October 7, 2012

Sisters recount their hard work, sacrifices for families

By Keith Edwards kedwards@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Christine Dupuis was a junior at Cony High School in 1951 when her father, Aime Bechard, died and she had to go to work at the Edwards mill to help support her family.

click image to enlarge

Staff photo by Andy Molloy MEMORY LANE: Sisters Christine Dupuis, right, Lorraine Danforth and Edna Doyon recalled growing up in Augusta in the 1950s during an interview in Belgrade.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

click image to enlarge

MEMORY LANE: Sisters Lorraine Danforth, right, Christine Dupuis and Edna Doyon grew up in Augusta in the 1950s.

Contributed photo

She'd leave Cony early in the afternoon and head over the river to the mill, where she worked in shipping until 9:30 or so at night, doing homework in between shipments.

Dupuis didn't make a lot of money and times were tight at the Bechard family's Bond Street home, in the shadow of the mill complex. But she made enough at the mill, which employed thousands of workers, many of them Franco Americans, so her younger sisters could stay in school without joining her in the mill, though they both worked there after they graduated.

"Because of her, we were able to finish high school," said sisters Lorraine Danforth, 77, now of Chelsea.

Recently the three sisters, now in their 70s, reminisced about their childhood on Bond Street in their close-knit neighborhood and, later, working in the mill. It was a hardscrabble existence by today's standards. They didn't have a car and their home was heated with an inadequate oil heater and they had no refrigerator for a long time, going down the street to a neighbor's for ice cubes when they wanted to have a cold Kool-Aid.

They spoke as Jan Michaud asked them questions about their past, and her husband, Victor, recorded video of the interview.

The stories the three sisters shared of growing up in their three-bedroom duplex apartment at 21 Bond St. are but one sample of the stories the Michauds, of Augusta, are working to preserve one DVD video at a time.

The fact the entire Bechard family worked at the mill piqued the Michaud's interest. The three sisters are the only members still alive.

"When we found out all the family had worked there, mom, dad, and all five children, we knew we had to hear what they had to say," Jan Michaud said. "We wanted to provide a picture of what life was like for them. Life was hard, but there were very good moments. We're doing this for posterity. So we don't lose the history of manufacturing in the city."

Dupuis, 78, said a job at the mill was about the only way someone like her could help provide for her family. She considered dropping out of school, but Cony's principal worked with her to first help her find a job at the mill, and to adjust her schedule so she could stay in school while working.

The family spoke French at home. At St. Augustine school, up the hill from their home, they were taught in French half the day and English the other.

The sisters said they knew all their neighbors -- residents there kept their homes neat and tidy, and everyone would help each other out. And the family's lack of a car wasn't much of a hindrance, because downtown had most of what they needed.

Their mom, Alida, was in a wheelchair for a time, but still managed to keep their modest home clean, and she entertained frequently.

"After our father died, mom didn't want us out on the streets, so she said bring your friends to our house," Dupuis said.

The girls and their friends would play records and dance the jitterbug.

Other social activities included bowling or playing softball on teams of mill workers, going to functions at Le Club Calumet, and when their dad was alive, card games after church.

Youngest sister Edna Doyon, 75, said the family's only toilet was in the dirt-floor cellar. And they had no tub or shower. They took sponge baths, their mother heating up water on the kitchen stove.

(Continued on page 2)

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