French Canadian Interview Project

Interview with Mimi Elizabeth Raiche and Leon Issert on April 15, 2002 in Mimi's back yard along the Kankakee River. The Western Civilization course student interviewers are Jordan Arseneau, Joe English, Erica Kritenbrink, and Zach Newton.

The video and audiotape that correlate with this transcript are available in the Kankakee Community College Learning Resource Center. The videotape #V-RH 30 is on reserve. The audiotape "HIST INT Mimi Raiche and Leon Issert" can be checked out of the LRC for one week.

Interviewer Jordan: Hi, this is a group from KCC and were doing a French Canadian Interview project, and with us today are Mimi Raiche, and what's your name sir, Leon Issert, and were going to conduct a little interview with them, and we have some people that are going to ask some questions, Joe English, Erica Kertenbrink, Zach, what's your last name, Newton and Kelly on the camera. So, we're going to start with a couple of questions first. You want to start?

Interviewer Erica: Mimi, when did your family first come here?

Mimi: In the 1600s if you're talking about my father's side, and my mothers side at about the same time, actually there was the wars of religion in France that caused a lot of French to migrate to Canada at that time. So around 1630 the first were arriving.

Joe: Do you have any children?

Mimi: No. But my sister does, she has three girls.

Interviewer Jordan: So what exactly brought your family to Illinois?

Mimi: To Illinois? Well, my grandfather was learning the plumbing trade; he started out in Menominee, Michigan, where he lived with the family that brought him up, he was the son of Louis Arthur Hercule Raiche de Beauchemin but they called him Homer. This is Dennis Maximillian Raiche, who is my grandfather who went into the plumbing business. They went to Wisconsin for a while, and lived in a tenement in Green Bay Wisconsin along the railroad tracks, and didn't find too much prosperity there.

So, grandfather heard of the Kankakee State Hospital, it wasn't called Shapiro at the time, that's what it was, and he heard that jobs were plentiful here so he came because of the State Hospital. Worked there for a few years and became a master plumber and started his own business in plumbing, and it was located at 212 W Court Street, and that's the block where that CVS drug store is now.

(Zach) Ok.

Interviewer Erica: What school did you attend?

Mimi: St. Rosa-Lima Grade School, St. Joseph Seminary High School, uh. the College of St. Frances in Joliet, which is now a university.

Joe: Leon, where did you attend school?

Leon: I attended Peotone Community High School, and uh. Then I went and graduated from the University of Illinois, and uh. Then I spent some time in the Navy. I decided at the U of I one time. We had a um, well we had balls there all kind of dances, and one was a military ball and I wasn't in the ROTC at the time but I borrowed one of the Navy ROTC uniforms and I said 'That's it'. I going to try for the Navy and I got in. I went to OCS and got in as a traditional officer and I didn't know really how to put a uniform on that's what got me in. I don't know. This is going to be a lot better than the Army, didn't like their uniform and it was a lot better too, we ate… we had uh linen tablecloth every night what we did wasn't real nice accommodations.

But anyhow, I, my ancestry I share with, with Mimi here on the Bergeron side I think that she took more of the Raiche side of the family. The Bergeron's came here in, Alexis, Alois, Antione, and so on from Canada about 1840. They came to Bourbonnais Township. Prior, back up a little bit, they came to French Canada in probably around the same time the Raiche's did 1630-1640…one of those French Canada was new before the English took it over, and they stayed in French Canada for a while, but then after the... I think it was right before our revolution. When Montcomb beat…Montcomb…anyhow the Battle of Quebec that they…Canada switched over…was taken over by the English, and after that the French citizens were not, didn't get the best breaks. They were second-class citizens and that's what encouraged, I think, the French to come to Kankakee, Bourbonnais, and St. Anne.

After a few years of that in about the middle of nineteenth century…prior to, before the civil war they came here and settled. On the other side of my family, the French Canadian family is the family by the name of Fortin. In which, well Bergeron is a common name…some of the people here. Fortin was…go back in history a little bit. It was the Lafayette Hotel, which was Timothy Fortin's hotel.

