KATHRYN OLMSTEAD

County historian reveals links between Acadians, Scandinavians

Posted June 19, 2014, at 2:15 p.m.
Last modified June 20, 2014, at 10:35 a.m.
The Sirois House at the Acadian Village in Van Buren where Don Cyr lived in the 1970s.
Kathryn Olmstead
The Sirois House at the Acadian Village in Van Buren where Don Cyr lived in the 1970s.
Logs in a Swedish &quottimmerhus" (timber house) are convex on the top and concave on the bottom.
Kathryn Olmstead
Logs in a Swedish "timmerhus" (timber house) are convex on the top and concave on the bottom.

If you have wondered why some Franco-Americans have blond hair and blue eyes, or why early Acadian settlers in North America built homes of square-hewn logs, historian Don Cyr of Lille has some answers.

When Cyr addresses those gathered for the culmination of Swedish Midsommar at Thomas Park in New Sweden on June 22, he will reveal ancient connections between his Acadian ancestors and those of the Scandinavians who settled in northern Maine in the 1870s.

“It comes from years of genealogical research,” Cyr said of his discoveries. “There was a lot of exchange between Scandinavia and France.”

Curator of the Musee Culturel in the former Notre-Dame du Mont-Carmel church on the St. John River in Lille, Cyr teaches history at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and art at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone.

Before he moved to Lille in the late 1970s, he taught art in Van Buren and lived in the historic Sirois House, one of the restored buildings in the Acadian Village, built on the edge of town in 1976 for the nation’s bicentennial celebration.

“It took four hours for the house to heat up when I got home from school. I spent those four hours reading Acadian history,” he said of his two winters in the Sirois House.

Cyr personalized his research by tracing his own name to a French lord named “Sire.”

“Cyr and Sire are the same name,” he said. “A French lord named Sire saved the life of King Charlemagne. He was so grateful, he took Sire’s name. French kings thereafter were called ‘Sire.’”

Cyr began to make connections between Acadians and Scandinavians when he read about the Viking invasion of Normandy in the late 800s.

“Danish Vikings settled north of the Loire Valley in France where the Acadians are from. Some with Viking blood migrated south,” he said, connecting blond-haired, blue-eyed Acadians with the Vikings who settled in France.

But genes are not the only way Maine’s Acadians are connected to their Scandinavian neighbors. The other link Cyr discovered is architecture.

One of the most informative books he read beside the woodstove in the Sirois House was “Acadia: The Geography of Early Nova Scotia to 1760” by Andrew Hill Clark, who speculated that the design for early Acadian log homes came from Sweden.

Between 1604 and 1630, the Acadians who settled in North America were all men, explorers who intermarried with natives. Families from France started to arrive after 1630, led by Acadia’s second governor, Seigneur d’Aulnay, a nephew of Cardinal Richelieu, advisor to the Royal Court of France.

“There is some evidence Seigneur either spoke to Swedes or visited Sweden to learn how to make houses out of logs,” Cyr said. Traditional architecture in France was post and beam construction with a mixture of mud and hay called “wattle and daub” between the logs.

D’Aulnay knew his people would face harsh weather in their new home and realized they would have plenty of trees to use for their houses. So he set out to learn how to build houses using all logs instead of the wattle and daub construction.

“It was a small leap from the timber frame to log-over-log construction,” Cyr said.

Thus, Acadian log houses were modeled on an early type of Swedish log house made of hand-hewn timbers flat on all four sides. But there is a difference between this design, exemplified by houses in the Acadian Village in Van Buren, and log houses built in Maine’s Swedish colony in the 1870s.

Sometime during the 200 years between d’Aulnay’s architectural research and the migration of Swedes to Maine, the Swedes modified their log construction to make a tighter seal more resistant to wind and weather. Original log houses remaining in New Sweden today are constructed of logs that are convex on the top and concave on the bottom.

“Acadians didn’t know about the change,” Cyr said. Logs in Acadian houses are flat on all four sides. So if you want to distinguish an Acadian log house from a Swedish one, just examine how the logs fit together.

“You can tell the depth of a tradition by the number of variations within it,” he observed, detailing variations in both French and Swedish designs. But the history preserved in the county’s original log houses is dying, he said. “People are destroying them as though they weren’t important.”

Sunday’s Midsommar program begins at 12:45 p.m. when costumed Swedish dancers carry the Majstang (Midsommar pole) from the New Sweden Museum to Thomas Park for an afternoon of music and dancing, in addition to Cyr’s talk. If it rains, those activities will be moved to the New Sweden School. A 10 a.m. worship service also is scheduled to be held at the park, but will be moved to the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church if it rains. Regardless of the weather, lunch will be held in the dining hall at the park beginning at 11:15 a.m.

For information on Friday and Saturday events, visit the New Sweden Historical Society’s web site at nshs.maineswedishcolony.info/midsommar-info.

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.

 

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