Beginning with Antoine Noël moving from the Île d'Orléans to Trois-Rivières in Québec, to Joseph Noel moving his family from Brockton to Florida, some members of the Noel family do not seem to let too much grass grow under their feet! To be fair, the majority of almost every branch of the family usually stays where they are planted. But there is a trace of wanderlust that runs through some of us. Some of us feel life getting stale after being in one place too long. We yearn to see new places and experience new ways of living. We hear of money to be made in another location and strike out, unafraid, confident that we can hold our own. With that in mind, let's take a look at why our ancestors moved, where they went, and what they--and their children--did when they got there.
Of course, the very first nomad known in our family is the granddad of us all; François NOËL.
At the young age of twenty-two, François leaves his home in France. His home is not in a bustling metropolis, mind you--it is a tiny little hamlet called Chiré-en-Montreuil, in Poitiers. More than likely, all François knew was farming. He likely had no "street savoir faire" and probably no experience with anything outside of his little town. Yet he struck out on his own, never to see him home or family again. He was confident that what he had in head and what he could do with his hands was enough. And it was. He married, settled on the Île d'Orléans, farmed and raised a large family, and is the source of the majority of the Noëls in North America today. Not bad for a French farm boy!
François Noël's children did not leave the area of Québec City; in fact, most of them did not leave the Île d'Orléans. The same seems to hold true for most of his grandchildren, save one......
Nothing has yet come to light that explains why Antoine Noël decided to move his family south to Trois-Rivières. But move them he did, sometime between 1795-1796.
All of Antoine's children married in their new hometown. At this time, I don't have enough information on all of Antoine's children to know how many of them settled there. But Antoine lived the rest of his life there, so he and wife Agnes must have been happy enough in their new home.
But one of Antoine's children inherited those itchy feet; felt the urge to journey even further south........
Antoine's son, Charles Noël, was that wandering boy. He and his wife Theotiste Champoux had been married for about 24 years and had eleven children when Charles, a stone mason by trade, contracted to build a church in the St. Bernard parish of Lacolle, Québec in 1842. Lacolle is a small town just a short jog from the United States border. It is safe to assume that the family had moved there before 1842, as their eldest son Joseph got married in Lacolle in January of that year; but an exact time period cannot be pinpointed as of yet. Equally mysterious is why they moved. Perhaps the answer may lie in the events of mid-19th century Canada that led to what became known as the "French-Canadian Diaspora".
If one needed a single defining event that led to the French-Canadian diaspora, it may well be the Act of Union of 1840.
England had taken control of Canada after the French surrender on the Plains of Abraham at Québec in 1759 and at Montreal in 1760. The French citizens of the fur-trading west seemed to accept British rule more readlity than those in the St. Lawrence Valley of Québec; the latter wanted to remain a Catholic country and continue following French civil law. And they made this known in a flurry of protest letters to London.
This harried the King of England. The colonists were throwing tea into Boston Harbor and threatening revolt. Now there was unrest in Canada.....who needs all these headaches? So the order was made; allow the Province of Québec to operate much the same as it always had.
In 1791 the territory was officially divided into Upper and Lower Canada, but left the current policies in place. Want to retain the French way of life? Move to Lower Canada. Think the French are just big old whiners who are stuck in the past? Move to Upper Canada. Simple...right?
Not so much. A house divided cannot stand; and Canada was struggling to find a balance between the two worlds they were trying to assimilate. Most of the English seemed unsympathetic toward Lower Canada's emotional hold on and pride in their culture. Indeed, in the words of Lord Durham (John George Lambton), “I know of no national distinction marking and continuing a more hopeless inferiority ... It is to elevate them from that inferiority that I desire to give the Canadians our English character.”
To coin an English phrase---what a cheeky monkey! Two generations of souls repose in Québec cemeteries whose names are synonymous with the building of this great nation. They carved Canada out of a wilderness and created a country with its own unique customs and culture. It was French-based, to be sure; but with dashes of other cultures stirred in, as well as a bit of seasoning from local Indian population. They needed English--or any other, for that matter--character in the same way that cows need wings. Have a little respect!
