Submitted by Diane M. (Martineau) Brunelle
When the city of Lowell, Massachusetts celebrated Franco-American week in June 2002, my husband and I had the pleasure of attending a small ceremony at the Little Canada Monument on Aiken Street. There, I found myself reminiscing and thinking about how my father would have been 100 years old on September 10th. That day I also met a nice woman named Mrs. Houde who spoke only French and told me she and her late husband had lived in one of my father’s apartments and what wonderful memories she had of him.
I was born at 234 Aiken Street (where the new UMass Lowell Recreation Center is now situated), and my father was the late Henri Martineau. He was a prominent, well-respected landlord and businessman who owned numerous properties in Little Canada, from the 20’s to the 60’s. He always wore blue bib overalls, had a crew cut and he also had a great sense of humor. He bought his first tenement, double blocks, as they were known then, when he was still a teenager working in the mills with his sisters, Flore Dufresne and Amanda Martineau who were mill girls. The Lowell Redevelopment Authority, or The Urban Renewal Project as it is known now, took many of his properties by eminent domain. Many of the tenements were on or around Aiken, Austin, Cheever, Hall, Tucker, Ward, Ford, Moody, Decatur, Race, Merrimack and Moody Streets to name a few. Many of those streets no longer exist. In 1944 he also bought 243-253 Aiken Street, known as Lavallee Place and 283-285 Aiken Street. In 1947 the rent was $3.50 a week for a 5-room apartment in Lavallee Place, and some were even furnished. Laura’s Variety Store, owned by Louis and Laura Lamothe, was located there. I also remember that people would take turns to wash and hang out their clothes to dry on clotheslines that reached from one porch to the other across the alleyway.
My father always took good care of his properties and would do anything for his tenants. All they had to do was call and he would be there, even if it was only a light bulb that needed changing! Many times my siblings and I were called upon to help clean, paint or wallpaper rooms the old fashion way. With two sawhorses under each end of a large board, our job was to put the paste or glue on the back of the wallpaper and my father would do the hanging on the wall. He even helped a woman figure out a dress pattern once and assisted another woman with crocheting instructions. He had a God-given ability to deal with people and he was a whiz at math. He could tackle any maintenance needed on the buildings. He rigged up the doorbell at our front door so that when someone rang it, all my mother had to do was push a switch from upstairs on the second floor where we lived and the door would then open up for them to come upstairs. He was way ahead of his time! My Uncle Arthur Dufresne worked closely with my father and he was the one called upon to do any carpentry work that needed to be done. Even before I was a teenager, I was the one who handled the rent cards.
My mother, Yvonne, was a housewife who nursed all of us as babies and who gladly stayed at home to be the heart and soul of the family. Even though I was still a teenager when she died, in her short time on earth she was a good role model and spiritual mentor. She taught my older sister, Flore, and I how to sew and cook at an early age. We made many braided rugs together. Mom always enjoyed company coming over to have coffee and chat. My parents loved to entertain and they would often play cards or sing and dance to music. Music and religion were a big part of our family when we were growing up.
We lived on the second floor above Judy’s Candy Store and Dube’s Barbershop. Theophile and Dinas Gagnon also lived on the second floor. Thomas and Emilia Boland, Louis and Blanche Kracyzk, Joseph and Rose Belanger and the Mary Kosiolek families lived on the third and fourth floors. At one time the Orille and Annette Robitaille family also lived on the third floor above us before moving to North Chelmsford. Leo (a fireman) and Marie Laferriere (I believed they had two children) lived across the alleyway (238 Aiken Street), along with Albert and Sylvia Gagnon and their son Bobby on the first floor. Hector Hubert, Rosario and Emma St. George, Ernest and Rose Dufresne and son Donald, Albert and Marie Trudel and sons, Leon (now deceased) and Bobby (now a policeman) lived on the second and third floors. Jim Hogan who lived at Cartier Place on Coolidge Street had wonderful memories of hanging around Laura’s Variety Store as a teenager with his buddies Bobby Bourassa and Ray Lessard. Jim said Laura’s had a booth and jukebox at the back of the store and teenagers were always welcomed and never shooed away. On Aiken Street there was also Mr. Giguere, the cobbler, with the big boot at the front door.
