Lewis Hine caption: Erenne La Prise, a doffer, apparently 13 year[s] old, doffing at his machine in Spring Village Mill. Said he had been working a year and a half. Location: Winchendon, Massachusetts, September 1911.
“He was fun to be with. He was jolly, and he was very loving. He was a neat guy, very talkative, always joking around.” -Marge Insco, granddaughter of Irenee Laprise
Lewis Hine and his large Graflex camera would not have been welcome in the mills, since his objective was to show underage children working. At that time, Massachusetts law prohibited this type of employment for children under age 14, though it was infrequently enforced. In this case, Hine underestimated the boy’s age by two years.
Hine was sometimes able to get away with taking these photos by posing as an industrial photographer. He would tell the person in charge that he wanted to take pictures of the machines, but then he would request that a child stand next to the machine to give a sense of scale, to show how large the machine was. Of the 40 photos he took in Winchendon, he was able to take seven inside the mills.
I couldn’t find Erenne in the 1910 US census in Winchendon, or anywhere else in the country. Nor could I find any subsequent marriage or death records for him in the Winchendon town clerk’s office. I decided to try using various spellings of the first and last name. It was tedious, going through one dead end after another in the census. Just when I was about to throw in the towel, something interesting turned up.
In the 1930 census in Lisbon, Maine, I found Esene Laprise, born in 1896, living with a wife and son. I backtracked to the 1920 Maine census and found him again. This time, his first name was spelled Erenne. With this new information, I tracked him down.
He wound up in Connecticut, where he died in 1972. Within a few days, I found his obituary in a Connecticut newspaper. Among the listed survivors was a son, Marc, who has since died, and a sister, Georgianna Lapointe, of Winchendon, who is no longer living either. But I found Lapointe in the 1930 census, living with her husband and 13 children. Then I found the obituary of Anthony LaPointe, one of Georgianna’s sons, who died in Worcester in 1996. Among his survivors was a sister, Rita Saveall, of Winchendon. Her name was familiar, because she’s the curator of the Winchendon Historical Society. I had met her on one of my early visits to the town.
She was surprised to see the photo of her Uncle Irenee, but she did not have much contact with him over the years, so I continued searching for more descendants. I finally obtained the obituary for Irenee’s son, Marc, and that led me to Marc’s daughter, Marguerite (Marge) Insco, who lives in Illinois. She knew much more about her grandfather Irenee.
Starting with Canada genealogical records, I confirmed that Joseph Irenee Laprise (first and middle names reversed in later records) was born in Quebec on March 1, 1896, to Jean Baptiste Laprise and Virginia (Bernier) Laprise, who married in 1876. About 10 months after Irenee was born, his father died, leaving his wife with at least eight children. About 1900, the family crossed the border and settled in Winchendon. Shortly after, Virginia married August Cloutier, who had several children from a previous marriage. In the 1910 census, they have nine children in the home, including Irenee (incorrectly listed as Rouse Cloutier), and two from the new marriage. August and the seven oldest children, including Irenee, work at the Springs Mill.
Virginia died before 1920, because August is listed as a widow in the 1920 census. By that time, Irenee is living in Lisbon, Maine, with his wife, Lucienne, whom he married about 1918. Both work in a cotton mill. In 1930, they are still in Lisbon, living with Lucienne’s parents, and they still work in the cotton mill. They have one child, Marcel (later called Marc), eight years old. In 1940, they moved to New Britain, Connecticut, according to Irenee’s obituary.
Irenee Laprise died on March 7, 1972, at the age of 76. Lucienne died in 2002, at the age of 101. Son Marc died in California in 1995, at the age of 73.
Lewis Hine caption: Erenne La Prise, on left, apparently 13 years old, a doffer at Spring Village Mill, said he had been working a year and a half. Als de Gauthier, apparently under 14 (next to Erenne) also a doffer at Spring Village Mill. Location: Winchendon, Massachusetts, September 1911.
Edited interview with Marguerite Insco (MI), granddaughter of Irenee Laprise. Conducted by Joe Manning (JM), on January 10, 2009. Transcribed by Hilary Buxton and edited by Manning.
JM: What was your reaction when you first saw the photograph?
