History buffs race to preserve French dialect in Missouri

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

photo Martin Aubuchon, right, a living history participant dressed as a French colonial settler, talks with Gary Scheel during the annual French Heritage Festival in Ste. Genevieve, Mo. A little-known French dialect that perseveres in some old Missouri mining towns is in danger of disappearing as its few remaining native speakers die.

OLD MINES, Mo. - A small circle of history researchers is racing to capture the last remnants of a little-known French dialect that endures in some old Missouri mining towns before the few remaining native speakers succumb to old age.

So-called Missouri French is spoken by fewer than 30 people in Old Mines, southwest of St. Louis, although dozens of others can still rattle off phrases from childhood songs or overheard conversations involving their parents and grandparents.

"When they didn't want us to know what they talked about," they spoke in French, said Lucy Baquette, whose husband traces his regional roots back to the founding families of St. Louis.

Other languages once common in parts of North America have suffered similar fates, including some American Indian tongues. But Missouri French has the distinction of being one of only three French dialects believed to have originated in the United States. And it remained in wide use in these parts well into the 20th century.

Still, the language has received far less attention from cultural historians and language experts than the Creole and Cajun French spoken in present-day Louisiana and other variations heard in New England states along the Canadian border.

The language developed among French settlers who came to southeast Missouri by way of Canada nearly 300 years ago to extract lead from the northern Ozarks in a territory known then as Upper Louisiana.

The dialect is also known as Missouri-Illinois French or paw-paw French for the region's plentiful paw-paw trees, which bear a sweet, mango-like fruit. The language flourished in the isolation of communities such as Old Mines and was used by hundreds of families for generations.

Music scholar Dennis Stroughmatt first learned about it 20 years ago as a student at Southeast Missouri State University in nearby Cape Girardeau. With a folklore professor's encouragement and a semester of college French, he befriended families in and around Old Mines in an effort to preserve the region's music and language.

He recorded old-timers' oral histories, uncovered scratchy wax cylinder recordings and embraced the role as a modern-day storyteller.

Using his grandfather's fiddle, he also performed at the house parties known as bouillons. His three-piece band, l'Esprit Creole, played the songs of Upper Louisiana at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and other venues in the U.S. and abroad, including the Fete de L'Automme, an annual fall festival in Old Mines.

In May, the Missouri Humanities Council honored Stroughmatt, citing his work to "revive an epoch of Midwestern history that was on the verge of extinction."

"They have fought to keep their language and culture alive," said Stroughmatt, who as a graduate student moved from the Midwest to Quebec to further his French studies. "I want to do anything I can to help."

Missouri French is an amalgam of Old Norman French, Native American languages and frontier English. The regional dialect was also spoken in surrounding mine-belt towns such as Bonne Terre, Valles Mines, De Sloge, De Soto and Ste. Genevieve in the area about 65 miles south of St. Louis, he said.

The language remained intact in Old Mines, away from major highways and rail lines, well after residents of other towns began speaking mostly English.

While European French speakers drive to the grocery store in their "voitures," their Old Mines counterparts rely on "chars" -- a word that means tank or cart to most other Francophones.

Carol Diaz-Granados, an anthropology researcher at Washington University in St. Louis who studies the region's Native American archaeology, heralded Stroughmatt's historical preservation efforts.

Missouri French "was on the verge of being lost," she said. "People are passing away. It's the end of an era."

Diaz-Granados is a board member of the Old Mines Area Historical Society, a volunteer group working to restore an old log cabin on the outskirts of town that would serve as the centerpiece of a 19th century village and history museum commemorating the region's deep French roots.

The belated appreciation of that French heritage is emerging in a place where Missouri French speakers once faced scorn and ridicule for their strange tongue, particularly as public education and compulsory English lessons replaced church-based learning a century ago.

The area's unofficial slogan is a testament to its resilience: "On est toujours icitte." We are still here.