pierre (1854). He lived in the house and worked at the scale factory.
Marie Sarah (1857). She married a filer, Prude Henault, and didn’t arrive in St. Johnsbury until 1879. Apparently, there were plenty of folders to file in Canada.
Joseph Benjamin (1858). He’s a mystery right now.
Our Marie Cecile (1861). She’s gone to San Francisco by 1880.
Rose Matilda (1863). She’s in the house. Isaie was 50 when she was born.
An equally intriguing question is why Isaie and Rose would have picked up everything and left Canada when Isaie was at the ripe age of 57. A 1861 Census of Canada may shed some light on the situation. The family was living with Isaie’s father Joseph Benjamin Ildevert Gingras, who was 86 at the time time. The Census form lists Isaie as the head of the household. But could the family have been living on and farmer the father’s land?
Isaie and Rose left for America a year or two after Joseph died. Could their departure have had something to do with the ownership of the farmland? Did Joseph leave it to someone else? Isaie had two older siblings, Joseph and Cobstance. Maybe they inherited the farm. Further research is needed. But my intuition tells me we may never get any answers.