New Year’s Eve Celebrations in Reynoldston, NY

Short story of French-Canadian New Years Eve celebrations in Reynoldston NY ca. 1900 based upon oral history interviews

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New Year’s Eve in Reynoldston   

Drawing of New Year's Eve in Reynoldston

 By W. Langlois & R.H. McGowan

* This story previously published in York State Tradition summer 1970 was based on stories told to us by residents.  It is an fictitious elaboration on a traditional New Year’s Eve event in Reynoldston, NY.  Included here are quotes from residents about the actual events on which the story is based.

“New Year’s was the Frenchman’s day.” [1]  House to house drinking made it infamous in the
Protestant communities to the north, but to the laborers and lumberjacks, New Year’s Eve was one of the few times they could enjoy themselves wholeheartedly.  On this usually cold but happy night, parties of men drank and sang at almost every house in the community.  Although many of
the men who drew a steady pay check did not normally pal with men from the Trimville and Beanville shacks, on New Year’s Eve everyone drank from the same bottle.

After dark on December 31, 1910, the lumberjacks and mill hands of Reynoldston ce1ebrated the upcoming year, one that would be just like the one before it, with their traditional community drunk. The men walked down from the lumber camps through a canyon in the snow. The road through the woods was glare ice from the horse drawn water wagons that spread a smooth path for drawing logs. As the men walked, an occasional animal track diverted their attention; hunters for so long, these woodsmen instinctively looked for signs of rabbit and deer. Feeling the north wind cold, they did not appreciate the diamonds and black shadows all around them; they had seen nights just like this from November to April. As they came nearer home the sight of wood smoke from the kitchen chimneys was the only sign of life.

When Jacque entered the kitchen, the odor of heat from the wood fired cook stove was a welcome change from the frozen, silent woods.  For his wife Lillian the heat from the stove was just as frustrating as the cold woods to her husband, Lillian put food on the table a few minutes after her husband arrived. Six children greedily ate up the bean soup, salt pork, boiled potatoes and gingerbread. But during supper the older girls noticed how strained the atmosphere was between their mother and father. No one lingered around the table after the meal was over; Lille washed
her dishes and put the younger children to bed, then sat down and nervously darned a few socks.

At the entrance or Reynoldaton, in the collection of shacks called Trimville, supper consisted of leftover salt pork and gallettes (bread dough fried in cooking fat) In one of these poorer homes the wife scrubbed the tin cup and battered tin plates while her husband sat around and re-called last
New Year’s Eve’s celebration; who had started a brawl, where he had slept the night. Meanwhile, the seven kids disrupted the crowded and disorganized house with fighting and bawling. Leaving their fourteen year old to put her younger brothers end sisters to bed, the wife and her man
went next door to have their first drinks.

This house like all those in Trimville was an unpainted and ram shackle structure with only two or three small rooms. In many of these rooms the lathe and plaster wells were covered with newspapers, if at all. Not bothering to knock, the couple walked into a house as cramped and filthy as their own. The parents, who had put their kids to bed, gave their visitors a little ‘Paul Jones’ (whiskey), While the men griped about the long hours they worked cutting logs for the Reynolds, their wives gossiped over the latest pregnancy. After each round of drinks the men got louder, and the women’s voices more shrill.

Pretty soon the men, tired of their wives’ talk, headed up the road, bottles in hand, One men, who had forgotten his woolen mittens, swigged a mouthful of ‘Old Hickory’ (whiskey) to brace himself against the twenty below zero cold.  On the edge of Trimville they stopped to pick up another mill hand. Once inside his dark and smokey cabin one of the men said to the women of the place, “Is your old man ready for a little drinkin’?” “Yeh, but its too damn cold to be gallivanting’ around!” “We’ll see; well, where’s Joe at?” He’ll be in a minute; he’s just stackin’ that wood in the shed.”

Because the chairs were draped with clothes end piled with boxes, only one of the men was able to sit down. Besides these few homemade wooden chairs, the room contained a big iron cook stove and a large wooden kitchen table; the dirty supper dishes still piled on its stained grey surface. Other than this the room had but a wooden dry sink and a few rough cupboards. The only other downstairs room held a motley array of four or five low wooden cots, unmade and grimy.  Crowded sometimes two to a bed, the children were sleeping in the dark, musty room. Near a window whose broken pane was patched with cardboard stood a mirror less and unpainted bureau, the only one the family owned.