And uh, my grandfather, my mother was born in Chicago. My grandfather worked in the stockyard. He was a commission man in the Chicago Stockyard's Company. He worked for them as a commission man, commission men were the ones that farmers would sell, send the cattle, hogs, to the union stockyards and the commission man would represent the farmer, made, do it in a commission, that's a commission man. And, uh, he worked there, my grandfather Philip, until, uh…somewhere, uh, until they had foot in mouth disease, which, and now the English call it, hoof, it was hoof in mouth disease then, and now its called foot, uh, foot in mouth…

Interviewer Jordan: Right

Leon: …instead of hoof in mouth. I don't know, they, somehow that changed. But anyhow, that caused, uh, a lot of dysfunctional, it caused the livestock business trouble. They had to slaughter animals so you didn't get much trade. So, my grandfather then moved to Sioux City, Iowa, and then to San Francisco. I liked that because later on in my life, when I was in the navy I would visit them in San Francisco, but that was on my maternal side.

My paternal side, the Isserts came from France in 1880. They came here. There was a cousin of theirs here who owned an elevator, a grain elevator I am speaking of, in Manteno, called Euziere's. My grandfather I guess came over, and the first job he had was shoveling coal. Which I didn't know, and I thought, well that's not a very high-flying job, but I guess he succeeded. In about twenty years, he bought a farm in nineteen hundred and three. They bought a farm in Peotone Township, on which I still live. It's going to be a hundred years, next year. And I came along in 1931. There's four in my family, my father's family. And ah, my brother Tony lives here in Peotone, my brother Victor lives in Wilmington and my sister is deceased.

Mimi: Well, my mother spoke of an old French tradition that was celebrated at New Year's in the country. It seems that they would go from house to house. Maybe Leon has heard of this too. They'd get in the buggies and they would go to everyone's house as if it were trick or treat, but they would have hot wine and doughnuts every place they went. And as the evening wore on the party got merrier and merrier, but DUI wasn't a problem in those days because no one had a motor vehicle and the horses knew which way to find the barn. So they got home alright.

Interviewer Jordan: Interesting--was it the same kind of tradition for you?

Leon: Uh, I don't remember. I know they used to play a lot of cards. They'd go from house to house playing cards, and ah, go to church on Sunday. We stayed home a lot I guess, when I was a kid. My parents, I don't remember that tradition. I do remember one it's called um, after a couple got married they'd chivaree.

Mimi: Yes.

Leon: OK, I don't think it was common to the French society and the French speaking people. But, they'd come over to the newlyweds house banging on buckets and shoot shotguns. It was in the middle of the night…a big party. They'd bring out the booze and have a party right there. It was called chivaree. And we don't do it anymore.

Mimi: On the wedding night.

Interviewer Jordan: It's a tradition we should continue in honor of our French ancestors. Are you married?

Mimi: No, not really.

Leon: I'm married. Yes, I'm married and I have two daughters, Nicole and Elizabeth, 26 and 14.

Interviewer Erica: Is your wife French also?

Leon: Well, she's got a French name "Garnier" Garnier or Garnier in French, but her father seems to be more German than he is French. I don't know, yes she is French with a German streak in her.

Interviewer Jordan: How do you think the reception was for your French ancestors coming to this country, as with the other Europeans and what not within the area? Were they taken very well, or not liked?

Mimi: If you are going back to the beginning you have people who are Caucasian dealing with the Indians.

Interviewer Jordan: Right.

Mimi: And then the French ancestors that I have would travel in groups pretty much and migrate from French settlement to French settlement. That's why some of us are still as French as we are by our generation. Because we had French marrying other French for centuries. We just lived together and we really didn't have to worry about acceptance.

