Quebec’s New England outpost

The question asked in the title, taken from the song “Est-ce-que tu vas à Old Orchard encore cet année?” from a 1984 album by Sylvain Lelièvre, can be heard throughout Quebec as the snow melts and the sun starts to radiate on the spring horizon. For francophone Quebecers it is time to think and organize the summer holidays, ushered in on June 24 by la Fête de Saint-Jean.

The phrase “Québécois at the beach” usually conjures up images of Quebec’s snowbirds escaping winter for Florida’s sunny shores. But the Florida winter exodus is a recent phenomenon, reaching its peak in the 1990s and now beginning to dissipate because of the high insurance costs for fixed-income pensioners, increased transportation costs and the loss of trailer parks and inexpensive motels resulting from the boom in condominium construction along the Florida coast. To most Québécois, the seashore evokes one memory most of all – Old Orchard Beach, Maine. In every francophone family in Quebec, at some point since World War II, someone has visited Old Orchard.

Established in 1657 by its first settler, Thomas Rogers, Old Orchard was originally called the “Garden by the Sea.” Its current name is taken from the “old” apple orchard which, perched high on a hill above the sandy beach, served as a landmark to sailors for many years. In 1837, a farmer named E.C. Staples began taking in summer boarders at his farm and, based on this experience, built the first hotel, the Old Orchard Boarding House. Under his tutelage, Old Orchard became a sought-after summer retreat for Bostonians, with restaurants boasting of “shore dinners.” In 1842 the first steam railroad from Boston to Portland was completed, and in 1853 the Montreal-based Grand Trunk Railway extended its service from Portland to Old Orchard to accommodate the rich from Montreal who took their summer holidays there. In 1896, the first steel pier was built as well as a number of lavish resorts, nicknamed the “Velvet Hotels” because of their Victorian design and style. Over the next five decades Old Orchard was to become the summer destination for many of the new rich in Canada and the United States, with summer homes owned by Kennedys, Fitzgeralds and Molsons. Indeed, the teenaged Rose Fitzgerald, John F. Kennedy’s mother, met her future husband Joseph P. Kennedy in Old Orchard.

15 MVC-009FIt remained the summer playground of wealthy northeasterners until a massive fire in 1907 ravished Old Orchard, destroying 75 per cent of the town as well as the Velvet Hotels. But Old Orchard was determined to rebuild and in so doing resurrected itself as a major summer resort for the general public. This was in line with the consumer trends of the 1920s in which the American – and, to some extent, the French-Canadian – middle class was discovering the phenomenon of the “summer vacation.”

The 1920s and 1930s saw a proliferation of tourist activities including the arrival of international motor racing on the beach and the landing there of Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis one month after his return from Paris. It was the era of the big bands and thousands of vacationers danced at the Casino at the end of the pier to the sounds of Rudy Vallee, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, among others. This continued through the 1950s: my mother, now 85 years young, still remembers how she and my father danced on the pier to the sounds of such famous bands every summer in Old Orchard.

The end of World War II marked the beginnings of the invasion of the Québécois (or French Canadians as they were called then). The love affair between the Québécois and Old Orchard had begun. “The French Canadians, the ones with money, had always come here before the war, but after the war, they came in droves,” Priscilla Gallant, curator of the Old Orchard Historical Museum, explained to me. She herself has strong French-Canadian connections – as well as Acadian and Native (Haché) heritage. Gallant’s mother was a Roy, originally from the Beauce. She explained that today in Saco and Biddeford, towns just south of Old Orchard Beach, over 30 per cent of the population is of French-Canadian origin: “They came to work in the textile mills of Biddeford and some set up permanent residence right here in Old Orchard.” She paints a picture of a community that has incorporated into it the French-Canadian population: “St. Margaret Catholic Church – just at the top of Old Orchard Street, the main street of the town – was in the twenties and thirties a French church, and even today on Sundays some sermons are given in French for our Québécois friends who take their holidays here.” The ongoing presence of French Canadians is indeed strong here. In Biddeford Madame Côté, who works at the City Hall, greeted me in French. This former Quebecer from Sherbrooke, married to an American, described how the French-Canadian (now Franco-American) heritage was being preserved. Later at the presbytery of St. Margaret Church, I encountered Guenette Maheu, a woman in her sixties. As we conversed in French, her face and eyes lit up as she shared her reflections about the area. Speaking in her maternal language, her cultural roots seemed to flower.

