By Julie Anderson
And so it began. My cousin Diane Gardner, her daughter and a dream; on a very special day would stand at the exact spot her ancestors entered America. "I thought," said Diane, "how significant would that make my 60th birthday?" The spot was Madawaska, Maine.
Diane and her daughter, Josie Steiner, spent an entire year making this dream trip come true. They raised money the old-fashioned way. They worked for it. And of course, they convinced their loving husbands to support them. Together they held garage sales, collected reward points on credit cards, tried a scratch-off lottery ticket and won $150 and they saved, saved, saved.
When I sat down to interview my cousin for this story I told her how much my mom Charlotte would have loved her idea. They share a spirit of adventure and the blood of the Bradleys' and the Thibodeaus'. Because I am adopted I do not share the blood but I certainly share the spirit that motivated Diane to set a goal and go for it.
To truly understand why Diane wanted to be in Madawaska, Maine on her 60th birthday you have to understand her passion. "I'm such a curious person about life and why people are the way they are," she explained. "I certainly want to know why I am the way I am." Diane had placed a son for adoption in 1970. They have since reunited and Diane says she's amazed how many traits she and son Rikk share. "Further proof," Diane says, "that you continue to inherit the traits of your ancestors."
Diane's brother Bill shares her passion for research. He was drawn to the Bradley side. My maternal grandfather was Byron Bradley, an Irish Catholic from Wisconsin. Bill even named his son Tieman after learning that was the name of Grandpa Bradley's father.
Diane's research started with the Bradley side then progressed to that of the Thibodeaus, which is my grandma's side. Little did she know she would find the fascinating history of the Acadians: French Canadians forced from their homeland during the 1700's. In the process she would bond with her daughter in ways neither could imagine.
You might say this trip was actually more than a decade in the making. Long before they boarded a plane in June of 2011, Diane took her young daughter Josie to New Richmond, Wisconsin where Grandma and Grandpa Bradley are buried. It was the start of her research into both the Bradley and Thibodeau families. She knew she would find death certificates at the local courthouse. "I wish I would have made copies," Diane said. "But I wasn't that savvy yet."
From the death certificates she learned a lot about grandpa's father — a millwright who worked in New Richmond, Star Prairie and Hudson, Wisconsin.
"It just exploded," Diane told me. "It's such a learning experience." But as much as she learned over the years about the Bradley family, she couldn't seem to learn much about the Thibodeaus. She had bits and pieces from aunts and uncles. She knew Great Uncle Fred had been murdered. She knew the Thibodeaus were French and had lived in Dayton, Minnesota. She read a history book about Minnesota and learned Dayton was settled by the French and that most of the settlers came from Maine. Through the book she learned the settlers likely came because a great number of trees had been harvested in Dayton and the French were famous for being great stump pullers.
Diane knew the names of all of grandma's brothers and sisters so she got herself a brand new Mac computer and, with just basic internet skills, she typed in the name of one brother. Hubert.
"I found Hubert Thibodeau born March 31, 1851 in Madawaska, Maine," she said. "I couldn't even say Madawaska. It was so unbelievable." Hubert, she also learned, died April 27, 1923 in Dayton Township.
Now she was getting somewhere. She told me Hubert was married to a woman named Melina and she later learned they called her Minnie. This bit of information made me smile. My mom had wanted to name me Melanie and she picked the name of our first cat. It was Minnie.
I wondered how I had gone 51 years not knowing any of this history myself.
But back to Diane's story.
She learned Hubert Thibodeau's father, also named Hubert, had died in Maine. She figured if he died there he must have been born there. So she decided that was the spot to be on her birthday.
"That was all I had to go on when I went to Maine," she said. "I was going on a wing and a prayer."
And she wanted to go with her daughter who, with a young person's energy, could drive the entire state of Maine. But how could she convince a daughter — she had already dragged from cemetery to cemetery — that they had a few more stops to make.
Diane told me how Josie had learned to celebrate life after visiting so many cemeteries but she says her daughter does not share her passion for genealogy. With a smile she told me, "She said it sounds like gynecology."
Diane's motivational method turned out to be their shared love of Stephen King novels. They had both read a book called Duma Key. "We were into it," she said. In the book, King makes a small reference to an artist by the name of Winslow Homer who created a painting called Undertow . It depicts lifeguards in the 1940's pulling two women out of the ocean. Josie's favorite band is Tool which has a song called Undertow. After reading the lyrics Diane and Josie believe the band has seen the painting. Ironically Winslow Homer is from Maine and they found his paintings were housed at a college in New Brunswick, Maine. Diane told Josie New Brunswick was on the way to Madawaska. Her daughter said if she could stop and see the paintings she'd be happy to go on the trip.
It would be quite a trip.(see pictures)
The two flew into Boston's Logan International several days before Diane's birthday. It took them an hour just to get out of the city. They finally got to Brunswick, and after driving and driving, found Bowdoin College. The two unassuming gals from Minnesota asked person after person where, on campus, they could find the paintings by Winslow Homer. They explained how excited they were to see these pieces of art. Then they learned the paintings are housed at the college but aren't actually on display. They were devastated. It was a very long drive for nothing.
It had already been quite a long day so they checked into their first of many cheap hotels. They had decided to stay at mostly inexpensive places so they could splurge later in the trip and spend two nights at a hotel on the ocean.
Diane opened her suitcase and inside she remembers, with great clarity, were new Tommy Hilfiger men's underwear, Grecian hair products and a box of chocolates. She had grabbed the wrong suitcase.
