In the early 1890s “La Nouvelle France” or, as it came to be known, “Electric City” was the name of a very successful, innovative family-run wood milling settlement located over 17 miles inland from Weymouth, NS, and the Sissiboo River. Founded by the Stehelin family from Gisors, France, it was a happy place where people of all cultures, races, religions, and linguistic groups worked and played peacefully together. It was a truly multicultural community, where folks of many varied backgrounds learned about, and socialized with each other, many for the first time in their lives. The community's impact is still felt today in the area, 130 years later. The Electric City / La Nouvelle France was a fully integrated, internationally successful business and community environment.
The story of this settlement is one of family love and devotion, of adventure and daring, of war and peace, of entrepreneurship and friendship, a truly universal tale.
The following excerpts are from the book "Electric City, The Stehelins of New France" by Paul Stehelin.
Published by Nimbus, 1983. ISBN 978-1-55109-307-9. The book is available via our offices. Find out more
Jean Jacques sets foot in Acadie
On a beautiful, sunny, warm July mid-morning in 1892, a well dressed young man stepped down from the mail horse drawn carriage in front of a little store, which also housed the Post Office at Church Point, in Nova Scotia."
"Jean Jacques Stehelin had just passed his twenty-first birthday, as he stood there in a very strange country, among people so different from his own countrymen, a difference more pronounced because they were supposed to be french-speaking and he hardly understood what they said. This was a new world indeed and perhaps he had not prepared himself for something so different."
"For a moment, his mind flew back home, his father's large house with its manicured lawns, the multi-coloured flower beds and the family "atelage", waiting at the carriage entrance. .. He remembered his own Arabian thoroughbred saddle horse, Bombe, bob-tailed as was the style then, immaculately turned out every morning, ready for perhaps a day's hunting party, the exhilarating chase of the fox, to the voices of the hounds and the calls of the horn or perhaps just a canter to visit friends.
But he had tired of all that, as later on he had also tired of the gay and debonair life of the Paris salons, the music halls and the grand balls. .. Anyway, it was time he found a niche in the world for himself. Unfortunately too, the call up for his year's military service was approaching and he did not relish the prospect of life as a recruit at the lowly of "simple soldat". And so, after long soul searching sessions with his father, it had been decided that he would tempt his luck in America, more specifically in Nova Scotia, by all accounts a fabulous country." (p.13)
"On the way down the hill, looking around, the only pleasing sight Jean saw, was the blue shining waters of Saint Mary's Bay in the distance, over the green trees of a little woods. As the wagon turned the bend at the foot of the hill, College Sainte Anne and the big white church of Sainte Marie came into view.
The welcome Father Blanche extended his former pupil, the son of his comrade in arms, was warm and genuine and Jean fell under that old spell of admiration and instinctive willingness to follow the leadership of this big man, with shaggy white hair, pinch nose glasses and the friendly piercing eyes." (p.15)
Jean Jacques stayed at and worked for the College for the first year, but also investigated the area and the countryside and even traveled to Halifax.
"Jean Jacques continued his explorations and by the time the college year ended in June (1894), he had pretty well decided he would try his luck in the lumbar business. Father Blanche had given much of his valuable time to Jean, looking into possibilities and discussing projects with him. Jean's letter home were very enthusiastic about prospects and the beauty of the forest, much of it still in its virgin state. The climate was healthful and life was peaceful. It was therefore not a great surprise when Jean's father received a definite proposal to buy timber lands in Digby county. Father Blanche recommended the purchase." (p.21)
"Two dams would be needed, one at the foot of Tusket Lake to build a large reservoir of water and the other at the mill."
The purchase of land for New France
"The land was bought and the plans for its development started to take shape at once. Before the autumn rains, 1894, the dams would be completed, as well as the under structure of the mill. The rains would fill Long Tusket and Little Tusket lakes, while some logs would be cut alongside the river and near the mill to begin the production of lumber."
"By November, a little cabin had been built by the mill site to house Jean and the carpenters who would finish the mill. during the winter. As soon as the snow came, a logging crew settled in very rough cabins along Tusket lake and began cutting logs and hauling them onto the ice."