Flore would often baby-sit the younger brother of the late Bob Tessier. Bob was known as “Cueball” back then and he later went on to become an actor in Hollywood. One of the famous movies he starred in was The Longest Yard. I remember the Ragman, Mr. Tessier yelling, “Rags, rags!”, Blondie “Tiger” Frechette and the Iceman. I remember those four party phone lines where everyone had a certain amount of rings and different sounds in order for a person to know when it was their phone to pick up. In the 1940’s you only had 3 or 4 numbers needed to reach someone and later the exchange, GL for Glenview, was added. You always knew when someone was listening in on your conversations.
There were so many movies that you could go see for 5 and 10 cents. Some gave out ticket numbers that you could use to get popcorn or drinks. Among some the movie theatres were the Rialto, Royal, Strand, Keith, Capitol, Merrimack and the Palace.
We always had Rochette’s beans (with bananas for me of course) on Saturdays. I am in possession of the recipe for their famous home made beans. Rochette’s was located on Race Street and they also made great pies. Salmon was my favorite to have on Fridays. My father would always buy candy in bulk, black moons, and corncakes with the old fashioned chocolates to put on top, for anyone that would drop by to visit us. I also remember reading L’Etoile, the French newspaper.
Everyone that came to our home enjoyed seeing and playing with the spider monkey we owned. My father would enjoy watching boxing in the living room and the monkey’s cage was in the other room. The monkey would rattle his cage stretching his neck out until he could move the cage and see the television set and would mimic boxing with his hands. It was a real funny sight to see. There was also the time when my mother opened his cage to feed him while two nuns had come for a visit. Well, their habit scared the “heck” out of him. He went wild and one of the nuns went running out the door screaming. Her habit got caught in the door and the monkey was pulling away at it from inside the house. I will never forget that day. It was hilarious, although I don’t think at the time the nuns thought it was!
From the second story window of our home, my grandfather Joseph Gauthier, who died before I was born, would sit for hours with his spittoon always right by him and watch the good view of the goings on up and down Aiken Street. I’m told my Mémère was not too thrilled about that!
When I attended St. Joseph’s Grammar School, I remember the uniforms we had to wear with the stiff white collar around the neck over our blouses and those stiff white wrist cuffs! The nuns did such a good job teaching us in kindergarten (known as “Baby Grade” back then), that some of us, including my sister Flore, were promoted right into the second grade, skipping the first. That was not uncommon in those days.
My mother would put my hair up in rags at night to make “budains” (probably spelled wrong) when I went to school. When you went to Mass and received Holy Communion, you had to kneel in front of the altar and put your hands under a white cloth that was draped over the railing. You were never allowed to chew or touch the host. You also always had to cover your head if you were a girl. If you didn’t have a hat or kerchief you had to put a handkerchief on your head. I think no woman or girl ever left home without a handkerchief in her pocketbook!
Vitaline (Martineau) and Oxeliphas Breton were my aunt and uncle and they lived on Moody Street next to my uncle’s shoe store, Vincent’s. They had thirteen children and some of them, as did many other young couples, rented apartments from my father when they started their married lives. In order to keep the rent low, if newlyweds wanted their own personal touch in their apartments, he would pay for the materials they choose, such as paint and wallpaper, and they would do the labor themselves. When someone moved out of an apartment, Papa always made sure there was a fresh coat of paint and the place was cleaned up before the next tenant moved in.
When World War II ended in 1945, I’m told that my father drove around the streets of Little Canada and the Lowell area in his flat bed type truck with people on board carrying pots, pans, spoons, and anything they could find to bang around and make noise. He would stop and some people would get off and someone else would get on to join in the celebration.
I have heard from many people whose parents have handed down stories to them about how my father and how he helped them during the difficult years of the Depression. There was a man who needed money to buy shoes for his family and dad’s response was, “Forget the rent and buy your children some shoes”. He also helped men who came down from Canada to work in the mills in order to send money back home to maintain their farms and buy more cows. Many of his renters were old and had a hard time with stairs or walking to church. Some couldn’t afford to buy wood or coal for heating in their black iron stoves so he left wood on one of his empty lots for anyone who needed it. Some used oil for fuel but couldn’t carry the jugs; he was always there to help no matter what the situation.
I know my father would have breakfast at Ouellette’s Diner on Moody Street. We have a photo of a sign that was on the wall at Ouellette’s with the inscription that read, “Lyndon B. Martineau…. Speaker of the House”. I’m told he was known as a conservative; however, my father was a talker and always had a joke to tell, thus he was known as the “Speaker of the House”. He also spent time with his buddies at Sailor Bill’s Restaurant on Lakeview Avenue.