Leon: We also had some marriage, I don't think marriage, but intermingling with French and Indians ah, and marriage because ah, well, especially the early ones that came . . . the coeurs de bois came here. This was actually a part of France until what…1732 or something like that? This was the Illinois Country, it belonged to France. And in fact the first state capitol of Illinois is in a town called Kaskaskia which is, uh and the first Lieutenant Governor was Pierre Menard who was, uh I think in my family tree also, I claim him. I guess he was a rascal; but he was a fur trader. Pierre Menard. If you go down to the state capitol in Springfield, you'll find a statue of him dealing with an Indian, selling a pelt. Pierre Menard.

Anyhow, the, uh the town of Kaskaskia is down, it's actually on the west side of the Mississippi now. . .the river changed its course but the capital only stayed there a few years. The first governor was Cheviat Bond and the first lieutenant governor was Pierre Menard. Well, anyhow yes, the French were the early settlers and much of this was explored by the French. So actually I think the French felt like this was our, their country and they didn't have to deal with anybody and the only people they dealt with were the Indians and then they fought the British.

And if it weren't for the French, we would probably still be hanging with Queen Mom, the Queen Mother, Grandmother, because if it weren't for the French, we would never had won the Revolutionary War. And so this French lady told me be proud you're a "froggie" and maybe they didn't do it because they were such good guys but that they wanted to get back at the British of course

Joe: Mimi, is there any particular story that your mom's told you about her past that still amazes you today?

Mimi: Well, one that has a sentimental value. Perhaps it's not historically important, but just a little appealing about her own father when he was a boy in school. He was playing football during recess. The school building was right next to the church. I figure it was a rather rural school. It was around the St. George area. And in the back of the church was the old cemetery. Well in those days they didn't mow grass so it grew very tall. Unless they let the cattle graze. But of course they weren't going to turn the cattle loose in the cemetery. So the grass was very tall and it was laying in clumps and just woven together. And when grandfather kicked a football, it just flew forever far into the cemetery so he had to keep his eye on it to make sure he would know where it landed. Otherwise he would never retrieve it again.

So he went to the place where the football landed and he started parting that tall grass with his hands, and low and behold the football had landed on a headstone. And when he read this particular head stone he went into a little bit of shock because on it said Emelyn LeBeau et enfant, Emelyn LeBeau and child epouse Celestin Fortin. Well that was the boy's father, Celestin Fortin. And the dates on that headstone pre dated his parents marriage by just a couple of years and grandpa Louis, my mother's father, knew of no other Celestin important in the county so he could not wait to get home and tell his father.

He had to confront him about that and his father admitted that yes he had had a wife before he married his mother, the boy's mother, and they had a child and she died in childbirth, and why he didn't know about this, it was because the second wife was not secure enough with the first wife and didn't really want any image of her or any mention of her in the household. It just appeals to you that Emelyn was crying from the grave for recognition.

Interviewer Jordan: Wow, that is a great story, a wonderful story. You talked about how your family kind of founded Bourbonnais, lived in the Bourbonnais area. Now from one of our interview projects, that left French speaking people there even in the early 1900s and they were starting schools and what not. How do you think the French took it when their language was no longer the one that was mostly used?

Leon: Well they gradually left their French language and spoke another one. In fact the name Bourbonnais was. . . I went to school there in 1945 and graduated grade school then. It was "Bour-bone-us" then, they had Anglicized it. Yes, maybe the gemeration--first and second--spoke French, I think my mother's generation, my father's, they both spoke French before they spoke English, but generally they Anglicized, just like the other people have Anglicized. In fact most of the names are now Anglicized into English.

Like mine is Issert I-S-S-E-R-T, you just don't Anglicize that easily. Why? I mean it comes out to a different name. But for instance like Fortin—Fort-in, Bergeron—Berg-er-on, Granger instead of Granger, now its Granger. One of the names is. . . Roy. Roy is in our background. And Mimi say Roy in French.

Mimi: Roi. It's a hard sound to make because you have to roll the R before you make the difficult sound.

Leon: Roi.And now Roy is so simple, but it's Roi, so I suppose Roi changed rather fast into Roy, but if you're speaking French, Roy doesn't sound right. I imagine just as we speak English Roi doesn't sound right. Which means "royal" actually.