"Jean Jacques was finally on his own and he was very happy and confident. It was not too soon for him to leave the monastic life of Sainte Anne. The yoke was beginning to chafe, as his father gathered from his letters of late, in which he complained that the good sisters in charge of the kitchen were lacing the food with salt-petre." (p.24)
"It was not long afterwards, that my grandfather received the shattering news from Jean that he had decided to marry an Acadian girl. The whole family was shocked, all the more so because Jean did not ask permission of his father, as was the custom for young men to do in those days."
"Although very upset and perhaps discouraged, my grandfather did not disown Jean or cut of his income and the capital for the new venture, now well underway."
"This turn of events precipitated the next decision which was in the background of my grandfather's thoughts for some time in the future. In the summer of 1894, he decided to send Emile Jean, his eldest son, to Canada to look over the situation. Perhaps in the deep recesses of his mind was germinating the idea that some day he would himself cross the Atlantic." (p.25)
The Stehelin family consisted of Emile Charles Adolphe and his wife Marie Therese. Their children were Emile Jean (born 1870), Jean (1871), Charles (1872), Therese (1873), Adeline Sophie (1974), Louis (1875), Roger (1876), Paul (1878) and Germain (1879), Maurice (1882), Simone (1885) and Bernard (1886).
"Approaching the closing decade of the last century, Emile Charles Adolphe Stehelin was living very comfortably in his spacious home, St. Charles, near Gisors, in Normandy."
"Being a democrat, .. he approved steps taken by the government to raise the standard of life for the labouring class. He believed in compulsory education to all and with it, a stronger economic base and a rich intellectual development. Of course he believed in free enterprise, providing it was free and competitive. Such an egalitarian philosophy was frowned upon in the chateaux of Gisors." (p.29)
Three more sons to Canada
"The decision to send Emile Jean to Canada to look over the situation was taken in the summer of 1894 and he started preparing to leave France in the autumn. He was then twenty-four years old, had finished university, his military service and had some experience at the felt factory."
"At that point Roger, who was eighteen and Paul, who was sixteen, declared that they too wanted to go to Canada with their older brother. After much thinking and soul-searching and a lot of persistence on the part of the two boys, the father consented to let them go, but on the firm undertaking that they would enroll at Sainte Anne College on arrival and finish their education there. Father Blanche was consulted and he agreed to enroll them. "
"One can easily imagine the upheaval om the minds of thee young men and the general air of excitement in the home as preparations went on. Going to Canada where one would live among Indians and wild animals was a thought indeed unbelievably exciting and daring." (p.38)
"Well knowing that he might meet his brothers that night, Jean had prepared himself to play the role that would dazzle them and enflame their imaginations. Throwing the rich looking buffalo robe off his lap, he jumped to the ground, the true picture of the hunter woodsman, they had expected to see. On his head he wore a large fur cap and on his feet knee high mocassins. At the waist of his checkered mackinaw coat down to his knees, he wore a wide leather belt from which hung a long and dangerous looking hunting knife. In his hand he carried his carbine at the ready. To his three brothers this was a sight to their taste and very much in line with the kind of adventure in the forest they had been dreaming of, the mirage they had travelled so far to overtake."
"Jean regaled his brothers, very green and avid novices, in the ways of the woods, with stories about life in the forest. Firstly the road was very bad. In the winter the snow made the going by sleigh much easier and very pleasant. Jean found a bottle of rum somewhere and as the night wore on, the stories got bigger and better. He told his brothers of almost daily encounters with bears and wild cats, the latter resembling small tigers. There were also lots of moose, birds, small game and abundant trout in the many streams and rivers." (p.52)
The first winter
After Christmas (1894) and New Year the brothers traveled at last to New France.
"Towards the close of a perfect winter day, full of sunshine, after a five hour trip from Southville Corner, the team broke into a clearing at the bottom of which they saw blue smoke rising from the stovepipe of a cabin. It was a typical lumbermens' camp, snuggled in the heavily snow laden big pine trees. The roof was covered with snow and it had a verandah on the front and a lean-to on one side which was used to store firewood. The only protection from the cold and the wet was a covering of tar paper, held down by batterns.
The men working at the mill had finished their day's work and came out of the cabin when they heard the sleigh bells and the barking. They welcomed the newcomers with loud hurrahs and strong handshakes." (p.69)
"There were to be three turbines and by January 1985 one had been installed . It had been built at Salmon River, at least thirty miles away towards Yarmouth, and had been hauled by two yokes of oxen. It took the teamsters four days to make the trip. The other two smaller turbines were being built on the spot."
