Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Lavignes of Vermont Proved the Bishop Wrong

Bishop Michaud
In an 1908 letter the Catholic bishop of Burlington, Vermont, John Stephen Michaud, has been quoted as saying:  "As to the prominence and influence of French-Canadians, the claim that they possess either, is misleading. Good people and devoted, yes. But they have not the education or the other qualities for prominence and influence, either in Church or state.”   The Lavignes,  Joseph and J. Henry, French-Canadian whiskey men from the diocese of Burlington, were to prove him wrong.

Although born in the United States, the Lavignes were from a strong French-Canadian family.  The progenitor, Henri Lavigne, hailed from the town of St. Darnesse, Quebec Province, where Joseph, was born in 1844.  Henri moved to Vermont in 1848,  adjourned briefly to Indiana, and then returned permanently to Chittenden County in the Green Mountain State, part of a large contingent of French Canadians who congregated in that part of the state.  By the 1850s, the influx was so great that if it were not for the French-Canadian immigration, Vermont would actually have registered a decline in its total population. During the ten years from 1850 to 1860, the French-Canadian population of Chittenden County went from 2,904 to 4,308.

Despite the Bishop’s disparaging remarks about the educational capabilities of these immigrants, most of them Catholics, Joseph is reported to have attended the local schools and a secondary “classical institute.”   Of a studious nature, he was said by a biographer to have subsequently improved his mind by reading and study at home while from the age of 16 assisting his father in the manufacture and sale of bricks.
Monument to French Canadians

About 1885,  Joseph Lavigne served a brief apprenticeship in a wholesale grocery house in Burlington, Vermont.   Apparently a quick study,  within a year he had established himself in his own retail grocery store in nearby Winooski,  a town with a strong French Canadian presence from men working in the textile factories there.  They were thirsty customers and like many grocers of his day (and ours),  Lavigne’s store provided whiskey, wine and other alcoholic beverages along with foodstuffs.

A 1894 biography in the book “Men of Vermont,” says of Joseph Lavigne:  “In this business, as well as in his previous career, he has earned the reputation of being an honest and upright man. He has been elected to various town and village offices; was a member of the board of school commissioners for eight years; selectman, grand juror; trustee of the village; and town representative in 1892.”   Joseph also was an active Democratic Party member and was said to have been influential in local and state party councils.

In 1865 Joseph had married Adeline Desautels, whose origins also were in Quebec.  The couple had three children, among them J. Henry Lavigne in 1868, but Adeline died two years later.  Subsequently Joseph married again,  Mary Chagnon,  also of French-Canadian heritage.  She assisted in raising J. Henry, as well as bearing Joseph four children of their own.  In Nashua, New Hampshire, a statue has been raised to the early French-Canadian immigrants.  I imagine it depicts Joseph Lavigne’s second wife, Mary, involved in the education of her stepson.  As the eldest son,  J. Henry probably was taken into his father’s grocery business as a teenager, likely beginning as a clerk.

After a time in this occupation,  J. Henry determined to strike out on his own and opened a retail liquor store,  probably with some financial backing from his father.  The exact dates are uncertain.   He located this business on a major Burlington commercial avenue,  College Street, shown here in the early 1900s, and advertised he was a “dealer in all kinds of wines & liquors.”  Shown here are views of a shot glass and a larger drinking vessel that Lavigne issued to favored customers.  

Note that  these giveaways emphasized that his emporium was only half a minute’s walk from the railroad depot, shown above.   The idea here was not that travelers could stroll over between trains but that Lavigne was able to ship his liquor easily to other parts of the Northeast from Burlington’s wharves on Lake Champlain or via the Rutland & Burlington  or Vermont Central Railroads that maintained hubs in the city. Lavigne’s liquor shipments no doubt included express deliveries to “dry” areas in nearby states like Maine that had flirted with Prohibition since before the Civil War. 

J. Henry married a woman named Philomene Germain who bore him three children before dying in 1909, at the early age of 40.   About year later,  in October of 1910,  Lavigne, living at 73 Main Street according to his marriage license, wed a second time. This second wife,  Josephine Almina Childs Robarge,  is worthy of particular attention.  Born in French Canada of a French father and English mother,  she had been the much younger wife of one of Burlington’s richest citizens,  John Robarge.   Robarge was a land baron, owning much of the neighborhood in the “New North End” of Burlington,  holdings that included tenement blocks.   When he died without an heir,  all his property devolved upon Almina (sometimes given as “Elmina”).  Almina disposed of some of the real estate but retained a considerable land in the Burlington area and was counted as a wealthy widow.  In marrying her,  J. Henry became a major actor in local land development.

The Webb-Kenyon Act of 1913 effectively shut off J. H. Lavigne Co.  shipments into dry localities and the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 doomed all liquor businesses.  The 1920 census found the Lavignes living in Burlington with their three teenaged children,  Rock, Helen and Horace.  J. Henry gave his occupation as “real estate.” He would live another 13 years, dying in 1933 just a year shy of seeing National Prohibition repealed.  He was buried in the Catholic Cemetery, his gravestone shown here.  Almina is buried beside him.  His first wife also is buried nearby, along with other family members.

By their successes in business and public life, the Lavignes, father and son whiskey men, were living proof that the Bishop of Burlington apparently was expressing his own personal prejudices rather than the reality of the French Canadian capacities in his diocese and state.  The Lavignes’ achievements may have help lead the way for many others from the same heritage to make notable contributions to Vermont and America.

1 comment:

  1. There is a great deal of irony in the statements of Bishop Michaud, considering that he himself had a French Canadian father. Perhaps growing up in a largely Irish neighborhood, Michaud had adopted some of the attitudes of his less sympathetic peers. Interestingly, Michaud's mother was a peddler of illicit whiskey to support her family after the death of her husband.