"I thought Josie was going to flip out on me," she said. But after a quick trip to Wal-Mart, where she found enough supplies to get her through until her bag could be sent from the airport, they actually laughed. And maybe, just maybe, they took a funny picture with the guy's underwear.
The next day they made the five hour drive to Bangor, Maine which is the home of Stephen King. They went to his house and took pictures. So exciting, Diane said, with enthusiasm like it happened yesterday. She and Josie reveled in little discoveries at the home, like a frog statue in his yard which was directly related to the book Duma Key.
One of Diane and Josie's favorite movies is Pet Cemetery. "We knew there was a large cemetery in Bangor that was used in the movie in which Stephen King is the minister," Diane said. They were convinced they could find the area where the scene had been filmed. They spent hours in the Bangor cemetery taking pictures and reading gravesites. Diane said Bangor was one of their favorite spots.
Remember Diane was making this trip on a wing and a prayer. All she knew for sure was that Hubert Thibodeau was buried in Madawaska or Van Buren, Maine. Diane is an expert on visiting cemeteries to look for buried ancestors but she confessed, "There were so many cemeteries, you forget that. You think there will only be a few."
The search was harder than she had anticipated and she never found Hubert Thibodeau's grave. But in Van Buren, a town you reach before Madawaska, there was a tiny museum where she made a priceless discovery – a book about the Acadian reunion festival held in the area every year. "When they have that reunion they honor one family and it's a different one every year," she said. "I walked over to this bookstand and there were three reunion books. Lo and behold there was one left on the Thibodeaus. It could have been $300 I would have bought it. I knew I had to have it. I never questioned the price."
I asked what went through her mind at that moment.
"It was all worth it," she smiled. "Every penny spent. This is what I came for. This was the only way I could find anything."
She found Hubert in the book.
She also experienced the uniqueness of the Thibodeaus. Our Great Aunt Grace Thibodeau lived with our Grandma and Grandpa Bradley. She had a very distinct accent. As a young girl taking French classes in the 6th grade I remember telling her that we could soon talk together in French. She explained she had a dialect that was different from what I was learning. She didn't use the word Acadian French or explain any of her ancestors' history. I wish she would have.
Diane remembered Great Aunt Grace's accent. She was at a garage sale outside Madawaska and heard someone who spoke just like Great Aunt Grace. "I closed my eyes," Diane said. "It was identical and I haven't heard it for so long. It is truly unique to the Acadians."
She introduced herself to the woman with the accent which led her to a second big discovery. The woman told her about a famous woman named Tante Blanche Thibodeau who once lived by St. John's Landing on the St. John River. She said during the famine of 1797 Tante Blanche Thibodeau would go door-to-door to homes where people had something so she could give it to those who had nothing. And she told Diane, the cabin the woman once lived in was still there.
So off she and Josie went to look for the cabin. "We passed it twice. It's on a dirt road and you have to cross these railroad tracks," Diane said. "I'll never forget how fast Josie flew over those tracks!"
The cabin was at the bottom of a hill and, driving to it, they thought they saw gravestones in the distance. When they got closer they saw they were actually monuments to every Acadian reunion. Diane told me, "You start reading the names and you get to 1984 and it says Thibodeau. I will never forget it. Never forget it. It was one of the epiphanies that made 'it' for real." An extra bonus for the mother-daughter team — Josie was born in 1984, the same year as the Acadian reunion featuring the Thibodeau family.
Diane's 60th birthday began with a simple request. She wanted what is called a ploye. It's an Acadian pancake. She and daughter Josie went to a restaurant first thing. They found out the person who makes the ployes didn't come in until 10 a.m. "You have to know that things are not always going to work out," Diane said. "You will be disappointed."
But she was also rewarded. Through her determination to actually get to the East coast and drive the entire state of Maine with her daughter, she got to stand at the very spot her ancestors entered America. And she learned her ancestors' trip was much harder than hers.
The History of Acadians
The Acadians are the descendants of the 17th century French colonists who settled in Acadia, a colony of New France. The colony was located in eastern Canada. Its settlers lived a hard life in the cold climate for almost 80 years.
In 1710 came the British Conquest of Acadia. The Acadians lived under British rule for the next 45 years until what is known as le grand derangement or the Great Expulsion. The British deported approximately 11,500 Acadians. Many would die of starvation and disease.
They were displaced, some reports say, so they would be forced to give up their language, religion and customs. Strong Roman Catholics, I have read, would not become loyal British subjects.
One of the largest groups was sent to Louisiana where they became Cajuns. Others were deported back to France. And some made their way to what is now Madawaska, Maine.
The town hosted its annual festival August 8-15, 2013. The historical account on the site offers this as one of four explanations of the area: a little town along the St. John River where a group of French Acadians settled after being displaced from their farms in the 1780's by the British.
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the story of Evangeline. It tells the story of an Acadian woman who spent her entire life searching for her deported fiancé Gabriel. A must-see YouTube video features a song based on the poet's famous words.
Both works of art depict the longing to find the who, what and why in our world.
And that's what Diane and Josie found. They learned more about who the Thibodeaus were. What their ancestors endured. And, perhaps most important of all, they discovered why they are as strong and determined as they are. The two gals from Minnesota found they could actually rent a car, drive the entire state of Maine and stand at St. John's Landing on Diane's 60th birthday. It was her dream.
"Why wouldn't you want to know who your people are?" Diane asked. "That I made this trip proves to me I really did something great. It sums up my 60 years. Made who I am significant."
The landing is marked with a large cross. Diane remembered, "It's so beautiful. It's very difficult to get to. But very worth it."