"These turbines were intricately constructed. The iron paddles were fixed around the wooden drum with iron hoops that could be tightened if necessary with wooden wedges. The turbine rested and turned on a pivot holding in the hardwood shaft. Various belts connected the turbines to the machines. The size of the pulleys determined the correct power to be delivered to each one."
The whole factory was engineered, designed and built by men who could neither read nor write. Every part, except belts, and some iron wheels was made of wood or fashioned of iron at the forge. Standing underneath, where the heart of the mill was, amongst wheels of varying sizes, connected by belts, these Europeans wondered and marveled. How did these men make the intricate calculations required to deliver the right amount of power to each machine? How did they put together this maze of belts and pulleys into a perfectly functioning whole? The Mill Boss somehow figured all these things in his head and drawn working diagrams on pieces of wood. By way of tools, all he had was a rule and the basic tools of a carpenter." (p.73)
"Boss Blinn was nearly venerated by his men. He was their uncontested leader in everything. He was a fine man, with a frank and pleasing countenance, couched in is well kept grey beard and blue eyes always dancing with mirth. he was respected as a master craftsman meticulously precise in the work he bossed. He was a guiding spirit of all the construction work" (p.74)
One should not gather that this first winter was all work and no play. On the contrary, the pleasures were learning about the sports of fishing and hunting. They had shotguns and rifles and fishing gear. All they needed was to learn how to use them, and there was lots of game to practice on, moose, rabbits and birds, and trout under the ice. They had good teachers and they learned quickly."
"During January and February they could not travel too far afield because it was too cold to camp outside. With March and the warmer weather, they went away for days, living outside quite comfortably. They carried a piece of canvas about five feet by eight feet, blankets and provisions. They would erect a shelter by setting the sheet of canvas on a ridge pole, between two trees, tying the sides down and filling the open ends with small spruce trees and branches. They soon learnt to make camp facing the rising sun. They learned to make comfortable beds on the ground with tender young fir boughs." (p.80)
"With the going of the snow and the frost, in March, the Stehelins began building the first house. It was to be Jean and Katie's home. It would have a large living room and a kitchen downstairs and three bedrooms upstairs. There would be no indoor plumbing and, of course, it would be heated by wood burning stoves and a fireplace"
"On the other side of this so-called road, which was notthing more than a woods track they started building a house for about forty-five workmen. It was called the "Cookhouse". It consisted of a very large room downstairs where the men ate and sat around. Upstairs there were bunks in the one common dormitory. At one end of the house, they built and ell for a kitchen and an adjoining bedroom for the woman cook and her husband. A single cook was never hired. At the far end of the kitchen, they built a large brick and mortar oven, which would supply the bread for the entire settlement. This was the custom in France when an entire village was owned by one man."
"It was early in March that Emile Jean, in the little cabin, received a letter from his father announcing his decision to come out with his wife in June. The news fairly shook the whole camp and as one can imagine, the building of the little house and the cookhouse moved in real ernest. The sons had to try to make things nice and that would be difficult they feared, considering the life-style of their parents in St. Charles. If their father were disappointed with the enterprise, he would quickly fold the tents and bring the boys home, or look for something else for them in Canada." (p.83)
Emile Charles and Marie Therese come to visit
The parents arrived in June 1895 for a visit.
"By August, Emile must have decided to develop the enterprise and immerse himself into it completely. During the winter past, back in St. Charles, he had prepared plans very carefully, just in case he decided to go ahead. He had given the approval for the building of the house, the cookhouse and the mill. Beyond that, further building would await his arrival. After all, he was paying and he felt he had to restrain the enthusiasm of his sons.
"Building a family home large enough to accommodate eleven children, the parents and Katie, started then. It would ... be finished by the coming fall before Emile Stehelin returned to France. The new little house would become part of the bigger one. Its downstairs would become the dining room and its upstairs bedrooms would be suitable for the unmarried sons. The house would stand at the bottom of the square, facing the incoming road with the mill and the river behind, and Langford lake on its left, a location which would give it an air of dominance over the entire settlement."