MI: It was like, wow, this is so exciting. This is my grandfather.
JM: You immediately recognized him?
MI: I knew it was him immediately. But I had no idea that he had worked as a child.
JM: Had you ever seen a picture of your grandfather as a child?
MI: Yes. That’s why I was able to recognize him right away.
JM: Did you know he had lived in Winchendon?
MI: Yes, I did know that.
JM: What year were you born?
JM: So you knew him until you were about 23.
MI: That’s right.
JM: Did you know him well?
MI: We were very close.
JM: Did you live near each other?
MI: Yes, we lived in New Britain (Connecticut), and so did he. Then we moved to Kensington, which is close to New Britain. My parents would take us to visit him and my grandmother every weekend. When I was 12, we moved away. My dad had worked for a company in Connecticut, but then he got a job with the same company in Chicago. That’s where I was living when my grandfather died.
JM: Did moving out there change your relationship with your grandfather?
MI: Sure, but I would talk to him whenever my parents called them. One time, my grandparents came out to watch us while my parents went on vacation.
JM: What are some of the things you miss most about him?
MI: He was fun to be with. He was jolly, and he was very loving. He was a neat guy, very talkative, always joking around. I remember that he was very active in the Knights of Columbus, and that he ran the bar there. At that time, he was probably retired. My grandparents were devout Catholics. They went to Mass daily. My dad was an altar boy, and I was raised Catholic.
JM: Do you think that your grandfather was smart and fairly well educated?
MI: Yes, I do. And I think that he and my grandmother had a good life. They lived in a nice apartment in New Britain, above some relatives. They never owned their own home.
JM: Did your father talk much about growing up in Maine, before his parents moved to Connecticut?
MI: No, but I remember that he used to go up to Maine quiet often for family get-togethers.
JM: So other family members were still up there.
MI: Yes, but on my grandmother’s side mostly.
JM: What did your father do for a living?
MI: He was a mechanical designer for Continental Can. He was instrumental in designing the plastic milk bottle as we know it today. That was while he was working in Chicago.
JM: Where would he have learned that skill? Did he go to college?
MI: Yes, to the University of Montreal.
JM: When you were growing up, did your parents own their home?
MI: When I was seven, my dad purchased our first home in some sort of subdivision.
JM: Did your grandparents speak French?
MI: Yes, very fluently. They spoke it to each other, but not to my father.
JM: Did they eat traditional French food?
MI: Yes, and there were quite a few dishes that my mother would prepare that were on the French side.
JM: Did you grow up feeling very aware of your French-Canadian roots?
MI: Yes. My father spoke of it often. I think he was pretty proud of his ancestry.
JM: What was your father like?
MI: Very fun loving, just a great guy.
JM: And your mother?
MI: She was terrific, too. They loved each other a lot. I have good memories. When my mom passed away, he just spiraled downward. He wanted to move out to California, so he headed out there. Shortly thereafter, my husband and I decided we’d go out there, too. He settled in Burlingame, a little south of San Francisco, and we ended up in San Jose.
JM: Were you still out there when he passed away?
MI: No. We were living in New Jersey then.
JM: Did you go to college?
MI: No. I’ve been a secretary all of my life, a business administrative assistant.
JM: When you saw the photo of your grandfather, did it trigger a lot of memories?
MI: It brought back all kinds of memories, mostly of the family gatherings. I remember those a lot, because my mother had a lot of sisters.
JM: Lewis Hine was very famous for exposing child labor, and was instrumental in influencing the passing of child labor laws. Your grandfather was shown as an example of child labor. What do you think about that?
MI: I was surprised and stunned by it, but I think I was more excited to just see his picture and know that someone was researching him.
JM: When he grew up, he probably didn’t remember that he was photographed in Winchendon. At the time, he might have simply regarded it as something the company was doing, and he may not have even seen a camera before. Do you ever remember him talking to you about his childhood?
MI: No. And I probably didn’t ask. I wish I could tell you more about my grandfather. It makes me sad that I can’t. But my grandmother, his wife, was around later to answer all our questions. She lived to be 101. Anytime anything came up, we’d ask her what was this like or that was like. Looking back at it now, every chance we get, we try to pass things down.
*Story published in 2010.