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  • The Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library

Canalboat Childhood

Rose B. (Geaudreau/Goodreau) Germain (1915-2000) told me this story about growing up on the Champlain Canal in eastern New York State as part of a Folk Arts Project in 1989. I first interviewed residents about their childhood experiences in the 1920s, and then hosted a public program in February 1990 where they could share memories and mementoes with neighbors. Rose's story then appeared in print for a small booklet published by Brookside: Saratoga County History Center called Life in a Mill Town: Schuylerville and Her Hamlets in the 1920s by Todd DeGarmo (1990).

Phelena Miner on Champlain Canal c.1900, painting by AJ Herbert 1976, courtesy Rose & Ray Germain.

Rose Germain comes from a long line of canallers. Both sides of her family lived on canal boats transporting loads of lumber, coal, sugar, and other commodities from New York to Montreal. Her father and her mother met on the canal, and when they married both families had to “tie up” to attend the wedding in Waterford.

Born on a canal boat, Rose says she just happened to be born in Canada:

“My father’s name was Goodreau, and he was from Champlain, New York. But he and Mother had his boat at the time and they got froze in. That was the trouble. They only got as far as near Rouse’s Point. Sainte Ore’s to be exact. And they froze in. So, I was born there. That’s what happened. But they both were American citizens, so I was automatically a citizen because they were. So, I was born in Canada. Then in the spring, we got thawed out and came down again.”

John Miner, Rose's grandfather and owner of Phelena Miner, courtesy Ray & Rose Germain.

After the deaths of her parents, Rose was raised by her maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. John Miner. Two of their sons, raised on the boat continued the tradition with their own boats when they grew old enough. Her grandparents owned a house on Broadway in Schuylerville, where Rose and her grandmother would get off, while her grandfather continued the trip to Canada. Rose would go to school in the village until he returned when they’d get back on and winter with the boat in New York city:

“Pier 6, East River. That’s where we stayed. Grandpa would sell his load of potatoes. He would get a load of potatoes there along the canal, near Fort Edward somewhere, from a Mr. Daley. And he would go to New York and sell those potatoes. Grandpa didn’t know how to write his own name. They’d put an “X” mark, you know: that was his signature. But you couldn’t fool him on mathematics. He could still add and he knew what he was getting. So, all winter long, he’d sell the potatoes. Then in the spring, he’d have to go to the office and try to get load to go back up North again. And for a load, he only made about 150 dollars. When you think about it, you know, and he’d have to take it ‘way from New York city up to wherever they’d want it to go. Montreal or Quebec, whatever.”

Canal boats at Pier 6 East River docks, NY, NY, c. 1900, courtesy Library of Congress.

Rose spent her childhood on her grandfather’s canal boat until she was 16. By that time he was ready to retire, and Rose, in high school, had to stay ashore all the time. She remembers her time while still on the boat:

“Well, it was a slow life. It took us about five days to come up from New York city to Albany. I can remember he’d start me in school in New York in May, and I’d leave in May. I can remember sitting on top of the cabin. We had a hammock. And I can remember writing out my ‘times tables’. I’d do it over and over. ‘One times one is one, two times two is four.’ Just the whole series, you know. I can remember that.”

“Grandpa would put up a clothesline when it was wash day. Grandma would wash on the board. I can remember two tubs: she’d wash in one on the board, and rinse in the other tub. And she had to ring everything out by hand, and hang it up on the clothesline. And I remember one time I had the nicest dress. I think it was a new dress I had. Well, the wind was blowing awful hard, and right off the clothesline, right into the river. That was terrible. I saw my dress, and it didn’t float! It just went right under!”

Clothes line on canal boat, archives of the Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library

“But there were a lot of memories: For drinking water we had a big tank on the boat in the cabin. And we came to a certain part of the Hudson down there below Albany., Not too far out of New York city, really. But everyone would fill up their tanks. He had a pail and he’d pull it up. He had a big rope on the pail and dip it in the water down there and fill up the tank. And we’d drink that water. Today you wouldn’t dare do that! Supposed to be a certain part full of springs. I can remember that little tugboat would come out and meet us, from the shore, and he would have ice cream and bread and milk. Well, that was a great thing. And he had penny candy! So it was great to see that tugboat come out.”

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