Friday, August 24, 2012

Of Timber, Asbestos, and the Kings of Megantic County

When my great-great-grandfather Joseph Vermette moved his family from the ancestral parish near the St. Lawrence to the frontier land of the Eastern Townships, he purchased a plot of land. His purchase was a tiny section of one of the rectangular blocks laid out by English-speaking surveyors in what was then known as Nelson Township, Megantic County. The Vermette property on Range 12, Lot 7 was a 22-acre portion of a 200-acre lot. This portion had been purchased from an Irishman named Richard Neil who occupied the other 178 acres of Lot 7.

Nelson Township was split into two divisions. For the Roman Catholics, these two sections were associated roughly with the church one attended. Division One of Nelson Township was associated with the parish of Sainte-Anastasie called Sainte-Anastasie-de-Nelson or Sainte-Anastasie-de-Lyster. The second division of Nelson Township, where the Vermettes resided, was associated with the parish of Sainte-Agathe-de-Lotbinière, although this division was not part of the former seignuerie of Lotbinière but within the borders of the County of Megantic.

The Vermettes had the smallest plot of land in Nelson Township, Division Two. The 1871 Census of Canada reports that of Joseph’s 22 acres only eight were “improved” and of these eight, four acres were given over to pasturage. Although the family did grow wheat, oats, potatoes, flax, hemp and tobacco on their small farm, Joseph’s occupation is listed as “blacksmith” in this census. Farming was supplementary to other occupations.

Range 12, Lot 7 of the former Nelson Township (2005):
They're still farming here
Next door to the Vermettes lived the family of Michel Turgeon, a prosperous farmer and man of many trades. He originally hailed from Bellechasse, as did Joseph and many of the recent French-speaking arrivals in Nelson Township, Division Two. The Turgeons owned the whole rectangular lot of 200 acres (Range 13, Lot 6) of which 72 were improved. The Turgeon and Vermette families were to form a close alliance. Two years after the 1864 death of Joseph Vermette’s first wife, my great-great-grandmother, Joseph would marry Michel Turgeon’s 17-year-old daughter Rebecca.

The fact that Joseph had an 18-year-old daughter and other teenage children must have made for an awkward situation vis-à-vis his new wife. The family stories deriving from my great-grandfather, who was six years old when his father remarried, reflect that. The alliance between the Vermettes and Turgeons was confirmed when Joseph’s daughter Zoë married Michel Turgeon’s son Théophile. In one of those delightfully convoluted relationships typical of that age in rural Québec, Zoë’s stepmother was also her sister-in-law and her husband was also her step-uncle.

Michel Turgeon had both a gristmill and a sawmill on his property, one of three sawmills in Nelson Township. Although successful farms existed here (and still do) the real wealth of Megantic County was the old growth forests above the ground and the treasures beneath them. In Division One of Nelson Township lived the King Brothers, wealthy Anglophones who had arrived relatively recently from the British Isles. They were aptly named since the Kings were poised to become monarchs of the trade in timber and minerals.

The patriarch of this family, Charles King, was born in England and came to Québec in the 1830s. He evidently had access to considerable capital since he bought large concessions of land for the trade in lumber.  He purchased tracts of land in both the townships and in the lands formerly under the seigneurial system. His sawmill in Nelson Township, Division One was near the Grand Trunk Railway giving him access to faraway markets. His sons eventually took over his business and the King Brothers built up a huge concern in timber.

A comparison between Michel Turgeon’s sawmill and the King Brothers’ in the same township tells the tale. According to the 1871 Census of Canada, Turgeon’s mill had a fixed capital of $300 with floating capital of $70. In the year prior to the census, his mill processed 700 of “all sorts of logs” producing boards worth $420. By contrast, the King’s sawmill had a fixed capital of $5000, floating capital of $1000, and employed 31 men. It processed 11,000 logs, producing work valued at $16,000. This was but one of the King’s mills. They appear to have owned and operated at least two others.

There are family stories of my great-grandfather Charles Vermette and his brother François working in lumber camps as little boys. The story goes that when they were too small to help with the hard work of lumberjacking they assisted the cook in the camp. Their day as full-fledged lumberjacks would come soon enough. These stories fit well into what we know of the Nelson Township milieu. The stories may be connected with either Michel Turgeon’s sawmill or the much larger King holdings.

The King brothers weren’t finished building their empire. In 1876, a farmer named Fecteau who lived in the Township of Thetford, south of Nelson, discovered an unusual fibrous rock while digging on his farm. He had found asbestos, which was tantamount to striking gold or oil. The King Brothers already owned a number of lots in Thetford Township but they now swept down, purchased more lots, and by 1878 were in the lucrative asbestos mining business. Their new boomtown, known as Kingsville, was later re-christened Thetford-Mines.
Workers in the King asbestos mines (1896)
Within several years of the opening of the King asbestos mines, the entire Vermette/Turgeon clan, with old Michel as the vanguard, moved to Thetford-Mines. They left their farms and rustic trades in Nelson Township for the life of industrial wage earners. Joseph and at least two generations of his progeny would labor in the asbestos mines.

The period in Nelson Township in the 1860s and 1870s was transitional. When the Vermettes left the old parish of Saint-Gervais-de-Bellechasse around 1862, little had changed in the seigneuries in the St. Lawrence valley since the 17th c. When Joseph went to work in the asbestos mines in the 1880s, he was a harbinger of the 20th c. world of big business, large scale, international enterprise, in a cash economy. I have often wondered if Joseph Vermette, who died exactly 100 years ago, thought of this transition as an improvement.

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