Marie Antoinette Josephine Bussiere Therrien was born in 1917 into a large, second-generation immigrant family in Lewiston, Maine. Antoinette, like her siblings, learned to weave back and forth between languages as a child, a talent that she would use throughout her life. French was spoken at home, but if they wanted to integrate into the school system then they had to learn English. When she finally had command of both languages and could successfully complete the eighth grade, Antoinette was ready to enter the workforce at the age of 16.
[0:32] Well, I’ll tell you what, I was born in Lewiston Maine. And I was raised all my life up here. And I worked at the mill, and some at the shoe shop, and the mills again, kept going. That’s the only type of work there was at the time.
[8:16] I graduated from the 8th grade, I was 16; and I started working part-time at the Bates Mill, and in those days they were working 50 hours a week. And I used to work a spare on Saturday, that’s how I learned. And then when I came out of school then I got a steady job. But you were working—what was it—9 hours a day, something like that?
Now that she’d finished school, she could follow in her family’s footsteps. As it was for so many other Franco-Americans in Lewiston at the time, the Mill was the center of her daily life, even during the holidays.
[2:56] Well, I’ll tell you what, they didn’t have the day off in those days. They worked the full days and then come home and try to celebrate the best they could. Christmas was free—but any holidays other than that they weren’t getting paid, they were working, and that was it.
[3:25] In those days you decorated your Christmas tree, Christmas Eve, and it would stay until January 6th, and then you’d take it down.
[3:40] They used to … La Fete des Rois [The Feast of Kings] … they would bake a cake, and put prizes in there; like for the girls there was a thimble, and for the boys—I can’t remember what it was—and if you got those prizes, you were king and queen of the party.
At work, Antoinette’s job was to “tie in.” She would put spools on a rack and tie in yarns before they were sent into the weave room; after that, they were sent to the looms. Children were not uncommon sights in the mills in those days. Some mothers would bring theirs in to clean up around their work stations. It was a helpful way to keep young ones busy. Antoinette never brought her kids with her, but she knew some people who did. Her daily routine stayed the same for years at the factory. This shifted only slightly during World War II.
[15:00] I worked at the Libbey Mill. They made blankets for the army and the navy, and they made bullets. Every mill had to do something for the service. And we used to make the blue blankets for the navy, and the brown ones there for the army. And they had a room, where they made bullets.
[15:48] But they did blankets for—you know—to be sold in the store besides that. Nice blankets and all that, better than what you can [find] today… (laughter).
French Canadian immigrants like Antoinette gained a reputation for having a good work-ethic like their parents and grandparents before them. As early as the 1870s, Mill Agents sought to recruit French Canadian immigrants to work in Maine. This recruitment and the influx of workers was made all the easier by the Grand Trunk Railroad Station, which provided a direct link to the Canadian National Railway System. Antoinette’s family, for instance, moved to Lewiston in 1894.
Similar to other mill towns, French Canadian populations tended to settle together in what became known as “Little Canada” communities. In Lewiston, this was primarily on Lincoln, River, and Oxford Streets.
[20:08] Well they were the ones that were keeping those mills going, all those French people.
[20:30] When my father started working and my mother, they worked from daylight to sundown. There was no lights on the street, and they, most of them, lived in Petit Canada.
[19:30] Because most of them came from Canada. And I was told one time by a girl, she says, “I know you can speak English,” she says, “I hate it when you speak French all the time,” because she didn’t know what we were talking about.
Scroll in to see historical maps. Sanborn locator map represents Lewiston in 1914, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Scroll further in to areas 19 and 26 to see Fire Insurance diagrams of the mills in the early 1900s, courtesy of the Osher Map Library via Digital Commonwealth. The mill depicted in Sanborn Inset 26 is the same “Continental Mill” featured in the first photo of this article.
Antoinette met her husband Rodolphe at the Libbey Mill, and they were married in May of 1936. Together they raised many children, and enjoyed many grandchildren. Six years before she died, her great-granddaughter, Danielle Dubois interviewed her about her life. The interview took place in May of 2003, and is the source of the audio for this article. The entire 45-minute interview is available in the University of Maine video archives. Antoinette had a wonderfully wry sense of humor, and despite her matter-of-fact tone, she clearly enjoyed talking about her life with her family around her. Danielle asked her grandmother how things were different in the old days:
[21:20] You can’t name them all. You have your radio, I mean you know, you didn’t have power in the first place. What you had was lamps, and lanterns, you know? And they used to live, in one apartment, there might have been 10, 15 people. Compared to today. They had a great big kitchen, and they had bedrooms, but I think some of them must have slept on the floor (laughter).
Many people in milltowns share stories similar to the Franco-American families of Lewiston. Large communities developed around the factories of the Androscoggin, Kennebec, Penobscot, and their tributaries. When the industry of manufacturing began to shift in the mid 1900s, many of these massive brick buildings became vacant. Since the 1980s and 1990s, however, Maine has seen many of them become repurposed. Offices, stores, even breweries and art studios have given many of these historical landmarks a new life. When the Libbey Mill burned in July of 2009 many locals reported that it felt like a piece of their town’s history had disappeared.
Danielle was lucky enough to ask her great-grandmother something many of us wish we could have asked our own elders:
[22:00] Danielle: Is there anything that you miss from the older times in Lewiston?
Antoinette: If I miss? No. I’m better off today than they were down there. Although, the people down there were more friendly, and they stuck together. Today everybody has a car and they take off every which way, you know? But in those days, they had no car, they had to walk, they had trolley cars, after a while.
[24:03] They always say, “the good ol’ days,” it might be true. Because today, I mean, life is so fast. Nothing to it.
When Antoinette died in July of 2009, she was survived by 8 children, 23 grandchildren, 31 great-grandchildren, and 8 great-great grandchildren. She was 92.
This story was produced by Rhumb Line Maps and the University of Maine’s Franco-American Program in November of 2020. Special thanks, first and foremost to Antoinette Therrien for her interview. Special thanks, also, to the Androscoggin Historical Society, the Maine Memory Network, the Osher Map Library, Historic New England, Lewiston Public Library, Antoinette’s family, John Meader for his photos, and the Bicentennial Grant that made this possible.
Writers — Emily Meader & Ben Meader.
Editor — Nathaniel Smith.
Contributing Editors — Susan Pinette & Lisa Michaud
Photo Contributions — Androscoggin Historical Society, the Maine Memory Network, Historic New England, Lewiston Public Library, University of Maine’s Oral Histories Archive, the Library of Congress, and the University of Maine’s Franco-American Program.
Map Contributions — Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, the Library of Congress, the Digital Commonwealth (Massachusetts Collections Online), and Mapbox.
Audio Contributions — Music: Rebecca Grube & Greg Boardman via Bates Mill: un Moulin à Lewiston (University of Maine’s Oral Histories Archive). Sounds of textile mill: Phonoflora, via Freesound.org
Original Photography — John Meader.