French Canadian Interview Project

The following interview with Cecile (LaMarre) Enright took place on November 21, 2000 at the George Letourneau Home in Bourbonnais, Illinois. The Letourneau Home is the museum and headquarters of the Bourbonnais Grove Historical Society. The Western Civilization course student interviewer was Amy White.

The video tape and audiotape that correlate with this transcript are available in the Kankakee Community College Learning Resource Center. The videotape #V-RH 14 is on reserve. The audiotape "HIST INT #6 can be checked out of the LRC for one week.

Interviewer: Amy White

Ms. LaMarre is a French Canadian descendant who has agreed to share her memories for the sake of posterity.

Interviewer: Miss LaMarre, when did your family first come here?

Ms. LaMarre: Well, on both sides originally came in 1600's from France, and they came by ship to Canada. At the time, Montreal or Ville Marie, which it was known as at that time, was being settled by the French who had discovered it. Originally, probably further back than 1600. At some point both my great-grandmother descendant and my great-grandfather descendant; their families brought them over to Canada. Louis LeMarre, and it was de LeMarre then, as was the custom in France, and then they dropped the "de" somewhere along the way in Canada, was a young man, and the woman who originally became his wife then only after they arrived in Canada. She was born around the same time as he was; she wasn't that much younger than he. They lived in France, and that was on Isle de Moran which is on the Atlantic coast and I have pictures of the little island on which she was born and raised. She decided amongst others to come to Canada, and they married and then families progressed through the years three or four generations or more. Eventually my great-grandparents came here to Bourbonnais.

Interviewer: What was the economic condition of the Canadians when they came into this area?

Ms. LaMarre: Well at the time they had been introduced to the Bourbonnais area by Mr. Noel LeVasseur whose name is in all of our history books, and Mr. Letourneau who was also from France, and Mr. Hubbard is well known in the Watseka area who founded a lot of places in that area. He was once married to an Indian Princess whose name was Watseka. That's her name. They decided to try to get other immigrants to come down from Canada. Now, that was a long trip because this was Quebec and if you can picture Canada, Quebec is north and a little east of Montreal. It's on the river of St. Lawrence, and also along the Richelieu River, which is a primary river that goes down into New York and goes into Lake Superior actually.

He encouraged a lot of them. He said the land was wonderful for farming (they were all farmers, most of them were trades people). We have to remember that most of men and woman of that era were illiterate. My grandmother never learned to read or write (had someone write her signature). My grandfather, I've seen his signature so evidently he had some schooling, but the women, there weren't any such thing as careers. Their career was raising children, and farming. So, they were pretty poor, but if they felt that this was going to be better and they could own the land. That was an enticement. So he got the liberation went on for about 20 years. I would say it would be like from the 1850's and 60's. That was the primary you know something like two of three hundred which doesn't sound like very much to us, but came over here.

Some settled up near the Kankakee River State Park. It used to be a little Canadian village called Le Petite Canada. Eventually, it was 20 or 30 or maybe more families; all whose last names today you see them in the phone book. All our descendants are still here. You see Messier, Ledoux, a lot of French Canadian, but there were a lot of other nationalities around here in Kankakee. There were many German, and Irish and English. So it was pretty poor, they had to plow their own lands with horses and they were hoping to have a better life and eventually they did.

Interviewer: And where were you born at?

Ms. LaMarre: If it wasn't the Jewel food store there, you could see the house I was born in. It's on Bernard Street here in Bourbonnais. My father and his grandfather owned it. I never asked them if they had built it, because there wasn't very many contractors then, but there were people who knew how to do these things. There are pictures of it that one can see. That was in 1906 or around that time. He married in 1914. My uncle was living in the house at the time it was built until they married, and so they had to move. My uncle found another place to live with his family. So that's where I was born and reared until 1943 at which time I went to Chicago.

Interviewer: But you were actually born at home. Did your mother have a midwife?

Ms. LaMarre: No, No. Strangely enough I found the records in a little baby book that my brother, who is the oldest, was born in the hospital. I don't think I ever asked mother. It showed, born in Bourbonnais, so I don't know if I was born at home because it said St. Mary's, Kankakee. She was very good about details, and yet she wrote opposite our names, I think the hour even we were born, and said Bourbonnais. It would appear that we were born at home.

