LEWISTON, Maine — Erin Simpson points to the Gendron Franco Center, then across Cedar Street to an area of Lewiston called Little Canada.
“This was a hub for Canadian immigrants,” said Simpson, the community outreach manager at the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. She added that French-Canadian immigrants in particular worked in the Continental Mill and at Bates Mill making textiles.
She was leading a group of 18 people, many of French heritage, in mid-June through the new Franco Trail L-A linking French attractions in Lewiston and Auburn, the so-called “twin cities” spanning the Androscoggin River.
The trail is part of the cities’ efforts to boost tourism while celebrating the area’s French-Canadian heritage. The chamber also has a free self-guided tour map and an interactive mobile website.
The 4 ½-mile walk takes about two hours and passes some well-known structures, such as the Gendron Franco Center, the Bates Mill and the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, and some lesser known to those outside the area including Le Messager, the headquarters of the French-language newspaper published from 1880 to 1968 and located on Lisbon Street.
During the tour, Simpson was interrupted frequently by her charges, who spoke excitedly of stories they heard about immigrant life from their parents and grandparents.
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Alfreda Fournier, a city councilor in Auburn’s Ward 4, has been in the area for 51 years.
“I had two cousins who worked at the mills in Lewiston,” she said. “The mills were very well regulated, so factory workers in the dorms across the street would walk to work together when the whistle sounded.
“People still have a lot of respect for the mills. They represent the hard work of their ancestors,” she said.
Fournier moved to the Lewiston-Auburn area 51 years ago from Chisholm, a town with a former paper mill in Franklin County.
She also recommends that visitors see the basilica and the Gendron center, which was a former church.
“It’s like going to Europe and seeing beautiful cathedrals, but it’s right here,” Fournier said.
Migdalia Mass, a newcomer to the area, also enjoyed the Basilica, which is her parish, as well as the Gendron center and the mills. But what attracted her to live in the area is the green spaces along the river.
“I like to be near the river, and enjoy the nature part of it,” Mass said. “And I love history in general, but my husband is French-Canadian.”
A native of Puerto Rico, Mass spent much of her life in the U.S. Army, traveling around the world before settling in Auburn a little more than a year ago.
Much of the green section of the trail runs along the Little Auburn section across the river from Lewiston. That section is part of the Little Auburn redevelopment plan that includes the walking trail.
The Auburn part of the walk includes the A.A. Garcelon House. Built in 1890, it was home to M. Arthur A. Garcelon, a merchant of French-Canadian extraction who operated a grocery supplier.
Also in the Auburn section is the Maine Franco-American Genealogical Society and the Art Wall, which was established to beautify a retaining wall with paintings mounted on it.
Back on the Lewiston side of the river, the F.X. Marcotte furniture store still operates. It was established in 1889 by Francois X. Marcotte, who prospered by serving new arrivals. Early on, it also included a pharmacy and apartments.
Nearby is the Grand Trunk Railroad Station, considered the Ellis Island of Lewiston in 1885 when immigrants arrived from Canada. They came via a rail line between Portland and Montreal.
Lewiston is home to the University of Southern Maine’s Franco American Collection, one of the largest repositories of Franco-American archival material in Maine.
Also worth a visit is the Hotel de Ville, whose “Wall of Mayors” on the first floor includes Lewiston’s first Franco-American Mayor Dr. Robert Riseman.
Fournier is a fan of Museum L-A, which is now exhibiting a history of shoes, which along with textiles were a major manufactured good in the twin cities.
“I remember wearing some of the shoes on display as a young lady, like the pumps,” she said. “A lot of those shoes were made in local mills.”
Watch: Loyal Lewiston parishioners carry on French mass tradition