WOONSOCKET — Since it opened in 1997, the Museum of Work and Culture has related the story of the immigration of workers to the city’s thriving textile industry in the 1800s and early 1900s.
But like any good museum, the local historical resource has had to grow and change from time to time to keep drawing visitors through its doors.
Such an improvement was celebrated on Tuesday by one of the local groups playing a major role in the city’s textile manufacturing heyday, French Canadians.
Members of the Alliance Francaise de Providence joined representatives from Province de Quebec, Canada, the consulate of France in Boston, and the Centre de la Francophonie des Americques for a look at the Museum’s latest update.
A project taken on by McGill University senior Brendan Shanahan over the past year has added a French Canadian view of textile worker migration to the museum’s interior walking tour.
The exhibits starting with a French Canadian farmhouse and continuing through the immigrants’ life in the weaving shops and tenement houses of Woonsocket now include information on the sometimes difficult “La Decision” families made to leave their native Canada. The changes are likely to be popular with visitors making the trip from Quebec since they include French language versions of the research presented.
Tuesday’s Museum visitors arrived in Woonsocket after celebrating Francophone Day with the raising of the Francophone flag at a State House ceremony in Providence and joined Shanahan for a personalized tour of his improvements to its story.
One of the new exhibit boards added by Shanahan’s project greets visitors at the farmhouse and relates the efforts made in Quebec to keep families from leaving.
“We show the language that was used in Quebec to encourage people not to leave,” he said. The arguments were made by journalists of the day, hired orators, church leaders and even relatives.
But like all large immigrations, there were other factors influencing “La Decision,” that kept the trains rolling south to New England full of prospective workers, Shanahan said during his tour.
Most of the Quebec economy of the time was agriculturally based and families would often struggle to get by when crops were poor and there were few alternatives for survival at home.
“Textile jobs in Woonsocket were hard to turn down when you’re trying to raise 13 kids on a farm,” Shanahan said.
The impact of the departures on Canada was significant given that 1 in 4 Quebecois would leave their homes for New England between the 1860s and 1870s and the 1930s.
The government in Quebec took the emigration serious enough to create plans for repatriating Canadians it could encourage back with new land developments in the northern and western portions of the province.
The work Shanahan did on La Decision, including extensive review of the historical records collection at Assumption College in Worcester, showed that ultimately the efforts to bring people back failed, even if some did trade mill jobs for farm life from time to time.
Over time, Quebec, and in turn Canada, received a benefit from the exodus as U.S. dollars came back in the form of investments in new technology and new industry in the Province.
The fact that there was a good outcome to the emigration was not lost on the visitors to the Museum on Tuesday. Many came from organizations that are working to encourage new partnerships between New England communities and businesses and their counterparts in Quebec and France.
Christophe Guilhou, consul General of France in Boston, said he has been to the local museum several times over the years but was especially impressed with the changes he found there on Tuesday.
“I think it is very important to revive French heritage in this region and in Rhode Island I think this Museum highlights the roots of people with French origin,” he said.
“They have to be proud of their ancestors to have such a Museum, but I think they also have to understand the questions of “where did they come from” and “why did they leave Quebec,” he said.
The addition of a bilingual answer to that question is especially valuable to visitors who will come from Canada, he said.
“For so many years the French Canadian culture of New England, its roots in Quebec, was marginalized by others living in the area. So this is kind of a revival of that culture,” he said.
People looking through the Museum’s collections will not only find out why the French Canadians came to Woonsocket but will also see them to be “a brave people, a hardworking people,” he said.
Jean-Stephane Bernard, delegue du Quebec a Boston for the Gouvernement du Quebec, said he had heard about the Museum of Work and Culture in his work but was no less impressed when he actually toured it with the rest of the Francophones stopping by.
“It is beyond what I expected. I was really impressed by the research that they did,” he said.
Bernard said he had family members who had joined the emigration to New England and so in a way the story added to the Museum’s exhibits was also the story of his own family.
The impact of the migration can still be seen in the population of Quebec today, according to Bernard and Patrick Hyndman, public affairs director for the Quebec Government Office in Boston.
It is estimated that more than a million people left Quebec during the migration, they noted. Had those families stayed, Quebec’s population would likely be double the 7 million people living in the Province today, they said.
The tour at the Museum also drew Governor Lincoln Chafee and Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and both officials pointed to the Museum as an important resource of history for Rhode Island.
“I just see it as continuing to help us as community in remembering our heritage,” Fontaine said. During a recent visit to one of the city’s remaining long vacant mill buildings, Fontaine said he could almost picture how they had been in times of the migration. “Some of the people working the mills would think it is little nicer in here than it was in the mills back then,” Fontaine said.
Chafee pointed to the museum and the relationships it is building outside of Woonsocket as another potential asset in the city’s economic turnaround.
There are reasons to invest in the city, the Governor noted and point to his recent visit to Main Street as proof of that.
Chafee said he had met and Chris and Hanna Garrison, the owners of the circa 1879 Honan Block building on Main Street, on the tour and heard from them how difficult their first two years setting up for local business had been.
“But when I asked them are you encouraged or discouraged,” Chafee said, “without a beat they said they were encouraged.” The Museum and its story was just another reason for people like the Garrisons to see a life in Woonsocket as one with many benefits, he said.
The day’s celebration concluded with praise from Museum co-directors Anne Conway and Raymond Bacon for all the volunteers and community partners who have made the Museum a success over the years.
Conway also presented awards to Franco community members who have helped bring new improvements to the Museum’s story.