Villages, Industrialization and General Stores – Sainte-Blandine, 19th and 20th Centuries
Chapter 10 focuses on the period around the turn of the 20th century. We find ourselves in the general store of Sainte-Blandine, a small village south of Rimouski.
An expanding population and the settlement of new villages created new sectors of economic activity requiring more specialized training. People wishing to devote themselves to careers such as land surveying or navigating the St. Lawrence had to attend schools in the City of Québec or Montréal.
The Lower St. Lawrence region contained pine forests whose towering trees provided the square timber prized by builders and merchants.
The principal villages producing timber, planks, and boards from pine, spruce, and fir trees were Rivière-du-Loup, Rimouski, and Métis. The industrialization of lumber production required increasing mechanization of sawmills and the acquisition of timber rights on enormous swathes of public land, and consequently demanded large amounts of capital. Production was rapidly concentrated in the hands of a few big entrepreneurs with access to financing from outside of Quebec. William Price was among these grand magnates of capitalism who contributed to the industrialization of logging. Born in England in 1789, he arrived in Canada in 1810 as a wood buyer for a London company. Six years later, he decided to go into logging himself. His access to British capital made it possible for him to acquire several sawmills in the Lower St. Lawrence region and elsewhere in Quebec and Ontario, and by the 1850s, he was dubbed “The Wood King.” By this time, he owned cutting rights to the whole Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region and approximately one-quarter of the logging land in the Lower St. Lawrence region and the Gaspé Peninsula. A village located just upriver from Métis would be named after him.
Logging continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Even today, it remains a major industry in the region.
In the 1890s, the demand for wood to make paper for large-circulation newspapers breathed new life into the logging industry.
Road Development and the Advent of Railroads
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Chemin Royal from Trois-Pistoles was extended as far as Métis, reaching Matane around 1850. With the development of the road network and the advent of the railroad, logging companies began cutting forests in the Matapedia and Témiscouata valleys. Sawmills sent their production by train not only to the City of Québec and Montréal, but also to the United States. The construction of railroads leading west and south fostered the development of some areas over others. As a result, the villages of Kamouraska and Rivière-Ouelle, which relied on maritime transportation, dwindled in importance.
Shipbuilding was also in its heyday in the Lower St. Lawrence region and near Chaleur Bay, to meet the demand for wood shipping to foreign markets. Many small sailing ships (30 to 60 register tons) were built to carry goods or people over short distances. Typical ships built in the 1800s included charrois, merchant ships, and flat-bottomed schooners called sloops, which could come closer in to shore.
A large number of docks were built to facilitate the loading of goods and the shipping of wood. Transportation towards the City of Québec and the challenges involved in navigating the river required the construction of lighthouses along the St. Lawrence.
Navigating the St. Lawrence was a challenging feat. Shipwrecks were common until after the Second World War. The colonies were thus shielded from British naval attack.
As early as the 18th century, captains used beach fires to identify riverbanks and shoals, allowing them to navigate the river more safely.
In 1809, the L’Île-Verte lighthouse, one of the oldest in Canada, was put into service. Many other lighthouses were erected on the shores of the St. Lawrence, and along Canada’s boundless coastline.
Lighthouses, often placed on an isolated and treeless point of land, require the permanent presence of a lighthouse keeper to ensure that the light does not go out. This career, requiring individuals to live in the lighthouse from April to December, was harsh and far from idyllic. As of the 1800s, the government started encouraging lighthouse keepers to bring their families with them, so that they would be more inclined to stay. Houses, sheds, and other small buildings were added, small plots of land were cultivated, and fishing and harvesting of wood added some extra comfort. The family trade of lighthouse-keeping was passed from father to son.
In the 1940s, with the new importance of telecommunications, many keepers were trained as radio technicians and the job took on a more professional character. The automation of lighthouses in more recent years has, however, led to the disappearance of this occupation.
The development and acceleration of modes of transportation made it easier for well-off families in Montréal and the City of Québec to visit the “Bas-du-Fleuve” region, where they would spend time reaping the benefits of country living and the salty air from the river. Villages like Kamouraska, Cacouna, Métis, and Le Bic saw an influx of visitors from the big city each summer. Some of these arrivals built luxurious villas while others rented local houses, but the number of tourists was high enough to justify the construction of large hotels as well. In the Matapedia Valley and at Métis, members of the Anglophone elite had a particular fondness for salmon fishing. Many would hire Mi’kmaq guides for their excursions along the region’s many salmon-bearing rivers, such as the Matapédia.
Despite its flourishing and significantly diversified economy in the late 1800s, the Lower St. Lawrence region underwent a population exodus during this period. The scarcity of good land and the lack of technological advancements in farming drove families to leave their small parishes for the city, or even for the New England states, which were experiencing an intense period of industrialization and chronic labour shortages.
Village Life in Sainte-Blandine
In the early 1900s, Sainte-Blandine’s settlers lived largely self-sufficiently. They grew their own vegetables and stored potatoes, carrots, and cabbages in root cellars for the winter. They also grew wheat and oats, as well as hay to feed their animals. Their wheat was ground into flour at the mill in Rimouski. The milk from their cows was delivered to Damase Lebel’s butter plant at the intersection of the Rang de Mont-Lebel with the main road. These activities, along with the sale of surplus grain in Rimouski, provided them with a small amount of cash.
In the fall, they would butcher a pig and other animals, keeping the meat cold to feed them throughout the winter. Some of this meat would also be sold, providing them with additional income. In the winter, a family’s oldest sons would go to work on logging sites along the Rimouski River run by Price Brothers and Company.
Fathers took charge of cutting wood on their own land for heating. They might also supply firewood to the residents of Rimouski, as well as spruce and pine logs to the city’s sawmills. They delivered the wood by horse-drawn sleigh.
Villagers shoed their horses and had their tools repaired at the village blacksmith. The tinsmith provided them with the tin containers they needed.
They would occasionally shop at the general stores in Rimouski, but mainly went to the three in Sainte-Blandine where they could stock up on staple goods such as sugar, molasses, spices, dishes, fabric, and spirits.
Outside of the church, the general store was a hub for social encounters. Villagers lingered there discussing life, politics, births, deaths, illnesses, and other topics.
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