Historic pieces from Raymond’s heritage, given new life

The bench used by Raymond’s great-grandfather, Théophile Brassard, to make harness for (among other customers), the Lowell, Massachusetts, public-works department around the turn of the 20th century. The bench was in rather tough shape not too long ago, but thanks to a very fine craftsman in Hastings County, has been beautifully restored and sits in our very-far-from-finished living room at the Manse.

Readers may find this hard to believe, but when it comes to the Manse, it’s not always about me. Yes, it was my childhood home, and yes, I have memories of that house that go to the core of my soul; but Raymond seems to be taking a shine to the place too. On our last visit, I had to return home to work in Montreal on Sunday evening, while Raymond stayed over that night and on Monday delivered his truck to Belleville for some pre-safety-check work, then took the train back home. It was the first time he’d stayed at the Manse on his own, and I was a bit worried that he’d knock around the big old empty place and wonder what on earth he’d got himself into. Instead, he told me when he got home that he’d had a quiet and pleasant evening, risen early in the morning, and enjoyed coffee on the sunny front porch amid the sounds of birdsong and little else. “I was sad to leave,” he told me.

My heart leapt! (Which, I know, is a weird reaction when someone tells you they’ve been sad, but I think you know what I mean. Pretty little Queensborough and our handsome Manse are getting to Raymond.)

The beautiful oak bookcase, now fully restored, that came down to Raymond from his maternal grandparents, then his mum, and then his sister, Lorraine.

Anyway, as I was saying, it’s not all about me. While we haven’t yet put much in the way of furniture into the Manse, aside from a vintage midcentury table and chairs and a new Ikea bed, the house does now boast two very interesting pieces that came there with us from Montreal and that have a long history in Raymond’s family. And what’s a particularly nice touch about it all is that they have been beautifully restored, thanks to the work of a very fine cabinetmaker who lives and works just outside nearby Marmora, Ed Comerford.

One piece is an oak bookcase with glass doors that contain decorative leaded stained glass. It belonged to Raymond’s maternal grandparents, Ernest and Lillian L’Heureux, who lived, like most of both sides of his family, in Lowell, Massachusetts. The bookcase was passed down to Raymond’s mother, Cécile, and she in turn passed it on to her daughter, Raymond’s younger sister Lorraine, when she set up house in Lowell. The brave and beautiful Lorraine died three summers ago after a long illness, and the bookcase came to Raymond (the man of ten thousand books).

Raymond’s great-grandfather’s harness-making bench before restoration.

The other piece is even older, and funkier. It is a bench that a harness-maker sits at when working the leather for the harness. It belonged to Raymond’s paternal great-grandfather, Théophile Brassard, who was a harness-maker in a shop down by the mighty Merrimack River in Lowell. His work included making harness for the horses used by the Lowell Public Works Department. Théophile, his wife, Mathilde, and several of their children were among the many French Quebecers who migrated down (from Drummondville, in their case) to New England in the late 19th century, lured by the prospects of a better life in a place bustling with mills and industrial activity. (And nowhere in New England was more bustling with mills than Lowell; today the city still boasts a stunning collection of beautiful old mill buildings along the Merrimack, many converted to residential or commercial use. This industrial heritage was what resulted in Lowell being named the first urban national park in the  brilliant U.S. National Park system; you can read about it here, and better yet, go and visit!) As a skilled tradesman, Théophile did just fine for himself in Lowell.

Théophile Brassard, Raymond’s great-grandfather, the harness-maker …

The bench and Théophile’s leather-working tools were passed down through the generations, and Raymond’s father, also Raymond, gave them to him when he and Raymond’s mum, Cécile, moved into a smaller place in the 1970s. Raymond had by then moved back up to Quebec from Lowell, so the tools and bench came back to the province in which they had originated. Full circle.

But both the bookcase and the harness-making bench were in rough shape. So not long after Raymond bought his prime Manse accoutrement, his red truck – which offered us a way to transport them to a place where they could be restored – he started doing some research into who could restore them. And he found just the operation in Ed Comerford’s Classic Touch Furniture, only half an hour or so from the Manse.

… and Mathilde, his wife. (Photos courtesy of Nicole Shanks)

Ed has done an absolutely splendid job. Both pieces look beautiful. We haven’t found a permanent spot for them yet, but they look ever so nice just parked in the middle of our rather jumbly living room at the Manse. Sooner or later, they will have pride of place.

It’s been a long journey for these treasured pieces of furniture. And it is ever so nice to have them at the Manse to remind Raymond of his rich family history, with roots in both Quebec and New England.

And if anyone needs some harness made … well, we have just the setup.

8 thoughts on “Historic pieces from Raymond’s heritage, given new life

  1. THAT IS SO COOL! I have a photo of Theophile and Mathilde, but had absolutely no idea what they did. All I know was that Theophile had an AWESOME moustache, and Memere would sometimes joke with Pep when he was being stubborn, saying “All right, Theophile”, when addressing him 🙂

  2. P.S., I tagged Raymond in a facebook photo – there is one of Theophile and one of Mathilde if you would like a face to go with the bench!

    • Thank you, Nicole! The photos of Théophile and Mathilde have been added to the post. It’s so cool to be able to see the man who used that harness-making bench all those years ago. Almost spooky – in a good way. Very much appreciated!

  3. Thank you so much for this wonderful post about our family, Katherine. I am teary-eyed reading it. We must now find you one of the beautiful satin quilts the old Memere L’Heureux made. It would look right at home at the Manse.

    • That is lovely of you to say, Jeannie, but I am pretty sure those gorgeous (limited-edition) quilts are all spoken for by your grandmother’s daughters and granddaughters. I am very happy to say I have seen one or two, and they are amazing. The Brassards and the L’Heureuxs have a great story; maybe someone should start a blog and tell it!

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