15 MVC-003FIn July, the high point of the summer season, over 50 per cent of the vacationers are Québécois, according to the local chamber of commerce. These vacationers come from a wide spectrum of society: college students, young professionals, construction workers, politicians (former premier Robert Bourassa would spend his summer vacations in the area). The last half of July in Quebec is the traditional construction holiday: all union construction sites are shut down and practically everything stops in Quebec. Much as in France, there is a massive exodus of vacationers. “On s’en va à Old Orchard,” I was told by more than one hard-hat wearer when I visited the Palais de Congrès construction site in early July.

Clearly there is an ongoing love affair between Old Orchard and the Québécois and gradually the sources of this love affair have started to fall into place. Obviously the soft compact sand beach, 11 kilometres long and, at low tide, almost a kilometre wide, was a factor. Proximity was another: Old Orchard Beach is the closest seaside connection for much of Quebec. From Montreal, the scenic drive through the New Hampshire mountains and the pleasant Maine lowlands takes but five hours. An early start in the morning means that Montrealers can be at the beach by lunchtime: a scene repeated often at a factory where I once worked was of fellow workers, finishing the night shift at 7 a.m. on Friday, being picked up by their wives and kids in cars packed for a long weekend in Old Orchard Beach.

Ernest Hyppia, a retired cabbie who worked for a Westmount taxi company, recounted how people in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly older women without a car, would hire his cab at a flat rate to take them to Old Orchard. “The practice became so frequent,” he said, “that the cab company had 10 taxis a day going back and forth between Montreal and Old Orchard. When other cab companies in Montreal heard this, they also set up the same service.” Fortunately, “There was enough business to go around and I spent many summers enjoying the visits to Old Orchard.”

But there is a more fundamental reason, something beyond proximity, something to do with culture. On the one hand, there is the cozy atmosphere connected with the French-Canadian cultural heritage; on the other, there is the undeniable fact that since World War II generations of Québécois are products of North American popular culture: they contribute to it and feel comfortable in it. “When we come down the 95 (Interstate 95), from Portland, we see signs in French telling us the distance in kilometres; this makes us feel good,” voiced a group of 20 young adults from Quebec City installed in a row of summer cabins rented for the week.

They find welcoming signs everywhere from “Ici, nous parlons français” on all the hotels, motels, inns, and campgrounds to store signs such as “Kebec Motel”, “La Reine Motel” and “La Place à Louise.” These and many others tell the story of the rental establishments bought and administered by Québécois such as the Laviolette sisters, both in their seventies. The two sisters, who had been coming to Old Orchard since 1949, have for the last 30 years been residents and owners of a motel there.

15 MVC-001FBut the “welcoming signs” are deeper than just the storefront signs. There is a kind of sociopsychological link that subconsciously draws Québécois to an area where they feel they belong. “My father brought me here when I was a youngster, I now return with my young son …. It has become a tradition for the Brunet family of Quebec,” proclaimed Jean Brunet, who seemed to be the spokesperson for “la gang.” Today they not only come as couples and families but also in groups, often large groups. Even though they may not know the history of their ancestors’ massive immigration south to the textile mills of New England, they see traces of the descendants of some of their own ancestors who immigrated here to earn a better living on mailboxes and in the phone books. There is also a subtle but identifiable social connection – as Québécois walk the beach, everyone spontaneously addresses them in French: “ Bonjour”, Bonne Journée”, “Il fait beau aujourd’hui”, “Prenez votre temps.” Yet no one carries a distinguishable mark, sign or flag that says “I am Québécois.” As Québec historian Paul-André Linteau once remarked, “C’est le Québec par en bas” (It’s Quebec down below). This is the informal side of a developing “Francophonie” in a region of North America that has historical, economic and now political links with Quebec.

Beyond cultural identity, there is a more recent sociocultural phenomenon that makes them feel at home in Old Orchard. Starting in the 1950s, with the advent of television and the proliferation of movie theatres in the context of the wider economic development taking place, an educated middle class and a skilled and prosperous working class (both elements that would later on demand the changes fostered by the Quiet Revolution) emerged in Quebec. These classes came to be contributors to a budding North American popular culture – the only difference, as Fernand Dumont put it, is that we express our North American popular culture in French. This continued and massive integration into North American popular culture has been identified in a literature that identifies a key defining characteristic of the Québécois to be their américanité.1

The Québécois have always felt more of a north/south pull rather than an east/west one, sometimes to the chagrin of their fellow Canadians. From the earliest times of colonization the French, or “Canayens” as they called themselves, ancestors of today’s Québécois, explored most of the North American continent, long before the British and the eventual Americans. The guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition was a French Canadian who had already explored what was later called the Oregon territory. French Canadians and now Québécois have long known that their culture, over 400 years, was developed on this side of the Atlantic and is North American, but expressed in French – Québécois French to be more specific.