Small bands of French Canadians tried to overthrow the English both politically and militarily. Our own Alexandre Noël was one of the many French Canadians questioned after the Insurrection of 1838.6 None of these attempts were successful and only deepened the division between the two sides.
The Act of Union's goal was to put an end to this cultural division and create a more homogenized country. Upper and Lower Canada were merged into one province. Even though an attempt to make English the official language of the country failed, most of the French Canadians (or Canadiens as they called themselves) could see the writing on the wall and the inevitable change to their way of life.
Farming, the lifeblood of the St. Lawrence Valley, was also changing. Small farms could no longer sustain a family, and the men were often employed as day laborers while their wives and children performed the bulk of the farm duties. The tales of riches to be made in Upper Canada--as well as opportunities in Western Canada--made the Canadiens ears perk up just a little....
And then there was the United States. Textile mills were sprouting like crocus in spring in New England. Labor to build the mills and operate them were sorely needed. The close proximity to home made this a more attractive option than far-away Ontario and even further away Manitoba and British Columbia. And so began the migration of the Canadiens...1,2,3
The Noel family made its mark on Berkshire County, Massachusetts and points beyond. Let's look at a few examples:
While many of our family members migrated to the United States to work in the mills, a few others came with a marketable skill. One of the most prevalent of those skills was that of stone mason.
Five of Charles Noël's sons were stone masons. Of his grandsons, eight of them supported themselves as stone masons. And two of his great-grandsons followed suit. It is not known where Charles Noël learned the masonry trade, but it served his family well for a few generations.
One of the places that it is known that the Noël family put their masonry skills to use was at Williams College in Williamstown:
Among the other family members who worked as stone masons were: Joseph Noel, Narcisse Noel , David Noel, Charles Noel.
- In 1865, Jean Baptiste Cutbert, better known as Albert, plied his trade at the college, working on the old Goodrich Hall.
- In 1881, Peter Noel did plastering and brick work on the President's House at the college; Albert Noel also assisted.
- In 1882, Peter Noel assisted in digging the basements for the Alden and Mole houses on the campus, which were small faculty houses. That same year he helped build the old Field Observatory at the college, which is no longer in existence.
- In 1890, Albert Noel once again did masonry work at the school; specifically to the basement of the addition to Lawrence House, which was a library at that time. It is now the Art Museum.
- In 1892, Casimire Noel did repair work at Williams College.
- Also in 1892, Moses Noel, Felix Noel, and Edward Noel also applied brick and mortar to Williams College's Duncan House.8
Masonry is very hard, physical work, and most of these men did not retire young. Nine years before he died, Moise Noel was still working as a mason. His son, Moses Noel, was still working at the trade at age 63.
I was once complimented by my daughter's boss on what a hard worker she was. My other daughter was with me, and she said, "Everyone's a hard worker in our family." While we are not employed in jobs as demanding as masonry, I like to think that we inherited our work ethic from these hard-working men.