Interviewer: Was that customary for other French-Canadian families?

Ms. LaMarre: Well yes. First of all because even though the cost wasn't that much and there is no such thing as health insurance or anything like that. The doctors delivered at home. I'm sure they did. Maybe the doctor came to the house, but St. Mary's doesn't exist then because they just recently celebrated I think their 120th anniversary.

Interviewer: What was your family like. Did you have a large family?

Ms. LaMarre: There were three of us. Myself, I was the youngest, I was the baby, and my sister is four years older than I. She died this year. My brother was the oldest; he was six years older than I. He died in 1984. There was just the three of us.

Interviewer: Was that the same for most families?

Ms. LaMarre: Yes, there were some families that we knew. My uncle who was older of course than my mother had about 17 children, but not all of them lived because babies often die at birth because of disease and things that we don't even know of today. So those were fairly large families. And on our street there were a lot of kids. We had about 10 houses and there had to be 20 or more children on the streets. We never lacked for people to play with.

Interviewer: I see you have a doll that was from your youth.

Ms. LaMarre: Yes, yes. And my mother had kept it and she had given it to a woman that she babysat for while she still lived here, because she didn't move to Chicago until the early 70's. And May was kind enough after I moved back here to give it to us and I didn't realize it was still in existence. So I was really thrilled and the carriage, these are the type of things that we played with. If you had a carriage for your dolls, that was what they called "the cats meow". So we had a lot of toys, but they were mostly homemade things.

Interviewer: Does your family speak French as their primary language?

Ms. LaMarre: Yes, actually we did probably more than some because my grandfather died I believe in 1927. I was very small. I do not remember him, but there are pictures that will be on the Web site. Then my grandmother for a while lived alone. That was on Main Street. The building is still there. It is right opposite actually where the traffic signal is at ONU. It was the Credit Union for ONU, and now it's another business, and I don't know what it is exactly. The house was too big for her to stay alone in. My mother was the only daughter. My uncle farmed the land that my grandmother and grandfather first lived on. It was a log house on River Street, which goes out toward the cemetery. So she came to live with us and she lived with us for about 10-12 years, and she never spoke English. We more or less kept up our French until then. That was unusual unless you had a parent or grandparent, and of course some of my school chums had grandparents still living and they had the same thing. So I spoke until I was out of high school and then in high school of course I had taken the grammatical French. Because you know when you're a kid and you learn the language you don't know how to read and write it sometimes.

Interviewer: How long was it until English was completely adopted?

Ms. LaMarre: I would say probably somewhere before World War 2. So let's say the late 30's I was in school, because I could remember in Maternity church the sermon was quite often in English because there were a lot of people moved into town who didn't speak French, and there was a sermon in French. I think that died out about the late 30's. I remember that because I was still living here. After that of course I was living in Chicago.

Interviewer: You can still speak French?

Ms. LaMarre: Yes, I had the privilege of having gone over to France about 30 times, because I worked in south of France from 1973-1991. They used me for an interpreter and it takes me a while to start to speak it again when I haven't spoken it. I love the language, and I actually help promote the language in the schools if I can because they are starting to drop out. I do love the language and I'm happy that I have knowledge of it.

Interviewer: Where did you go to school?

Ms. LaMarre: To Notre Dame Convent, which is no longer in existence. It was a convent school and an all girls school. It was on the corner near Maternity church. The building was taken down in 1970's I believe. We have some photos of it here in the museum. I went through the whole 12 grades; the eight and then the four years of high school. There was someone who asked once, where do the boys go to school. Well, it was a unique situation. In the early days, the school system was such and I have here a picture, which you will have on the Web of my mother teaching school in a one-room schoolhouse. Then when the boys started integrating there were boys as well as girls in the village who did not know French or live in the country.

They started a public school and that's District 53, which it still is today. They allowed the nuns, the religious nuns of the congregation of the Notre Dame, to teach in the public school. I don't know that happens in very many places. Of course they were teaching the girls in the convent, and then the high school was in Bradley. My brother went to school in Bradley. If you could afford the fee you went to a private school. There was St. Patrick's, and I believe St. Rose was in existence at that time too. My education was for 12 years at Notre Dame convent and my mother had graduated from there in 1910. I graduated in 1942.