Before the visitors could warm themselves, Joe hurried from the shed with an armload of split wood. His heavy woolen pants and shirt, patched and re-patched over four or five years of’ wear, were spotted with grease and tobacco juice, Because of the heard, a useful ornament in the below
zero weather, his face appeared as grey and coarse as the garments he wore, When he opened his mouth to smile or talk, his visitors could see only two lone teeth both rotten and stained brown with tobacco juice.  Dropping the wood, Joe hastily bundled up in his one wool sweater. The
men slipped out into the darkness before Joe’s wife could curse them all for their drunkenness and their laziness. The three friends shared the bottle from the time they left Joe’s until they reached the clump of houses that was actually Reynoldston. They prudently passed by the homes of one or two men whose wives always raised plenty of hell if they came home drunk. Coming to a five room house the three knocked on the kitchen door after stepping through a side porch cluttered with canning jars, buckets and muskrat traps. 


Contrary to her better judgment, Lillian unlatched the door and let them in. The rank odor of sweat and whiskey kept her from allowing the guests to sit in her front room. Lillian had known that these men would be by tonight, and that they would bring whiskey when they came. Even before the visitors had time to ‘take off their hats and stay a while” the man of the house came out of the bedroom holding a bottle of ‘Sinaway Chief’ (whiskey) and looking a little sheepish.

“Where did you get that?”  His wife looked at him angrily but timidly. Often before she had seen him drunk and had grown to fear him in that condition,. All Jacque answered was: “bought it at the Hall didn’t cost me much, you won’t see me drinkin’ much neither.” As if to reaffirm his decision he poured each of his friends a tumbler full.

Unlike the other kitchens the men had just seen, the one in which they now drank was clean, even though crowded with tables, chairs and cabinets.  Off by herself Lille took from the oven the warm smelling bread she had started baking after the children were put to bed.  One after another the men emptied and refilled their glasses, To avoid trouble she quickly put her bread away and
headed for the front room. Too nervous to do anything now but worry, Lillian sat and wondered how drunk her husband would be before the night was over.

As she sat she noticed that there was a new hole in the wicker sofa; then her eyes took in the tired green shades on curtain less windows the spotted wallpaper splitting with dryness and age. She had tried to cover up the cracked paper with pictures of the Sacred Heart, a few saints and the Pope. Lillian knew that if Jacque did not spend so much money on whiskey she would have some far a few nice things once in a while.  After countless drinks the men in the kitchen began singing ‘The Jam on Jerry’s Rock’. At first they all sang in English but soon one of them was singing a different song in half remembered French.  One of the bottles was now empty, and the singing had grown louder and more obscene. Finally, the oldest of the four kids woke up and came downstairs to the kitchen, “Get the hell back to bed” yelled Jacque his eyes glassy and unfocused.

“Don’t touch that kid there!” Lillian had walked into the midst of a scene she had wanted to avoid, “If you gonna drink, don’t get ugly around me and the kids; take you drinkin’ somewhere else.” “Damn you, all you all you ever do is nag and bitch at me, I never seen such a woman, C’mon Joe, let’s get some more to drink.” Heavily and awkwardly they rose.  A chair fell over on the floor, and Joe barely avoided tripping and falling on his face. 

Staggering from the porch to the road, their words garbled and low, the men finally decided to have some fun and find more drink at the Bordeaux Dance Hall.  As they proceeded up the road
towards the dark square shadow that was their destination, the men met a young couple headed in the same direction.  Wrapping the fringed wool shawl even tighter around her head, the girl tugged her fellow as far away from the drunks as she could.  

Inside the dance hall, the first floor was filled with loud lumberjacks either playing pool or drinking two percent beer.  From outdoors, Joe and his two friends walked into the room that was thick with pipe smoke and the odor of sweat. They knew almost everyman there: Jeff Larson, the blacksmith, Tom Campbell, Dan Whitcomb, and Fred Bordeaux the owner of the hall. Followed by Fred and Joe the men entered the store part of the Hall, where they found some strong cheese and thick ‘Boston crackers’.  Around the box stove they passed the spicy cheddar hand to hand and ate their fill. The three hunted through their clothes to find enough money for another bottle of ‘Sinaway Chief’.