Several of the Noel family men decided to be their own boss and go into business for themselves:
- Edmund/Edward B. Noel had a meat market in 1898 and a soda fountain in Williamstown in 1900.5
- In 1897, Victor Noel operated Berkshire Cash Grocery, as well as a meat market. It did not seem to be a very long-lived operation.5
- Zephirin Leblanc operated a shoe repair business on Cole Avenue in Williamstown.4
- Napoleon Baron, husband of Elisabeth Noel, was a blacksmith and wagon maker. His shop was located at his home on Water Street in Williamstown and was there, as best as can be estimated, from 1880 to about 1925. Among the many things that he created over the years was a cart to haul chemical fire extinguishers for the Gale Hose Company5,9
- From about 1895 until about 1915, Frederic D. Noel owned a grocery store on Cole Ave. in Williamstown. Sometime between 1915-1916 he moved to Springfield, Massachusetts.5,9
- George Harry Noel had a small, apparently portable, lunch cart.9
- Francis Noel went one better than brother George; he owned a restaurant in North Adams. In 1916, it was called "Noel's Cafe" and it sat on the corner of Summer and Ashland Streets. Tony Talarico remembers that when the restaurant first opened, the owner threw away the keys because he said it would stay open 24 hours a day.11 By 1921, the restaurant had moved to 68 Main Street in North Adams. In 1928, it was advertised as "Noel's Lunch", with Francis as proprietor. By 1936, it was "Noel's Lunch Bar"-open day and night, as well as "Noel's Old English Dining Room"-on the second floor with special Sunday Dinners 11 AM - 9 PM. Francis' name is missing in the ad, though--he appears to have died around that time.10
- Adolphus Moses Noel or "Dolphus" as he was called, owned Noel's Fish Market in North Adams about 1931 but had given it up by 1942.5,10
- Leon Noel opened Noel's Electric & Battery around 1921 or so; this seemed to be a garage of sorts. By 1936 it was billed as Noel, Inc. and seemed to be a wholesale auto parts store. By 1954, it was into commercial refrigeration and electrical appliances as well as auto parts. Leon Noel was considered an expert enough mechanic that he was called to testify in at least one motor vehicle accident hearing. The business was sold in 1977.5,10
- The brother of Leon, Walter Armand Noel, owned Walt's Service Station in Adams and operated Atlantic Service Station in North Adams. He left the Berkshires for Florida and then Arizona and owned service stations in both places.5,9
- Melvin Noel, yet another of Leon's brothers, also owned a service station in Adams, originally occupying the space that his brother Walter vacated. This business closed in 1965 after Melvin's death the year before.5
- Henry Noel had his own insurance business in Holyoke, Hampden Co, Massachusetts until his untimely death in 1953.11
The bulk of the Noel family's employment in their new country was the factory. It is not practical to list the name of every single family member who worked in the factories, so let's talk about the types of factories they worked in.
A Family of Factory Workers
Between 1870-1900 or so, the majority of the family worked in the textile factories, dealing mostly with cotton or wool; a few even worked at Berkshire Hathaway. Some families; Zephirin Leblanc, for example; even lived on the factory grounds. Many entered the work force young; the youngest found in this family was 14 years old. Their job descriptions are curious: "wopper"; "doffer"; "cord grinder"; "spool tender"; "winder"; "mule spinner"; "carder"; "drawer in". It was dangerous work and did not pay so well. An eye-opening tome, "Kids at Work" by Russell Freedman with photos by Lewis Hine give a bird's-eye view of child labor and pictures of children working in mills.9,12
Some of the Noel's ended up moving to Springfield, Massachusetts and working in the Smith & Wesson factory building firearms.9 But there was soon to be a "new kid in town", so to speak, in the mill industry: shoes.
The shoe industry was gaining steam thanks to the invention of a sewing machine by Singer in 1851 that could stitch leather. With the advent of the McKay sole sewing machine, which was invented by Lyman Blake around 1858 or so, the mass production of shoes kicked into high gear.13
Several of the Noel family eschewed the textile mills for the shoe factories, although why that is is unknown. Did the shoe factories pay better? Did the textile mills seems a little "old hat"? Did the textile mill workers want to add another type of work to their resume? Any and all of these are possible.
A shoe factory owner named C.T. Sampson may have caused the migration of shoe workers from the Berkshires when, in June of 1870, he imported Chinese labor from California to replace the Knights of St. Crispin shoe workers who were on strike for better wages and against the 10-hour workdays that were being proposed. The Chinese worked 11 hour days at a cheaper rate and, it was believed, produced better shoes. The uproar over this brought about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which made it illegal for Chinese to enter the country.14
Charles Noel worked in the North Adams shoe factories, as did his wife Mary Baker. But by by 1910 Mary, along with she and Charles' son Edgar would have moved east to the Randolph, Massachusetts, shoe factories. After living in Randolph for a brief period, they moved on to Brockton, where there was a robust and thriving shoe industry, hungry for workers.9
Even Rocky Marciano, famed heavyweight boxer, worked in a Brockton shoe factory.15 Did he cross paths with Edgar Noel? No one knows. However, it is known that Rocky did cross paths with Edgar's grandson, Joseph R. Noel, Jr; he was Joe's Little League Baseball coach.