"Emile wrote in a letter to his sister Mathilde in August 1985:
"Our homestead was cut right out of the forest, that is to say, the land we opened to form a yard of about three hectars was forest one year ago. We already have a mill, our house, a house for the workmen, and we are about to build a barn for twenty animals, horses, oxen etc., and homes for my sons, Emile, Paul and Roger. This makes already quite a few houses, all of wood covered with wooden shingles.
I also bought a plain next to my lands (Cariboo) which Emile and the young ones are now plowing to seed with hay this fall and next spring with oats and potatoes etc.... Here everything goes fast and buildings of wood seem to go up as by magic." (p. 114)
The family settles in the wild
"When Emile left Canada in September of 1895, his health was completely restored and full of enthusiasm, he was busy planning the future of new France. .. The children who had remained in France, three girls and the four boys, were told of the plans to move to the New World. Departure was projected for March of 1896."
"Crossing the Atlantic in the winter time is always a test of intestinal fortitude, even for the most seasoned travellers. Although the Bretagne was the last word in comfort, stability and speed, seasickness was the common lot of the children and their mother. She suffered terribly and was unable to take hardly any food. She vowed by all the saints that she would never set foot on a ship again. The father experienced no ill effects and enjoyed the trip...
"There was nothing much to do aboard the ship in those days, a few games on deck and an orchestra at night in the grand salon. The most important event of the day was reading the latest news received by wireless and pinned onto a notice board in the main hall." (p.124)
After seven days of tossing about in a rough sea, they arrived in New York, America. From there they traveled by train to Boston, where they were met by Jean, and where they stayed for a few days before catching the boat to Yarmouth.
"The trip on the Yarmouth was terribly rough, taking twenty-four hours instead of the usual twelve. All night the old ship rolled and pitched in the storm. The engines had to be stopped for hours to pump the ship."
They caught a train to Weymouth, where they stayed the night.
"Early the next morning the family got aboard three sleighs and started on the last leg of their long journey to New France, their new home. It was a nice cold early March day." "The trees were covered with snow and the braches of the dark spruce hung low under its weight. The sun was shining brightly, and the effect on the snow was dazzling." "On the way again, by midafternoon of that beautiful day, the convoy glided slowly into the clearing weith its new buildins in grey and maroon, neatly ranged on either side of the square and the big house at the bottom, securely seated in the snow, which looked so big, so warm and inviting with wood scented smoke curling gently from its chimneys" (p.128)
The above excerpts tell only part of the story of the Stehelin family and Electric City. These only reach half way through the book. Ita a fascinating read, covering the adventures and exploits of this remarkable family. It touches on how people lived, worked, were paid, as well as places and events in Weymouth and Nova Scotia, politics and world events at the time.
A railway line was built in 1897 from Weymouth to Electric City. "The rails were logs twenty to thirty feet long. They were squared on three sides and laid with the remaining rounded side up. The finished rails ere eight inches on three sides with the rounded top side on which fitted the concave wheels of the rolling stock. "(p.161)
"On September 3, 1897, also by D.A.R. freight, arrived at Weymouth, the locomotive built by Robb Engineering Ltd. Laden on an open flat car, it had passed through Digby the day before and as it had remained there for several hours, a large number of people from the town came to the station to see it. It took eight yokes of oxen and two days to haul it to Riverdale and set it on the track. It had a brass bell and a brass oil lantern in front of the smoke stack, as well as a whistle. In yellow letters, on the sides of the drivers compartment, was painted the name "Marie Theresa". There was a fuel tender behind the locomotive, all black metal, with the inscription, also in yellow letters, W.& N.F. Ry." (p163)
"So many people had visited the colony, so many others had worked there, side by side with people they would never have known or understood otherwise. The Acadians, the English and the Blacks worked together and came to know and respect one another, living harmoniously, each making his contribution happily, according to his or her capabilities. There was contentment and happiness living in such a small community. In after years, the memories that lingered in the minds of old men who had worked there, were of pleasant happenings and experiences, those that had brought them joy, laughter and even sadness. To one old man, it was the recollection of being down and out of work, arriving at New France late on a fall night after a long walk from the Corner, bursting out onto a lighted and cheerful looking village and being given dry clothing, food and a job. To others, it was the memory of hunting trips and the tall stories about bears and moose. Yet to others it was the recollection of the hospitality at the Big House. be he tramp or Governor, he found the hospitailty that warmed his spirit." (p.186)