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French Influences in Glengarry

On the hill, perhaps as a monument to the village’s historical development, stands the impressive LeClair mansion, which afier 120 years still retains many of its original features. “Constructed of brick with wood trim, the mansard roof, twin dormers and omately bracketed central upper doorway were characteristic of late Victorian Second Empire Revival Style and French heritage” according to the South Glengarry Local Architectural Conservatory Advisory Committee. Other features such as the Italianate round-headed windows, bracketed eaves, double-glazed front door with square transom, high ceilings in the large rooms, the sweeping staircase and robust joinery are exceptional in this rural area. The wide verandah, however, becomes a country setting.

The ambitious aspirations of local entrepreneur, Alexander LeClair, who also served as postmaster from 1899 to 1914, most likely led to the building of this elaborate house. Alexander wished to entice Catherine Forestall, the niece and ward of the affluent railway contractor, Patrick Purcell, to come to live in these rustic surroundings as his second wife. In any case, the eclectic architectural structuring of the house and its association with the important pioneer family headed by Alexander’s father, Charles LeClair, who had settled in the area in the 1820’s to become the first successful French Canadian merchant and entrepreneur in Glengarry, formed the basis for historical designation in 2002.

The town that grew up around the enterprises of Charles LeClair (1805- 1886) was called Clairville, before becoming North Lancaster somewhat later. LeClair was a rural businessman and a shrewd merchant. He was a hotel, store and ashery proprietor. He also became a postmaster, justice of the peace and an officer in the militia. He loaned money and owned farms and tenant houses. His first wife and the mother to eight offspring besides Alexander, Thérése Guindon, died in 1849. Charles was married for a second time to Cathrine McDonell, a widow with one daughter.

Charles’ second son, Peter Napoleon, graduated from the faculty of medicine at McGill in 1861 and served for a period as coroner for Glengarry county. The third son, Guillaume, was ordained in Rome in 1861 into the Order of St. Sulpice. He established the Canadian College in Rome where he served as Superior till 1902. This outstanding cleric, administrator, and educator seems to have been the first Glengarry-born Francophone priest. A church bell on a steeple of the shed would announce the times when the returning son was about to celebrate Mass in the chapel of the Charles LeClair home.

Thanks to the well-executed restorative initiatives of the Arsenault family the LeClair house stands as a current testimonial to this community’s former prominence. Other evidences exist in real life form and in the reminiscences of present and past residents. The first store operated by Charles LeClair and then by his son, Alexander, was ravaged by fire in 1900. It was rebuilt by Archibald J. MacDonald who also served as postmaster for eleven years before becoming an elected Member of Parliament in 1925. This was the same Mr. MacDonald that acted as clerk for the township of Lancaster for thirty-five years. North Lancaster had two other stores, one of which was built in the early 1900’s by a certain J.F. Cattanach and still stands at the comer of the crossroads in the center of the village. In the other store, opened in 1934 by D’Assise Vaillancourt, there was a barber and a pool table. The Vaillancourt store repaired watches, served gasoline, and later on sold ladies’ clothing. Two hotels accommodated visitors to the village. There was a bakery and Adrien Vaillancourt’s cheese factory, which had become the concern of the Vachon family by the time it ceased operations in 1970.

A favorite “hang-out” for everyone was that operated by Joseph and Clauda Saucier. Children were delighted by the generous treats from “tante Clauda”. On Sundays after Mass folks would love to play at the slot machine or checkers. And Mrs. Saucier’s place was a very popular gathering place each evening where it seems the gossip and joking fell silent when everyone wanted to hear the radio play “Un homme et son Péché”. Thereafter Monseigneur Léger (from Montreal) would lead the praying of the rosary over the air waves as many respectfully followed along in the local village. Homey and heart-warming stuff.

In 1939 or 1940 the son of the above mentioned Archibald J. MacDonald started a flax mill. Seed was distributed to the farmers and the fabric made from the flax yield was useful for the wings of the aircraft at the time. This mill was “run like a co-op” according to local resident Louis Bourbonnais, a sharp-minded source of information whose multi-talented brother, Joseph, fired the boiler. Joseph Bourbonnais’ inventiveness was useful in rigging up a generator to provide lighting for evening hockey prior to the arrival of hydro service which came to the village in 1937. Other activities of note were Donat Cuerrier’s wood working shop and Pierre Vincent’s saw mill. Donat Major, who sewed as post master from 1933 to 1965, found time to set up a feed mill which is currently operated by Jean Major under the name of Wilfrid Major Ltd.

Osias Bourbonnais was a very accomplished blacksmith, who relocated to North Lancaster from Ile-Perrot in the mid 1800’s. The blacksmith shop which his capable son, Alderic, operated for many years in North Lancaster has been moved to Upper Canada Village where it can still be seen in functioning form (though, unfortunately, not under the Bourbonnais name). The other blacksmith shop in the village was run by Victor Campeau and was located where the present day Donald Roy garage exists. The village also boasted two carriage shops and a livery stable where, says Louis Bourbonnais, “salesmen would rent horses to go around and display their wares”. The Dominion Day festivities at the race track near the village made this vibrant community the place to be.

The volume of business done by a community’s post office reflected the amount of activity of all sorts done in the village. Among the nineteen functioning post offices in Glengarry in 1868 the one in North Lancaster ranked seventh. It seems that the community was of active significance.

North Lancaster represented a strong French Canadian presence in Glengarry. French population in Glengarry grew rapidly after Confederation. The 1,371 French Canadians that amounted to 6.5 percent of Glengarry’s population in 1861 grew to 8,710 to become 41 percent of the people by 1911. Starting in 1935 one hour of French was permitted every day in the School Section No. 8 at the corner of the sixth concession at the edge of the village. Some teachers devoted to the cause of French instruction were Mrs. Aurore Cousineau, Germaine Vaillancourt, Cecile Vincent, Ruben Rozon, Edouard Brunet, and René Lacombe. In 1953 in response to the desire of the people, the local school board under the presidency of Paul Roy purchased some land to build a separate French Catholic school which opened as Ecole Ste-Thérése in 1955. Ecole Ste-Thérése was demolished in 2004 to make way for the new school, l’Ange-Gardien, which is a proud achievement for North Lancaster.

Much of the legacy of North Lancaster can still be recognized in the pride and composure of its present and past residents. French Canadian roots run deep as can be seen in the family names such as Bénault, Besner, Bourbonnais, Campeau, Decoeur, Desautels, Decoste, Dubeau, Glaude, Larocque, Lefebvre, Leroux, Laferrriere, Major, Roy, Rozon, Theorét, Vaillancourt, and Vachon. Some of the determination and optimism of the soul of the village is embodied in the Club Optimiste North Lancaster which functions in the French language.

Richard Bleile

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