My parents were very involved with the Little Canada community and St-Jean-Baptiste Church. Growing up in Little Canada, the important things in life were the Church, the family, the schools and neighbors and a job at the mills. My siblings are Flore, André, Emilé, René, (myself), Julie and Jeanne, born in that order. You may have known the older ones, as they lived in Little Canada longer than I did. Flore and André lived in Little Canada when they were first married. Flore lived on Merrimack Street and André in Lavallee Place. Among Flore’s best friends were Pauline Robitaille and Shirley Lamothe. The late Bobby Archambeault who lived above Turner’s Cafe was Andre’s long time best friend.
Maman and Papa bought a large, waterfront camp on Lake Mascuppic, at Lakeview on Willowdale Avenue in Tyngsborough in the early 40’s. It was down the road from where the bathhouses were once located on Willowdale Avenue in Dracut. It was the former summer camp for the Lafayette Club members. My father later converted it to a year round residence and every summer the late Father “Spike” Morissette would come to our home at the lake with Altar Boys or other parishioners from St-Jean-Baptiste for outings. It would be nice to hear from those of you who may have spent some time at the lake with us. Remember spinning the wheel of the round “top” in the water or swinging into the water from the rope that was tied to the tree leaning over the water? I was nicknamed, “poisson” (fish) in those days. I remember, one day, going to Canney’s Ice Cream Stand in Dracut with my mother and buying 17 banana splits for everyone to enjoy. My father loved children and he would often give them money to buy ice cream and candy.
It was always open house at our home at the lake; swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter to the juke box on the porch. Perhaps we played a game of pool in our large playroom or sang to the music anywhere from the early 1900s to the fifties from our player piano, which displayed the words on the rolls. The older people even danced the quadrilles to the music played by the bands that performed at our home. At night from my bedroom window I always enjoyed hearing the music that the big bands played at the Lakeview Ballroom. I was too young to attend the dances; however, my older sister and brothers were not. We also rented boats (33 or so), and canoes…boy did we hate it when it rained. That was a lot of boats to empty. Many of you might have enjoyed coming to fish with your family. In the 60’s it would cost only 50 cents all day during the week, and $1.00 all day Sunday, to rent a boat.
There was a man and his son who was around 12 years old that would rent boats from us on a regular basis. The son always enjoyed playing with the monkey when they came. His father would always tell my father that if he ever wanted to get rid of the monkey he would gladly take it off of our hands. After seeing how the boy’s face would light up and how he interacted with the monkey, my father gave them the monkey and they built a jungle-type attic for him in their home. That’s the type of person my father was. That’s how my parents were. They always enjoyed helping and making people happy.
Besides Father Morissette, they counted among their many friends the late Homer Bourgeois, Alphee Achin, and numerous politicians, including the many mayors of that era, especially the late George Ayotte.
My father was always coming home with some animal he either found or someone gave him. Along with the monkey we had many dogs, cats, ducks and chickens over the years. My brothers, sisters and I plucked many chickens that were hung in the cellar after my father had killed them. He would soak them in a bucket of hot water in order for us to pull the feathers off more easily. We also had a horse, a pet squirrel, a snake, a lizard, chickens, ducks and even a fox for a short period. Once he came home with a baby skunk, a critter that needed to be fed by hand. He assured my mother the skunk was too young to “spray” and he would release it when it was older. One day Flore had on this nice linen dress my mother had just made for her when someone came to visit and somehow frightened the poor creature. It reacted by spraying Flore and her new dress. Flore tells me that her clothes had to be buried. I think the last straw was when he found a porcupine in the road, wrapped it up in a blanket and took it home to show all of us. My mother’s comment was, “What on earth are we going to do with a porcupine?”
I would enjoy hearing from anyone that lived in the area and may remember my late father and mother. I also would love to hear of any memories you may have of my family in order to pass them onto my six children and their children. I want them to be aware of their French-Canadian heritage. My father passed away in 1974 and my mother in 1964. My children never knew my mother and were very young when my father died. My parents were very loving, honest, caring, and unselfish and compassionate people. They were humble people, as those who knew them could attest. We were very blessed to have had them as our parents.
Any information you can share about those good old days would be greatly appreciated. My e-mail address is Diane.Brunelle@Verizon.net.
Diane M. (Martineau) Brunelle