Jostling and laughing, Joe passed the bottle around to anybody who would take a swig.  Making their way back through the crowd of friends they climbed the stairs to the dance hall.  On a little triangular platform in the room’s far corner, Philias Moquin fiddled while two men from Skerry played the piano and called the sets.  Out on the crowded softwood floor a few couples reeled and sweated through a tiring round of ‘money musk’. Men and women who were either too tired or too drunk to dance sat on the rough wood benches along each wall. Although many parents frowned upon the place, weekly dances at the Hall provided the sole recreation in the area.

Across the room Joe caught sight of his brother and one of their cousins. Better dressed than Joe, he had good grey wool pants held up with leather suspenders which left dark stains on their clean blue shirts, Together the five of them complained about work and money while they finished off the new bottle of ‘Sinaway Chief’.  They hardly had a chance to talk before they themselves joined the rush to ‘the back of the room, where two drunken strangers were battering each other back and forth. Since neither seemed capable of remaining on his feet the fist fight soon became a wrestling match, the tired, red faced, growling men struggling in the clinch. At first no one bothered to interfere with a spectacle that they all enjoyed, but soon Fred Bordeaux and his brother, Albert, stepped in and pulled the entangled men apart. The two drunks once separated,
seemed to lose all their desire to fight. Although in all this confusion the square dance had been forgotten, it softly began again. Since they had no women to dance with, Joe and the bunch of them made their way down to the men on the first floor. Here they picked up a few more acquaintances and headed for Allan Bordeaux’s.

Stumbling along the road, one of the men had to he continually dragged out of the high snow banks that lined the path between the Hall and Allan’s house. Although they had to walk only a short distance, the seven men spent a drunken, clumsy half hour in the process. They knew that they would receive a mixed reception at Allan’s house.  Allen was expecting then and was getting his special brew ready…an unpainted split wood table, and on it a big tin bucket. The old man, chunky, beardless, and agile for his seventy—six years, lifted a gallon jug of raw alcohol to the lip of the pail. To the strength of the brew he added the sweetness of maple syrup saved from last spring.  He stirred this with the dipper from which he and all his guests would soon be drinking. 
Allan’s wife, Julia looked upon her husband’s preparations with apprehension and disgust.
 
“How can you throw good money away on them lazy drunks from Trimville?”  None of them men’s any good. They don’t come here for the priest, but you mix up this slop and they fill the house.”

“Kopete, we’re all poor. Just they got less then we got. You always yell when I give a side of beef or a ball of butter to the neighbors, but you know Catholics should always give to the poor.” “l don’t too much mind giving away a little food, but I wish you wouldn’t bring the bas classe (lower class) right into my house You know I try to keep the grandchildren away from ‘em and look what you do!”  “We’re all the same except you think you’re better.”

As the seven topers from the Hall reached Allan’s big square house, the soberest muttered: “Allan never thought hisself better’n us, but that wife of his is an old devil. Joe braced himself to knock on the door, but swore under his breath that “Julia thinks too damn much of herself,”  Allen let his visitors in just as Julia angrily disappeared into the bedroom; she refused to have anything to do with this affair.  Both Allan and his seven guests were glad to see her go and wasted no time in sampling the syrupy liquor. Most of the men gratefully planted themselves on the rocking chairs and benches gathered about the pail. Although Allan had originally filled the bucket to the brim, the eight of them finished off the first round within an hour. Unsteadily getting up to pour some
more alcohol and syrup, he was interrupted by a crash on the porch and series of loud and rapid knocks on the kitchen door.

Five new party-goers arrived in already good spirits.  Soon occupied with Allan’s second pail of strong brew, the old crowd as well as the newcomers belted out one song after another——’Old Zeb coon’ and many others. Tom got to his feet and to the clapping of many hands step danced as only a happy Frenchman can on New Year Eve. The men sang and danced until they were hardly able to walk, but finally managed to force themselves out into the sobering coldness, leaving Allan to totter off to bed. 