In movies and especially on television (TV came to Canada in 1952, through the CBC), middle- and working-class Québécois could see what they themselves felt as they came in droves to Old Orchard Beach (the first place of massive contact with the United States): that they were no different, except in language, from their American cousins. They listened and danced to the same music, even in French.

Long before the arrival of the music of the chansonnier, which catered more to the university-educated elite of post–Quiet Revolution Quebec, a form of North American pop music, Quebec-style, sung by, among others, Lucille Dumont, Alys Roby and Fernand Gignac (a crooner compared to Bing Crosby), could be heard throughout Quebec – and, of course, in Old Orchard. There it blended in with Duke Ellington, whose music, along with that by local jazz musicians such as Oscar Peterson, the vacationing Québécois had already danced to in Montreal night clubs then in their heyday, the Mocambo, the Bellevue Casino, le Coq D’or, le Faisan Doré and the legendary Rockhead’s Paradise. Going to Old Orchard meant not culture shock but cultural continuity.

Today Old Orchard has changed – as have most places over the years. Gone are the big bands; the pier, racked by violent winter storms, is now only 200 metres long. Nevertheless, it still holds the same attraction for lower-income and working-class families from Quebec – as well as from the New York and Boston areas. The missing group is the middle-class professionals from Montreal, who in the last 20 years seem to have abandoned the area as a summer destination. You often sense a condescending attitude: Old Orchard is described as too “kétaine” (kitcsh is the closest term in English). As they have come to see themselves as more sophisticated, urban, and cosmopolitan, they have been leaving Old Orchard for more expensive and sophisticated places such as Ogunquit and Kennebunk in Maine, and Cape Cod farther south in Massachusetts. Hence, perhaps the best reflection of contemporary Quebec’s cultural duality, identified with Montreal on one side and the rest of the province on the other, is on the beaches of Maine, with Old Orchard as haven of le Québec profond.

“I am not kétaine” shrugged Jean-Marc from Rigaud, sitting on a bench on the main street of Old Orchard enjoying an ice cream cone with his two kids. “Why should I be considered kétaine just because I come to a place by the sea, which is beautiful, cheaper than other places, close to home, and has everything for my kids’ amusement?” “C’est beau, bon, pas chère!” sums up the response from most of the Québécois I encountered who, in different accents, told me they came from the Beauce, Quebec City, Lévis, Rouyn-Noranda, Laval, Trois-Rivières, Hemmingford, Sherbrooke and other places in-between.

Jacques Larivée, who along with his wife Line Côté and their daughter Stéphanie made up an extremely pleasant and warm family from Lévis near Quebec City, plainly but eloquently told me, “I have come here for the last 35 years, every year. First with my father, later with my own family, and now my son, who will come next week with his young family. It is close, we feel at home. Look at all the Québécois around us, everywhere. We can cook our own meals. Each motel has kitchenettes, so ordinary families like us can get by. Even in the years of the high US dollar we still came, like most of our friends: holidays were shorter, but we came. It is like going to the chalet. And for the kids and young adolescents this is a great place. Vive Old Orchard.”

Of course, they acknowledged Old Orchard had changed over the years, as everything in life changes. But they did not sit in judgment and in many ways like it even more today because they see more Americans coming – hard-working American families like themselves, trying to have a good summer vacation, which they surely deserved.

Upon my return from my Old Orchard pilgrimage, my daughter, a graduate in art history from l’Université du Québec à Montréal, welcomed me back to Montreal with, “Hey! You went to Old Orchard, the kingdom of kitsch.” I felt a little embarrassed. Seeing my embarrassment she insisted on educating me, “Don’t be! Even Andy Warhol celebrated popular culture as an art form born from the people. Opera when it first started was considered popular culture of the day. Popular culture, kitsch, should be studied – its good points and its bad points – but we should never denigrate it. Sure Old Orchard is kitsch but it is our Québécois kitsch!”

So, as I looked over to my wife, I asked, “Are we going to go to Old Orchard again next year?”


1 Readers can follow the discussion of this idea of the américanité of the Quebecois in Quebec Studies, Spring 2002, which published a dossier on the subject based on research conducted by the GRAM (Group de recherché sur l’américanité), under the direction of the author.