Mimi: Yeah. Corduroy comes from that because it really meant roadway for the king. They would lay down logs and it looked like this corduroy fabric. That's really where that name came from... Corduroy… The roadway for the king.

Interviewer Jordan: And it's funny that you're wearing corduroy right now.


Leon: And it wasn't intent on either, I didn't know that story.

Interviewer Erica: What occupation did you do when you were younger?

Mimi: When I was younger? Well, I bought houses and repaired them and rented them.

Interviewer Erica: Ok

Interviewer Jordan: Um, uh, would you say that a farmer or that farming is a very important part of the French culture as far as the early 1900s? It's mostly the trades they had or were they skilled in many other things besides that?

Mimi: It depends on which side of the family you're looking at. An agricultural family generally remains largely agricultural. Wouldn't you say that Leon? Because the farms are passed down from one to the other, but my father's side, the Raiches are more spread all over the country because they came as lawyers, doctors, priests, and skilled tradesmen, they're a different type of people.

Interviewer Jordan: And blacksmiths.

Mimi: Right.

Interviewer Jordan: But this area is very agricultural. Um, we live in a very rural area so naturally Kankakee would have…

Leon: Um, Yes. I think maybe the French farmers are in a minority. I, you know the influx of new immigrants in the 18th, 19th, and early part of the 20th century, a lot of the Germans, and Dutch, and many other Europeans came over and took over the farming. Uh… The uh… Actually now the farms are so big there's very, very few people that are farmers. The size of the farm, well, you know, uh, 30, 40, 50 years ago was maybe 160 acres. Now it's 1600. Uh, there's farms here in this area of 5000 acres or more. The farming community has just been decimated, as far as people that is, they're in related industries. But um the diversified farms where you have cows, chickens, and corn crib and silos and the, uh, it's just gone, its part of the history.

Joe: Right, is that everything? No?

Interviewer Jordan: Are there any distinctly French communities like in our area now that have still maintained their "Frenchness" and their, uh, the practices and their distinctly French qualities?

Mimi: I think maybe that the clubs and the Letourneau House in Bourbonnais would come closer to that than anything else I can think of. I really do. I think that I have come along at a time to watch the demise of the culture, I really do. But I think they are making a really good effort at trying to keep French culture alive at the Letourneau House in Bourbonnais.

Interviewer Jordan: And you are a part of a French society at Joliet. Why don't you talk about that?

Leon: Well, yes my niece invited me over to the French club in Joliet and I found it very interesting, a very small club speaking French, well most of the people, except people like me who go there who aren't very literate in French. But there's a group of people who want to keep the French culture alive, French language in the area is very, very small. One of the French churches in the area that's really the same now as it was 100 years ago is St. John the Baptist in L'Erable. People named it L'Erable, L'Erable, I guess its L'Erable, meaning "the maples" I think. Something with trees or something.

Mimi: Yes

Leon: That church, although I mean everybody that goes there isn't French. They don't speak French, but you ought to see it. In fact when my oldest daughter went there for the first time a few years ago she said, "Are we in heaven?" It had all the knickknacks, angles, and the lights. And all the beautiful artistry of the French Canadian culture in it.

Mimi: Leon, is that not where the statue of Our Lady of the [Distaff?] went after St. Joseph's Seminary was torn down? Wasn't that in the back of the L'Erable Church?

Leon: I don't know. I didn't realize that.

Mimi: Well, I have a picture of that statue in the house.

Interviewer Jordan: L'Erable is a very small town; only about um…12 houses and a tavern.

Mimi: Really?

Leon: The Long Branch.

Interviewer Jordan: The Long Branch.

Leon: Yes.

Interviewer Jordan: Taco night.

Leon: Pardon me.

Interviewer Jordan: Taco night.

