FRENCHVILLE - It was on a snowy Thanksgiving Day in 1945 when Prescille Picard took her wedding vows and began a new life, although she did not move very far and as the oldest of 15 children growing up on a farm in Frenchville, her new life with Lawrence Dumais would not be a dramatic change. Like Prescille’s father Hypolite, Dumais was a farmer and although the young couple would not have as large a family as she had grown up in, they would build a farming family that lives on to the present day.
Today, the Dumais’ two sons Phil and Mike still farm and still live in the Valley, one in St. Agatha and the other just down the road from the home that Prescille and Lawrence moved into 63 years ago. Her husband passed away 10 years ago and Prescille, who is now 90 years old, said she has had multiple knee replacement surgeries and deals with some back pain, but she still lives in the house.
“I’ve lived an interesting life,” Dumais said sitting in her sunny living room on Monday afternoon.
“I’m still going. My mind is OK,” she laughed.
Her sons were taking advantage of a sunny day to get some field work done, but Phil suggested having a talk with his mother to learn more about the family farm.
“She remembers everything” he said over the phone.
Lawrence Dumais had also grown up in a farming family in Frenchville. He had to take on the business after the untimely death of his father Henry who was only 53. Lawrence would eventually buy out his brother’s share of the farm and since that time the family farm has grown to include about 1,800 acres of land that grows potatoes, buckwheat, grains and trees, with parcels in St. Agatha and Frenchville.
Although she prefers to stay out of the limelight (and out of the newspaper), Mrs. Dumais shared some of the farm’s history and a few family stories, like the time her husband brought a pony into the house.
Their daughter Maxine was about 9 years old, she said, and loved horses. So Lawrence, generally a serious man, she added, brought one of their ponies up the back steps and into the kitchen as a prank.
“Well, that pony slipped on the linoleum floor and its hoof broke one of the cabinets,” she called. “That darn pony could not get out of the house.” Horses are not as good going down steps as they are going up, she said. The pony eventually jumped out of another doorway and back into its pen.
Through the years the Dumais family would not only grow potatoes and grain but they also kept animals, something not uncommon in those days and something that Mrs. Dumais was quite familiar with growing up on her family farm.
“We had white face cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, the whole thing,” she said. She would be as hands-on in her new role as a farmer’s wife as she had been as a farmer’s daughter, by milking cows and making butter, and that’s not all.
“I helped drive the tractors and trucks too,” she said. For a long time she would help during planting and harvest and with hauling and loading hay into the barn. She was also the person in charge of the pickers’ tickets, when hand-picking potatoes was still done.
“That was a big job,” Dumais said. “Those people work hard and they deserved to get paid.”
She described her husband as a “very particular man” when it came to harvesting, adding that he hated to see any potato left in the field. He would stop the machine or tell somebody to go over and get some potatoes that had been missed, something his son Phil still does to this day, said her daughter in-law Linda, Phil’s wife.
When harvesting machines came along, her husband was less than convinced, although Mrs. Dumais saw them as a breakthrough.
“Oh my God, I thought they were great,” she said. Mr. Dumais would eventual change his mind the next year and buy a second mechanized harvester.
Lawrence did not do well in school as a young man, she said, although he and his teachers tried very hard. Prescille would do most of the reading and writing for the business over the years, she said. Like most farmers though, her husband could fix any sort of machinery.
“If something wasn’t working,” she said, “he would slowly walk around and listen, then point and say ‘There, that’s the problem.”
Linda remembered her father in-law as always having a pencil and slip of paper in his pocket, ready to solve some problem. He may not have been able to read or write very well, but he was great with numbers, Mrs. Dumais said. He didn’t like calculators very much and would often figure out the answers faster anyway, both women said.
“He may not have been able to read well, but don’t cheat him on a penny,” Mrs. Dumais said with a smile.
Lawrence Dumais and Sons, as the farm is still called, is one of the well-known buckwheat growers in the Valley and they mix and package their own flour. The farm plants approximately 50 acres of it each year, and has it milled just over the border in Canada, before bringing in back in 50-pound bags, for use as straight buckwheat flour and as a part of a read-to-use ploye mix.
Mrs. Dumais said that growing buckwheat had always been part of farming, and that it was used years ago as one of the first crops sown in after a wooded area had been cut and was going to eventually be used for cash crops. After a time, the buckwheat itself became a niche product and a cash crop in its own right.
After Lawrence had a heart attack in the early 1980s, he was told not to return to much of the strenuous work he was accustomed to, and found he had too much time on his hands, Mrs. Dumais said.
“He said, “I can’t sit around doing nothing.’ So he went and built a machine to sift and mix the ploye mix,” she said, which has been in use in the nearby garage since 1984. He invented the mixing and bagging equipment, but the ploye mix recipe was hers, she said.
Even after doctor’s orders and family suggestions about slowing down, Lawrence could not be kept totally away from the farm fields, however. One time, Dumais recalled, one of her grandsons “caught” his pépère on a tractor cutting oats in a back field and told his father. When confronted, the elder Dumais responded, “Never mind. I know when I’m tired, and I’ll decide when to come home.”
Later on, her husband would have a retirement business as a traveling hay bailer, and would go around to various farms with a portable square bailer. As this was done in the fall when the weather was getting cold and raw, continually handling the cold metal bailing wire got to Lawrence, Mrs. Dumais said.
“He would say, ‘I froze my fingers so much, I’m going to Florida to warm up my hands’.” The couple ended up buying a condominium down there and spend several years of retirement winters in warmer climates, something that Prescille said she cannot do any longer.
The Dumaises would eventual have two sons and two daughters, as well as five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Phil’s sons Andy and Randy are full-time farmers, working the same ground that Lawrence and his father did, decades ago. When not in school, some of the great-grandchildren also help out.
“Lawrence would be very proud,” Mrs. Dumais said. Both she and her daughter in-law said that even after 10 years, his absence is still felt each year when harvest comes around.
These days Mrs. Dumais uses a walker for a bit of help at times, but still manages her own house, gets down to visit her daughter in Rockland and can look out any of her windows or stand on her porch and see something from her life and family. Things like her parents’ old house just up the road, the old barrels in the shed that once held her picker’s potatoes and nowadays hold the buckwheat at harvest, and the farm fields still producing potatoes behind her house.
“It was a good life. Hard times. Nice times,” she reflected when asked about being a farmer’s wife. “I wouldn’t change my life.”