Jackman – An International Town Built by (and for) Immigrants

The remote western Maine town of Jackman, has been in the headlines recently for some of the worst reasons. On Friday it was revealed that the towns new town manager held white supremacist and racist views. What makes this revelation particularly troubling is that Jackman, because of its status as a border community, has long been a destination for newcomers and immigrants.

From its very beginning, Jackman has been intricately connected with its neighbors in Canada. The first permanent settlers in the town followed the construction of the Old Canada Road from Augusta to Quebec City. Although the route had been in use for decades, perhaps centuries, previously (including by Native Americans), settlement along the road only followed it’s formal laying out and clearing by the state of Maine and the colony of lower Canada in 1829.

The first inhabitants of Jackman – which was named for one of the captains to survey the road – eked out a living through hunting and timber harvesting but primarily taking advantage of the plantation’s location along major new England-Canada “highway.” As commerce grew along the new road, Jackman and the other communities on the road grew in size and importance.

Some of that commerce was illicit, including in alcohol during Maine’s long dry period. The posting of a us customs agent at the border did little to stem this, as a newspaper reported in 1885:

Pack peddlers and others, after traveling several miles in Maine can, on coming to the custom house, simply make a detour around the official residence and then keep on, unmolested.

The brazen flaunting of the regulations, in spirit, if not in law, is exemplified by the “line house” which straddles both sides of the border and was a haven for dubious characters and activities. It was first erected by a Mr Jones (described as a counterfeiter and rum-runner), but later operated by Amédé Rancourt and, after  his death, by his widow Clementine. This flow of goods was inevitably company by the movement of people. The Old Canada Road was the route taken by all Maine’s earliest Franco American immigrants. Although most of them made their way to larger towns, such as Skowhegan and Waterville, there are also signs that some French Canadians settled in Jackman in the early decades.

Jackman Line House, 1913 (Zilla Holden/Ruth Reed/Francomaine.org)


There were certainly a number of Canadian-born settlers among the town’s early families, the majority of whom were originally of Irish and Catholic origin. Being a Catholic in the 19th century New England was not easy, not only were new arrivals often isolated from their home communities, but they also faced hostility and prejudice from some of their new neighbors in much the same way that Muslims are regarded by “right “today. The missionary journey of Moïse Fortier from Québec to this part of Maine in illustrates some of those challenges.

It’s clear from Jackman’s official histories, as well as unidentified newspaper articles, that Franco-American immigration to Jackman gathered pace with the boom in the lumbering industry in the region, shortly followed by the arrival of the railroad. Then, as today, many of the early migrants were seasonal workers came to Maine for the hay office early in the summer, would return to the back for the fall and be back again in the winter for the lumbering season:

These industrious people are now  returning from their annual incursion into Maine in pursuit of employment in the hay fields. They strike at first for Waterville, as they say, and will not stop short of it. As the haying season recedes northward they work back along the road, reaching their homes by mid August, still in time to take care of their own hay crops.

The migrant worker life – then, as now was hard:

They come for a little money, and get not much, fifteen to twenty days being the average length of their employment here….But it costs them little or nothing to live on the way. They come over the border on buckboards, or rude wagons, drawn by one horse, with from three to five men on each, but they lighten the load by invariably walking up the hills. They patronize no hotels, bringing their food with them, camping by the roadside and turning their horses out to graze. They travel by night and throw themselves on the ground to sleep as the sun rises, that they may profit by its warmth.


But despite their rough and ready appearance, journalists painted a favorable picture of the newcomers.

It is not unusual to see a family from four to eight children, fenced in, on the rear end of a buckboard, without hats or shoes, tugging away at a lump of maple sugar, with some oat bread sandwiched in, while their beloved parents occupy the front seat and each take their turn at wielding the lash. In this way they get rid of their only “surplus” in Canada and help to fill up the void in the hearts of our great and free loving people of the United States


The arrival of the railroad through Jackman made this journey easier but it also want families to come anymore to settle on a permanent basis. As small town as it was (even at its height in the 1910’s, the population of Jackman and the surrounding townships only consisted of some 1,500 people), Jackman even had its own designated “Little Canada” section. Peter Kiah (aka Thibodeau) was one of the first to build a house in that area, operating a boarding house sometimes called the “Franco-American House.”

By 1892, the population of French Canadians and other Catholics in the region was large enough that a pastor was sent to establish a formal parish for the first time. Reverend Joseph Forest, a French Canadian, would be the community’s curé until his death 48 years later. Due largely to Father Forest’s efforts, the community rapidly solidified, building in a short succession a church (1893), a school (1914), and a convent (1907) for fifteen nuns of the Order of St. Joseph of Lyon, who were invited from France. In 1952, the sisters even helped create a hospital for the town.

Relations between the town’s Yankee and Franco populations were not necessarily easy. Plenty of anecdotal evidence and individual testimony points to scuffles and many of the same tensions as seen in other Maine towns, though written accounts are hard to come by. The influence of the Ku Klux Klan in nearby Greenville points to the area’s troubled history.

Father Joseph Forest, 1905. Image: La Presse (QC), June 6

Father Forest was also involved in the modernization of the town his role as president of Jackman Water Power and Light Company. While the involvement of the parish priest this might seem unusual to Americans, it was very much in the tradition of the curé’s involvement in all matters of parish life in Quebec. In the days of New France, the priest had acted as joint landlord of the parish with the secular authority, the seigneur. Along with Father Forest, the officers of the company were all Franco-Americans, including Forest’s younger brother, Arthur, who was also ordained, and served as Forest’s vicar in the parish. The Water Company ran into trouble when it attempted to draw water from, and drain sewage to, the same body of water outside the town, leading to contamination of the water supply. The Maine Public Utilities Commission, investigating the problem, noted that Forest “did not create the plant for the purposes of profit but rather to the end that his people and the other people of Jackman might have a reasonably good supply of water for domestic and municipal use.”

This long history still resonated today. Jackman, like the rest of Maine, is often wrongly described as “monocultural” or “homogeneous.” By one measure, Maine is certainly the “whitest” state in the US. This surface measure, however, hides greater diversity, and plays into the hands of racists like the former town manager. According to the US Census, nearly half of Jackman’s residents identify as French or French-Canadian; another one in five of Irish descent. To assume, as the “alt-right” likes to, that there’s a distinction between “western” immigrants and “others” is no less accurate than the distinction between white and non-white, especially historically, as the experiences of Franco Americans shows.

The Town of Jackman its residents quickly denounced the white supremacist in their midst and fired him from this position of authority. For a town built on welcoming the unknown and building links across borders, you’d expect nothing less.

Most of the information for this article, including the unattributed newspaper articles, comes from The History of the Moose River Valley, published by the Jackman Bicentennial Book Committee in 1976.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.