Once out in the rasping air a few men, too drunk for the sleigh ride to Beanville, wandered off home. Shouting and cursing at their horses to make them pull faster, the little group of men passed by the Reynolds’ Mill Road. “Them Protestant Reynolds’s think they’re a helluva lot better than us Frenchmen, but old ——puts away more booze and chases more women in a week
then I could in s month.”  Another observed with more logic than one might expect: “Well, you know damn well except for the Reynolds’s we wouldn’t even have a roof over us.  All I know is they never gave me the short end of the stick,”

Beanville at the south end of Reynoldston, on a dead end road leading off into the woods, was only a collection of tar paper and tin covered shacks consisting of but two or three rooms. Here the revelers gathered for the last drinks and dances. In their trip from one end or Reynoldston to the other, the party had passed from the poverty of Trimville, through the better homes of the community and at last to the greatest poverty and isolation in the area – Beanville.

The un-shoveled path between the Beanville Road and the first tiny house was an obstacle that none of the tired and drunken men could make without falling.  The door they opened showed a
cramped and dirty room burdened with men, women and even children.  The few tired pieces of furniture, hardly adequate for a family’s normal use, seemed lost in the mass of soggily clothed bodies.

No one was sure from where it came but somehow—another bottle of ‘Chief’ appeared. Men and women alike drank from this as well as from some other half empty bottles they already had. In the corner a fiddler was urged to start his music once again.   Even though a square dance was
hopeless within four such narrow walls a lively old couple showed how fast a good step dance was done.  Laughter and moving bodies made the room frenzied with excitement.

The owners of the house and three or four of their best friends had drifted off into the bedroom to get away from the hubbub. Feeling his liquor, as he sat on the cot, Joe laughingly put his arm around the ample waist of his host’s young and dark haired wife. Suddenly a big fist struck him in the mouth. Dazed but sobered by the quick, unexpected beating just given him by the man who now cursed him bitterly, Joe cowered to his feet and slipped into the suddenly silent other room. 
Still ranting, the host followed Joe, but stopped short of hitting; him again; he let the offender put on his coat and get out.

This episode killed the celebration.   Those too drunk to move were welcome to spend the rest of the night on the floor or in any empty cot they could find.   Jacques and the others crowded into two heavy pungs (sleds) and drove back to their homes.  

In truth Jacques was glad the night was over, but did not look forward to facing Lillian’s anger in the morning.  Tonight’s excitement would feed the gossip hounds and be retold until a
year from now.


[1] Eugene Bordeaux, from taped Interview, January 1969

 

Others Remember New Year’s Eve in Reynoldston:

Tom Campbell

“New Year’s here they used to start well from Lincoln’s, Shepherd’s and Trushaw’s and they used to go up the (Eddy) road and each man would have a pint of liquor most generally, and if the didn’t have none in the house they would pass the liquor around.   And they would go way up to Old man Jendreau’s there.  He was an awful good singer old man Jendreau and old Mrs. Jendreau.  Sing songs in French.   For most of the people talked French here.   Well by Jesus they had a hell of a good time.  They probably come back about daylight in the morning.   But most generally they
had something to drink at the house…they feed them you know.  Once in a while a fellow would get sick, couldn’t drink and he have too much and he have to lay down…they keep him all night.”

                                           Tom Campbell tape 5 p1


Mrs. Moquin

Mrs. Moquin:  New Year’s Eve, well we would have a lot of people.   A lot of relations and people would come to the house. 

Mr.McGowan: Did the men used to go from house to house?

Mrs. Moquin: Well the Bordeaux’s used to do that..   I remember they used to come to my house.  I didn’t like that.

Mr.McGowan: What would they do?

Mrs. Moquin: They would rap at the door and you had to get up.  They had a bottle with them and they’d treat you and you had to treat them didn’t get it, the treat.  And the Bordeaux’s would all
come and they wanted us to go with them   Treat a man and they would have him go with them.  And they would go to the houses.  I din’t like that at all.(laughter)
But sure you would get up and open the door for them.  But simple, I’ll treat you though,..  I can’t afford it, I got a big family. They say you can have it. But they’s stop and they’d argue and argue and talk a long time and
drink a lot.                   

                  Mrs. Moquin Tape 1 p.20

 

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