Interviewer: Does your family celebrate any holidays that were particular to you culture?

Ms. LaMarre: I would say probably, Christmas/Noel was a very important holiday. We have to remember that the basis of the village were French-Canadians and I would say they were all Roman Catholic. It was a very important part of the culture and the holidays. Also there is what we used to call a Petite Noel and that is the 6th of January, which is celebrated in other Christian religions as the feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise kings came to see the baby Jesus. There was very much in tune with how our lives were encircled in religious training.

Interviewer: Do you still cook any of the holiday special foods?

Ms. LaMarre: No I haven't. And I don't remember how we celebrated. I know that there are many. I've seen writings about the special feast and they would make special things. I don't remember that we did. It's possible sometimes that some families, I mean you would have to buy, remember you had to bring everything in, of course your flour, the mills helped make the flour and that for your baking but I don't remember any special foods. We always had good food because from the farm we had pigs on the farm. We had practically everyone that lived there if you were to step back in time and come down Bernard Street everybody had a back yard with chickens, maybe rabbits and you'd have a garden and you'd have grapes--a grape arbor. Because that way you had not only the fruit and you had fruit trees.

I often think, I wonder why when these subdivisions are building most of them have pretty nice back yards and I think "gee" why don't they put fruit trees. That was fun for us as kids. Of course the women today won't know how to can fruit or vegetables, but there are some places they still do. We all had fruit trees. We grew our own vegetables, cabbage, anything that would grow here. The only thing that we didn't have were some of the, I didn't even know what asparagus was. I knew it was a vegetable. Because you couldn't grow it here, you have to grow it in sandy soil, like maybe the Carolina's or California. We were pretty self-sufficient.

Interviewer: You said your religion was Roman Catholic. Did it play a big part in your life?

Ms. LaMarre: Yes, it always did. I went to the convent school taught by the nuns. I think any kind of schooling where you have some religion tied in with it because there are many other Christian religions and Jewish cultures where they teach that basically in their schools. Not that you don't do well if you're in public schools because I think here in this area especially I think we have very good teachers even though there seems to be a lot of controversy sometimes. I think that it did influence my life all along the way.

Interviewer: What was the French Canadian attitude concerning World War II?

Ms. LaMarre: Well, I know we lost a lot of our men. There wasn't any hesitation about serving. A lot of them joined up. They didn't wait to be drafted because there was a draft, but I don't think they have that any more. I don't even know to be truthful, do they? I don't think they do. There were many that died. Of course everybody knew them. It was a very small town, about 500. That was what it was when I was living there, about 500 people.

Interviewer: Were you involved in the war effort in any way?

Ms. LaMarre: Yes, I guess we have to say that. It was a part that I enjoyed really because we had Chanute Air Field down here near Rantoul. Rantoul itself, the town wasn't very big. Every Friday night and there was a group that went on Saturday night. You had to be over a certain age, so I think I was just out of High School, because I lived here for a couple of years before I moved to Chicago. They would take us down by bus, and we would go dancing. There were some that met and married, because the men were not all from the area down in Rantoul. That was enjoyable. We also had; there were women that set up committees and they would have soldiers who were all men then mostly. I think later on there were some women. They would bring them to our homes for the holidays. Everybody didn't get to go home for the holidays. We wrote to others even though they weren't family. So yes, we were quite involved.

Interviewer: Where were you at when you heard about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and what was your reaction?

Ms. LaMarre: It was on a Sunday. It was a service going to take place in the afternoon and I think it was 3:00 or something like that because I don't remember when was the Pearl Harbor, it was early morning wasn't it. I was either in church or some people had radios. Remember we didn't have any television, or at least we didn't. So it was on radio, and then it passed from person to person. I think we were just going into the church for the service and we found out that it happened. It was a terrible shock. That was a terrible thing. They came very close to landing. I've read quite a bit since then. People don't realize how close the Japanese were to landing in Honolulu. So that was quite an event. I hope it doesn't ever happen again.

