NATHANIEL BERGERON SISSON for THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT
I am originally from southwest Michigan, near Kalamazoo, though I am currently living in Bozeman, Montana for school. I am a senior at Montana State University studying Cell Biology and Neuroscience with a minor in Global Health. Even though I am officially a student of science, I have always carried a passion for history and cultural studies which sparked my interest in exploring my family’s past. After a trip through Québec in the summer of 2017, I was further motivated to learn about my French-Canadian roots. As a result, I wrote a piece for the Storykeeper’s Project to honor my ancestors’ memories and to keep our heritage alive. – NBS
There’s a dry breeze coming from the west. It bends the towering stalks of corn ever so slightly and powers the rotating wind turbines off in the distance; their red lights flashing through the sycamores. Standing on the front porch of the ‘old home place’, I can see for miles around. The Indiana prairie once covered in forests and swamps stretches for miles in every direction—not a hill or town in site. I am at the Bissonnette Family Reunion in Wolcott with the lyrics of “Back Home Again in Indiana” dancing through my mind.
It has been twelve years now since my brother and I were sitting in our Grandma Genevieve’s kitchen in Fowler, Indiana. One could always find us at the counter eagerly awaiting the fresh sweet rolls from the oven or her famous ‘Grandma Jenny’s Coffee Cake’. When she wasn’t baking, my grandma would be at the stove preparing her delectable ‘poussin plat’ soup—a French Canadian staple, consisting of tender pieces of chicken and homemade dumplings bathed in a gravy broth, that originated during the hardships of the Great Depression.
My grandmother and grandfather are no longer with us. We have the recipes, photos, and memories to keep them alive. But most importantly, we have family. The descendants of my great-grandfather George still gather every couple of years at the ‘home place’ in Indiana. On July 7th, 2018, I traveled to Wolcott, Indiana with my parents for the Bissonnette Family Reunion at George’s farm. It was the first gathering since the loss of my grandparents and uncle. Although they weren’t there in physical form, I knew they were looking down with immense joy at the sight of their loved ones gathered once again. While at the reunion, I heard stories from times long ago and it reminded me of my own memories from my grandma’s kitchen.
Genevieve was the youngest of five children from the Bissonnette family that settled in White County, Indiana. The Bissonnette’s originally lived in the Poitou region of France before our forbearer, Jacques Bissonnette, traveled to the new world settling in Montreal in the latter part of the 17th century. He would marry a Fille du Roi, a “Daughter of the King”—a woman who was sent to New France to help populate the territory. His great-great-grandson moved the family to Kankakee, Illinois in the first half of the 19th century in search for rich farmland. And in 1895, Alfred Bissonnette moved his family to West Point Township near Wolcott, Indiana—bringing with them, their unique French Canadian identity.
Alfred and his son, George, became renowned Percheron, Shire, and Belgian horse breeders with the “best and largest barn in the state” according to National Livestock Journal. The barn was 75×150 feet and forty-five feet high, containing 375,000 feet of lumber, and built for an estimated cost of $12,000. Towards the end of his life, Alfred had to seek surgery in a Chicago hospital to remove cancerous tumors. Even though the surgery went well, he knew his time on Earth was approaching the end and requested to leave the drab patient room so that he could return to his beloved farm. The doctors and nurses would hear nothing of it. This didn’t deter Alfred—he called in the reinforcements. His son, George, and their parish priest traveled during the night and snatched Alfred out from under the watchful eye of the hospital staff. Two weeks later, Alfred died peacefully at his family farm.
Grandpa George eventually extended the family farm to 640 acres. In the book, “History of White County”, one can find, “It is upon such young men as George Bissonnette that the future of White County agriculture devolves, and from what he has already accomplished it is evident that he will always be equal to his opportunities and responsibilities.” In 1911, George married Lucille Bergeron and started his family.
George’s youngest daughter, my grandmother, spoke only French in the home, that is until Genevieve started school and English was a necessity. She received high marks and would eventually begin working at the Indiana State Capitol where she met my grandfather, Emmett Lasher, a big-band bass fiddle player from Tell City, Indiana. My grandparents settled in Fowler, IN and operated a Western Auto Store. Their house was situated across the street from the Catholic church where, as pious Franco-Americans, they regularly attended daily mass. Genevieve started the Fowler St. Vincent de Paul Society that produced clothes for the poor all across the globe. I distinctly remember her sewing machine in the corner of the bedroom where I always slept as a child and the many clothes that hung on a nearby rack, ready to be sent to those in need. My mother recalls “The Catholic Hour” echoing throughout the house during her childhood. In fact, my grandmother even corresponded with the host, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen. In their backyard, a stone pathway led to a garden Marian shrine and in every room a small font of holy water was placed by the light switch. When I was young, I thought my grandparents were real-life, modern-day saints like our distant cousin, Saint André Bessette. The Bissonnettes of west-central Indiana were stalwarts of their local parishes for decades and passed down their French Canadian culture and faith to the following generations.
The smell of roasted pork fills the densely packed house. Cousins from across the Midwest laugh and reminisce on memories from their childhood. It seems like time has stood still since they were all gathered around the Sunday dinner table with Grandpa George and my grandparent’s generation. It’s an odd feeling, things have remained as they always were; children playing on the tractor outside, the distant buzz of a crop-duster, family gathered in the shade of a tree, the delight of being with one another, yet the noticeable loss of loved ones is ever-present. Be that as it may, we all felt like we were back home again in Indiana, home sweet home.