Another type of factory that could be found around Brockton was the tool and die plants. Joseph R. Noel, Sr was a machinist at the Ward Machine Company; his father-in-law, John Gibbons, had been employed at the Independent Tool and Die plant.
In that era, working in a factory meant being on the cutting edge of technology, and the young people of the day were determined to be a part of it.
One Noel immigrant family added teachers to the list of occupations that our family worked in.
Felix Noel, brother of Peter Noel's wife Justine, was also a shoe factory worker who ended up in Natick, Massachusetts in 1866. He and his wife, Mary Jane Coakley, had three daughters. Felix put each one of the girls through the Framingham Normal School to become teachers. All three women taught school in the Middlesex, Massachusetts school system and inspired one of their granddaughters to follow in their footsteps and become a teacher as well. One of Justine Noel's great-great-granddaughters also became a teacher. Teachers are, and have always been, an important resource, and we are proud to have them among our numbers in this family.
Pierre and Justine Noel's branch is also responsible for some of the musical abilities in the family. Eleisa Noel, daughter of Casimire and Odile Hinkle was very much an accomplished musician and singer. She studied at Boston's Conservatory of Music, although she turned down both a scholarship at Williams College and an opportunity to study at La Scala in Milan, Italy because both would seem "unladylike". Eleisa married a musician and had two children, both of whom inherited her musical abilities. She and her husband and son, Don, eventually moved to California and worked in the music industry there. But it was her daughter, Adele Girard, who achieved national acclaim as a jazz harptist. Paired with her husband Joe Marsala, a clarinet player, they would achieve fame and become known as "The Sweethearts of Swing". Click the link to read the fascinating story of how this couple met, fell in love, and became famous. But Adele was no one-trick pony; she could draw, paint, was gifted athletically, and even auditioned for the part of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind".
Another branch of the family that turned to show biz as a way of life was the Pelaquin family. Three generations of the family (the third generation included my brother) held crowds "spellbound and amazed" as they traveled the country, riding motorcycles on a wooden wall inside the Wall of Death. Click the link to learn more!
The Noels found that one of the best ways to become a part of their community was to get involved:
- Casimire Noel served as trustee of the Williamstown Savings Bank.
- In July of 1897, the Gale Hose Company was formed in Williamstown to replace the disbanded Williamstown Hose Company. Casimere Noel was appointed the Engineer at that time. He served on with this vital organization until his death from cancer in 1899. The men that he served with thought so highly of Casimere that they took turns, two at a time, sitting nights by his bedside the last few days of his life. Casimire's younger brother Joseph Edmund (who later went by Edmund B. and was also referred to as Edward B.) also served with the Gale Hose Company.5
- Zephirin Leblanc also served on the Gale Hose Company.5
- In 1897, Edmund/Edward B. Noel was elected Williamstown's town clerk. It is not known how long he kept this position. Edmund was also a Justice of the Peace and a member of the Franco-American Club.5
- Francis Noel served as the North Adams City License Commissioner in 1918.10
- Henry Noel was probably the most active in his community. He served as alderman in Holyoke, Hampden Co, Massachusetts in from 1943 to his death in 1953. He was also a member of the Chamber of Commerce in that city as well as the Lions Club, Elks Club, and Franco-American Club. He was very active in the Republican Party, holding office in several of their organizations. He was an honorary member of Boys Town, and active in several religious organizations.11
Twelve members of St. Raphael's church decided to join forces to contribute to and raise money for the building of a new church. Throughout the years of 1895-1899, the North Adams Transcript is filled with references to various fund raising efforts "for the benefit of St. Raphael's church". These benefits were often performances given by members of the families of the twelve men; five of whom are related to our family by blood or marriage. They are as follows:
- Felix Archambeault
- Napoleon J. Baron
- Zephirin LeBlanc
- Albert Noel
- Peter (Pierre) Noel
The names of the other 6 men are: Henry Ethier Akey, Sr.; Henry Ethier Akey, Jr; David Bastien; Theophil Bourdeau; David Hebert; Peter Martin; and Joseph Moise Roussey.
