The narratives recording the lives of ordinary New Hampshire people that were compiled through the federal Folklore Project during the Great Depression are treasures worth discovering.
The Folklore Project was administered as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (1935-1943), which in turn was a program of the WPA (Works Progress Administration).
One of the most comprehensive and wide-ranging of these narratives was the story of Philippe Lemay, who was interviewed by Folklore Project worker Louis Pare. Lemay was born in 1856 in Saint-Ephrem D’Upton, a small town about 50 miles east of Montreal, Quebec. He was the fourth of 14 children. His family immigrated to Lowell, Mass., in 1864, where Lemay got his first job in a textile mill when he was only 8 years old.
Lemay came to Manchester in 1872 and was hired as a textile laborer for the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. He would remain with the Amoskeag for 60 years, rising from the bottom to become one of the first immigrants to hold management positions in the mills. When he retired in 1924 after 60 years with the company, he was the overseer of the enormous Coolidge Mill on McGregor Street on the west side.
Lemay’s narrative includes a history of early French-Canadian immigration to Manchester. The story is enriched with vivid details of family and work life, and includes a frank assessment of the challenges his community faced. Among these were the serious conflicts that arose between the “French” and other recent immigrants during the late 19th century. As Lemay recounted, “Those days of petty persecution, beating, rock-throwing swill-slinging and tragedy are not nice to remember … Our troubles came mostly, not to say entirely, from Irish people who, it seems, were afraid that we had come here to take their jobs away from them in the mills and who tried hard to send us back to Canada by making life impossible for us in America. They wanted us to speak the English among ourselves when we only knew French and it made them mad because we didn’t. They had forgotten — or didn’t know — that French-Canadians had taken into their homes many orphaned children of Irish immigrants to Canada and brought them up as their own. Yes, Irish-Americans should have been our best friends over here, not our worst enemies.”
In contrast to Lemay’s gritty urban story, another New Hampshire Folklore Project narrative reveals charming elements from the world of a small-town newspaperman in Canaan. Edward A. Barney, editor and publisher of the Canaan Reporter, was interviewed by Henry H. Pratt. As Barney related, “When my father (Charles O. Barney) started the Reporter, back in 1867, the country newspaper had the rural field pretty much to itself. The city dailies hadn’t invaded it, at least up here, to any great extent … What news people got in the country they read once a week from their local papers … World events didn’t interest them much; anyway, they were contented to bide the coming of the weekly to learn about them.”
Barney went on to say, “I rate editorials, in a country paper, of small importance. They are skipped by a lot of readers — most of them, probably. Somehow, they feel they can’t be bothered by such weighty subjects. If editorials are to have any interest at all, to country readers, they must be about live local subjects, written from the rural point of view.”
He reflected on his role in this way, “The editor himself regarded his work as something resembling a ‘call;’ he was willing to follow it for the privilege of making use of talents a little different from those of the common run of people … He was a sort of oracle among them — a fount of earthly wisdom … I have never been afraid of hard work and long hours; I am the jack-at-all-trades sort of editor. I solicit advertisements, write special features, gather news items, set a lot of type, carry on a general information bureau for the public. The editor of the Manchester Union once told me: ‘You are filling a more strenuous job than any editor on my staff. There, each man has his own particular job, that’s all — you have everything to see to.’”
Next week: WPA Art Project and other New Deal murals in New Hampshire.