Leon: Taco night. OK, they have different nights there I know. Yes, and it draws from all over. The Long Branch is a building like that, just a small building that's been there for centuries, maybe not for centuries but at least a hundred years or more, and it's just a popular place.  You know there's a French culture, the Cajun culture, which probably the Arcadians began the dispersal of the French from Arcadia, "Acadia" actually, in Canada, after this war that the British won in 1779 or '69, the French wouldn't pay homage to the king up in Acadia and so the British just said "that's it, you're goin", and loaded them up by gun-point and bayonet and actually they were cruel.  They actually split families; put men on one boat and women on another—very cruel. 

But, the British knew how to colonize. They knew how to divide, how to separate and divide.  They were ,well, they were the best . . . the biggest colonizers in the world.  The sun never set on their flag.  But anyhow, what I was leading to was the banjo players and the Cajun music…it's like bluegrass, it's the music of the people, very down and dirty, or whatever, it was just very earthy.

Interviewer Jordan:  There was a different influx of people, as far as generations go, from Europe, those escaping the First World War, but also those settling even before the British colonies came. So there's a little generation gap between those people, eh?

Leon: We do have a connection with the Indian culture here. It's in the story of the move, dispersal or the movement of the Indians in 1835 or so there was a treaty of, uh, I'm going to say Tippecanoe, it wasn't Tippecanoe, but it was some treaty, they were moved from this area to Council Bluffs, Iowa. They were moved here to the west side of Iowa near Nebraska. And one of the people that was involved in that was our ancestor, Bergeron, Alexis, no Alexis, not Francois, Bergeron. He was the first Bergeron that came here. He was hired by the government to help these people, to guide these people out of here. It was a sad event. The old, and the women and children and I don't remember if the men, if they went or if they were already gone, or if they fought.

But, one of the other connections we have with the Indians was with a Bergeron named Francois, according to the story that I heard, or saw written, he married Wat-che-kee. After Wat-che-kee was given to Hubbard, the English trader, as the Indians would do, they would give their women and children, women were more or less collateral, owned by the man I think was their system. Wat-che-kee was married to Hubbard, Hubbard divorced her. And I think it was Noel LaVasseur that became her second husband, and then he wanted a legitimate wife also. He divorced her and she was still, I guess of child-bearing age because Francois Bergeron married her and they had three children and this probably would've been around 1850, well I'm not quite sure, but it was in the middle 19th century. So Francois Bergeron married Wat-che-kee who was, you know who Wat-che-kee was? Apparently, she was the Indian maiden that Watseka I think took the name from and she is in the history, early folklore history of this area.

Interviewer Jordan: There's a lot of folklore and history that a lot of people aren't even, don't even know about this area.

Mimi: That's true. Everything across the river also belonged to an Indian princess, not Watseka, her name was Catish. I happen to know it because I have a map drawn of the area as it was then on a deed to a piece of property that I bought. Catish…

Leon: What's the name of the park, the 4-H park? There's Indian land in Bourbonnais township.. these were.. I.. I think.. I don't know… as the white... as our government.. our country expanded, we would I guess donate or say well you could stay on this parcel of the ground and that they called it an Indian reservation and then the rest is just taken over by or sold by the American government. We actually did really push them right off. They didn't own land.

The Indian culture didn't own land. They thought it belonged to a higher source. God for instance. They didn't have any title to their land so it was easy to get rid of them and there was no fighting in the courts and I think back just a few years, last year, there was a tribe, a Miami tribe tried to bring a court case against the land near Champaign. They wanted, they were trying to see if they could get title to it…to say… to prove that they had title to it… but it didn't go through.

Interviewer Jordan: Did you guys have anything else that you wanted to say?

Leon: No.

Interviewer Jordan: Any more questions? OK. Um..uh.. we just wanted to thank you for letting us do this interview with you both…And if you have anything else to say…about your culture or your family, we would like to know.

Mimi: You'r very welcome and we are very honored that you thought enough of the French heritage to come and talk to us. Thank you very much.

Leon: Mimi, that's beautiful. What more can I say? Thank you. It's been a pleasure… I certainly enjoyed… enjoyed this very much. Maybe if some other time, I'll bone up and do a little more homework and I'll tell you more stories maybe.

Interviewer Jordan: We do this every year I think. They are continuing to build the website, so definitely.