An exact date for the building of this church is not known; a real estate listing (see below) indicated that it was built in 1899. The church was built by Porter and Hanum of North Adams. There were reported to be many French-Canadian skilled workers employed on this project. Did that include some of the Noel family stone masons? I would like to think so.
Today, the church still stands in Williamstown; a handsome-looking structure with a large rectory built next to it. The church does not hold services anymore, and according to a commercial real estate listing from February of 2009 the church and the rectory building are for sale. Both seem to be in very good shape. Go here to take a look at the church that our family helped to build over 100 years ago.4,5
So, this all looks like a fairy tale....the French-Canadians crossed the border, went to work in the factories, got involved in their communities, became successful, and lived happily ever after?
Nothing is that easy.
The French Canadians left Canada because their way of life was threatened, and they were not about to abandon it after they immigrated. They lived close to each other in "Little Canada" settlements; many times this came in the form of mill housing on the factory grounds. They clung zealously to each other, their faith and their culture. Which, in and of itself, is not uncommon--consider the "Little Italy" or "Chinatown" areas of many major cities that were formed as a result of immigration and still exist today.
But there resides in all of us some level of need to belong; a need to find common ground with those we are in close proximity with. In that vein, many French-Canadian families used the English translation of their surnames after immigrating in order to better fit in to their new home. This was found in the record books of Hinsdale; where Exilda Beauchamp's last name was recorded as Fairfield. Since the English translation of "Beauchamp" is "Fairfield," Exilda can be found in vital records under those names. This also occurred with the Leblanc name, which translates into "White." But after having children in America, they would revert back to the French version of the name in order to keep that part of their heritage intact for their children. You may also notice that the spelling of the American born Noels would also make an important change; to do away with the ë in the spelling of the name Noel.
In many communities, the French were unpopular among other ethnic groups because they would work for less pay. This caused clashes with other immigrant groups. most predominantly the Irish.
From perusing the period newspapers of the late 1800's in North Adams and Williamstown, there did not seem to be a lot of class warfare going on in that area; if there was, it was not mentioned in those papers, nor in any of the anecdotes that have been shared with me by various family members. Something must have gone very right, as many of the family stayed in the beautiful Berkshires. A few are still there.
Of course, there are more than just French Canadian immigrants to the United States in our family. Nova Scotia is represented by our GIBBONS family. Our RYAN ancestors sailed to American from Ireland. And the first member of the BAKER family to set foot on American soil came from England. And, in an effort to leave no one out, our MEHLMAN/MAILMAN ancestors immigrated to Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, from the Palatine area of Germany.
1. "The Birth of a People, 1535–1760." Multicultural Canada. n.d.
2. "In the Shadow of the Conquerors, 1760–1840." Multicultural Canada. n.d.
3. "French Canada as a Nation, 1840–1918." Multicultural Canada. n.d
4. "Our Founding Fathers of St. Raphael's Church" (100 year commemerative booklet)
5. North Adams Transcript
6. "Insurrection Examens Volontaires" by Georges Aubin & Nicole Martin-Verenka
7. "A Brief History of Lacolle, Québec"
8. Letter from Williams College, courtesy of Peg G.
9. Census records
10. City Directories
11. E-mail correspondence from Tony Talarico
12. "Kids at Work" by Lewis Hine & Russell Freedman
13. "The History of Your Shoes"
14. Mass Moments, June 13, 1870
15. Biography of Rocky Marciano
This page was updated January 2012. .
Noel Family of Brockton, MA by Jolynn Noel Winland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License
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