Interviewer: It's probably the primary focus of your lifestyle.

Ms. LaMarre: After that it does change your life. I had thought I would go to college and I didn't.

Interviewer: What was your life like after World War II?

Ms. LaMarre: We went down to Rantoul. My sister worked for the Federal Government and she was living in Chicago and so we had been to Chicago a lot, surprisingly enough because we didn't have a car. We did not go to places. I had never been to Momence. Everybody kind of laughs at me when I got back here ten years ago. They said you never went to Momence? We didn't have any relatives there. We didn't have a car. It was easier for us to get on the train. We went on the train to Chicago. It was a dollar maybe or a dollar and a half or whatever. We had relatives there. We would go on the train to visit so I knew Chicago pretty well. I decided that I wanted to go to the big city. So I went to Chicago to live and my mother remained here for another ten or fifteen years. Then while I was in Chicago my father died. My mother died.

Interviewer: Was the French Canadian community pretty close knit?

Ms. LaMarre: Oh yes. I'm still in touch with some of my classmates. We were not a large class. The graduating class had only 12. Sounds like absolutely nothing, but there were only 10 in my mother's class in 1910. In over thirty some years the graduating class had only grown by two or three people. We had a 50th get together and all but two came. From a small class one had died and one is living in Europe. We had a wonderful reunion. Some never left the area. They're members of the society [Bourbonnais Grove Historical Society] here. I am thinking of two different people. They did go away for a while. There husbands were in the service. They married. A lot of them married very, very young. I was married for over 20 years after I was out of school. I went to the big city and found my career there in the airlines.

Interviewer: What do you think has changed most about the area?

Ms. LaMarre: All of the additional residential area has grown and so has the college, which was closed for a long time. Olivet has done a wonderful job for the community. It grew sort of slowly. I saw it because my mother still lived until the 70s. I guess no one would have expected that it would have grown to what it is now. I think it's around 10,000. It's a very large community now. Everybody loved it. We liked it because it was peaceful and quiet, the park, you have the forest, and the river.

Interviewer: Was there any arguments of trouble between different nationalities?

Ms. LaMarre: No, I can't recall if there was. It's not that I didn't notice. Some of my relatives, my cousins, they married Irish. There was a lot of Irish and I believe they came to help build the railroad. Of course a lot of the English were here of the Prairie Farm, which is a historical area here on the border line of Bradley and Kankakee. Durham was an Englishman and they came from other parts of the United States. Some of them came straight from England. They had these huge properties that they had bought. I'm talking thousands of acres. There were thousands of acres to be bought then. All that I can recall, I cannot remember that they did not work well together.

Interviewer: What about during World War II and the German population?

Ms. LaMarre: Well I know there are Germans because I've met some. I belong to the Kankakee Genealogical Society. I don't remember how many or what at the time.

Interviewer: You don't remember any problems?

Ms. LaMarre: No

Interviewer: What things in this community do you feel are attributed to the French Canadians and their lives? What did they have the most influence on?

Ms. LaMarre: I think, I hope that we passed on to not only the families like all of my cousins' children and their children because there is at least four generations now. I know a lot of my girlfriends have great grandchildren, and they're the same age I am. Then we passed on the qualities that we obtained through the years. Living in a small town was a lot different than living in the city. Living in Chicago and then living in the Los Angeles area, children grow up differently. I don't even know how to express it except that life is just different in so many instances.

We never knew any crime here very much. I think it's very hard for children to grow up in the larger cities, and I believe that is why this community in this area blossomed so quickly. Parents said, "Hey, I don't want my kids going to school in South Chicago". They wanted to have a better life for their children, so I think that concept has continued. The church has prospered and other churches have prospered as well. They saw it was a fine community to belong to.

Interviewer: I would like to thank you for your time. Your memory will help insure that your heritage will not be forgotten.

Ms. LaMarre: I thank you very much and I want to thank the community college. Thank you community college, Dr. Paul, yourself, Mrs. [Becky] Ledoux, and Brad [Phelps] for coming and taking the time to do this. I hope you'll find it interesting and read more about us.

Interviewer: It was very interesting. Thank you very much.