Former Jewish farm and resort now historic site

MONTREAL — Once upon a time there was a Jewish farmer who lived in a French-Canadian village in an old stone house by the river.

David Schwartzman and Gisèle Tétrault stand outside Maison Antoine-Lacombe in St. Charles-Borromée, near Joliette. It used to be his grandfather’s farm house and its environs a popular Jewish resort in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

Every summer for decades, Jewish families from Montreal came to share in his idyllic existence, staying in little cabins the farmer built on his acreage.

That farmer was Harry Schwartzman, an immigrant from Bessarabia, who, with his wife Dora Bernstein, bought the house in St. Charles-Borromée, near Joliette, in 1924. The house, dating back to 1844, would stay in the family until 1965.

The town, which now has a population of about 12,000, is recognizing the role the Schwartzman family, and the small Jewish community that used to lived in the Joliette area, played in its history.

The house was declared a heritage site 40 years ago and was bought by the town in 1989 for use as a cultural centre. It is known as Maison Antoine-Lacombe, after its first owner, and is now surrounded by spectacular gardens.

As part of the 20th anniversary celebrations of the town’s acquisition of the property, local volunteer Gisèle Tétrault undertook to research the house’s Schwartzman era, which until now had been a major gap in the house’s friends’ recollection of its past.

She interviewed some of the Schwartzmans’ descendants, and the result is a 35-page bilingual booklet that was launched at the Maison last month. The event reunited some of the area’s former year-round and seasonal Jewish residents, or their relatives.

The Maison also hosted an exhibition of archival photos of the resort and paintings by Harry’s grandson, David Schwartzman of Montreal, inspired by his memories of the house and life on the farm, which fronted on l’Assomption River.

The Maison is installing a permanent plaque on the property, attesting to this important chapter in the house’s history.

Quebec Jewish Congress, especially its immediate past president Victor Goldbloom, who chaired the event, was instrumental in reconnecting St. Charles-Borromée and the Schwartzman clan.

Resort is a fanciful name for a place that for most of its history had no running water or electricity and expected its guests to pitch in with the farm work. But it was popular mainly with working people, most refugees like Schwartzman, who would escape the heat and overcrowding of the city.

Up to 50 families came each summer; mothers and children often spent the whole season, while the fathers came up on weekends.

The Jewish presence in the Joliette area, heart of the region known today as Lanaudière, is less known than that in the Laurentians further north  and was never as strong.

Joliette as a holiday destination may have been attractive because it was closer, about 50 kms northeast of Montreal, but also because there was never the anti-Semitism that was prevalent in Ste. Agathe,  David Schwartzman said. “We never heard anything negative,” he said.

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That may be partly explained by the everyday relations the Jews who lived there permanently and spoke French had with their neighbours.

Tétrault noted that when architectural historian Jocelyne Martineau undertook a study for Les Amis de la Maison Antoine-Lacombe in 1994, she was not able to track down the Schwartzman descendants. Tétrault met David and his sister Margie Black two years ago and recorded their memories of their summers at the resort, adding the reminiscences of other relatives. The translation into French was done by David’s wife Penina.

David and Margie’s father Bennie, one of the four children of Dora and Harry, was born and raised on the farm and attended the local French school. A small permanent Jewish population lived in the Joliette area during this period, although little has been written about them, David said.

“In the centre of Joliette there is a large war memorial on which several Jewish names appear, reflecting the presence of a meaningful Jewish population in the area.

“I would like to see these Jewish soldiers remembered this fall, both as a testament to their sacrifice and to help illustrate how Jews were well integrated within many small towns in Quebec.”

As Tétrault’s history says, a number of Jewish families, mostly from eastern Europe and Russia, settled in the area in the early 20th century. Harry Schwartzman first lived in Montreal, where he married Lithuanian-born Dora. They bought a plot of land in St. Charles-Borromée in 1917, following in the footsteps of several other Jewish immigrants who bought land there before World War I.

Harry came from an agricultural background, but had not been permitted, as a Jew, to own land in the old country, David said.

After buying the house and farm in 1924, Harry began growing tobacco and later potatoes and raising livestock, eventually cultivating about 200 acres.

He soon began building about 40 cabins, called “Schwartzman Cottages,” to rent out. Sometimes families doubled or tripled up in them to save money. A one-room chalet was $100 for the season; two rooms cost $150.

At the beginning of the season, trucks were hired to bring up all household necessities such as bedding and utensils, with two or three families sharing the cost of each transport. Sometimes, the families would ride up in the truck bed themselves, sitting on their boxes.

The resort was a self-contained village with its own general store with a back room used as a synagogue, remembers David, 61, who spent every summer there. There was even a dance hall.

His grandfather brought in the drinking water and picked up the garbage in his horse-drawn cart.

The men who came up on Friday evenings for the weekend came by bus. Few had cars, at least in the ’30s and ’40s and they would bring with them kosher food.

Harry, who always drove a Chevrolet, his son William recalls, made a weekly trip to Montreal to pick up supplies.

On Mondays and Thursdays, a kosher butcher came by with live chickens, which were ritually slaughtered on-site. Meals were cooked on the woodstove each cabin was furnished with, or later in a communal kitchen. There was one telephone for the whole village in the main house.

The house at the time had a huge veranda on three sides, where the guests often played cards. That veranda was removed in the restoration, but in David’s paintings that important place for socializing lives on.

By the 1950s Harry and Dora had their principal residence in Montreal, and the number of summer tenants fell off in the early ’60s. The couple began selling off the land.

In 1965, the house was bought by Serge Joyal, the former MP and current senator, who was then just 20 years old but already had a strong sense of history. He was largely responsible for having it designated a heritage site in 1968.

David avoided going to the old farm site since his last summer there in 1960 for fear that it might spoil his memories of how things used to be.

“I knew the lots had been sold off and developed. I didn’t want to see the place desecrated, but the house is in pristine condition, and is used 12 months a year. The gardens are immense and beautifully cultivated with sculptures and pools.”

His goal now is to have the exhibition that closed at Maison Antoine-Lacombe on Aug. 20 mounted in Montreal, so others can have a sense of those glorious days so long ago.