Story: French Language in Missouri: Old Mines, Mo., celebrates 300-year anniversary (7/1/23)

Natalie Villmer leads a group of La Guillone singers at the opening ceremony of the Old Mines 300th anniversary celebration. The songs are sung in traditional Old Mines French.

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Photo by Jasmine Jones

Most people know French dialects exist in the state of Louisiana, but few know there are French dialects native to Midwestern states, including Missouri.

Old Mines, Mo., an unincorporated village in Washington County, boasts a rich history of French culture and language. At their 300th anniversary celebration on June, 24, 2023, La Guillone performances, traditional songs performed by musician Dennis Stroughmatt, stone oven bread baking and log hewing were just a few activities that demonstrated the culture of the area. La Guillone is an old French New Years Eve tradition in which a group of carolers go door-to-door singing songs that ask for food.

Unlike many French-settled regions across the Midwest, Old Mines held tightly onto its culture and language through the 20th Century. Remnants of the areas French dialect are still present today.

Loaves of bread bake in a stone oven at the 300th anniversary celebration in Old Mines, Mo. Volunteers made the dough by hand on-site and sold the finished bread to visitors.

Photo by Jasmine Jones

History of the language

The French settled Old Mines almost 100 years before Missouri became a state, after French explorer and businessman Phillipe Franois Renault received an official land grant in 1723. Mark G. Boyer, author of 300 Years of the French in Old Mines, says Renault eventually went bankrupt and left Old Mines, but the people who established homesteads stayed.

It was this group of settlers in the 18th Century who helped spark the dialect known as Old Mines French or Paw Paw French in Missouri. Stroughmatt says he refers to the language as Illinois Country French, which is the broader region that spoke the old French dialect. This region includes parts of Illinois and Indiana, including Stroughmatts hometown of Vincennes, Ind. All were areas French settlers came through in the early 1700s.

Old Mines seems to have held onto its language longer than other areas within Illinois Country, and Boyer suggests this is due to the areas isolation.

Because this was an isolated community, it became its own kind of French and there was no Highway 21 yet, so [the language] didnt go anywhere, Boyer says.

Volunteers march through the St. Joachim Parish grounds wearing French Colonial attire and carrying muskets. Their march ended at the ground’s flag post where the opening ceremony for their celebration was held.

Photo by Jasmine Jones

Boyer says the Old Mines dialect is different from Parisian and Qubcois French because of its different pronunciations, the emphasis on certain syllables and the lack of modern words. When Stroughmatt went to Quebec, he says he learned a lot of new words for car parts and machinery, because in Old Mines French, those words didnt exist; the language is simply too old. Stroughmatt says people would say la machine when referring to a piece of machinery or technology that had no known word.

Residents of Old Mines and surrounding areas, such as Fertile, Mo., still remember their parents and grandparents speaking French.

Growing up in the area, Boyer says his household was on a party line phone system with 10 other families. This meant everyone on the party line could listen to each others conversations if they picked up the phone and someone else was using it.

The party line phone system was common in Washington County during the early to mid-20th Century. People who spoke Old Mines French were known for conversing in the language while using the party lines so other people on the line couldnt understand.

A volunteer spins wool thread on the porch of a historic log cabin in Old Mines, Mo. Colonial French log cabins in the area were known for being built with porches.

Photo by Jasmine Jones

Disappearing dialect

Natalie Villmer says the French dialect began disappearing in the Old Mines area during the 1930s. Villmers parents, Eileen and Max, both spoke the language fluently.

Schools during Villmers parents childhoods had begun to require lessons in English, which helped contribute to the gradual decline of the dialect. People who spoke French were also looked down upon during this time. Villmer says when her father was a young boy, he only knew French. If his mother asked him to get something from the store such as flour, hed chant the English word to himself during his walk there, so he wouldnt forget it.

He would say that [English word] over and over and hed get up to the store, and hed forget it. Well, these old guys would be around the store, spitting and chewing, and theyd laugh at him, because he couldnt remember what it was in English, Villmer says. So, he was determined that his children wouldnt learn French.

Villmer says she can understand Old Mines French when spoken, but she cannot speak it. She knows some phrases and teaches La Guillone songs. At the 300th anniversary, she led a group of singers at the opening ceremony.

Today, Stroughmatt guesses there are maybe 10 fluent speakers of the Illinois Country French dialect left, including himself.

Dennis Stroughmatt plays the fiddle and sings traditional songs from the Old Mines and Illinois Country area. He learned Old Mines French by spending time with community members in the 1990s.

Photo by Jasmine Jones

Traditional songs

Boyer says storytelling culture was deeply important in the Old Mines area. As entertainment, he says families would gather and share the songs and stories they created.

There was nowhere to go, so you had family entertainment, Boyer says. These songs were never written down; they were memorized.

When Boyer was growing up, he says the storytelling culture was on its way out, but the traditional songs stayed. Its this music that drew outsiders like Stroughmatt to Old Mines.

Stroughmatt has French ancestors through Vincennes, but could not find any current speakers of the French dialect there. When he asked people where the French speakers were, he said people would say in the cemetery. Stroughmatt took this as a challenge.

How does a language just stop? There has to be some kind of remnants, Stroughmatt says.

A volunteer checks on a batch of bread in the stone oven. Activities at the Old Mines 300th anniversary celebration included bread baking, log hewing, quilting and potato sack racing.

Photo by Jasmine Jones

Approximately 33 years ago, Stroughmatt attended Southeast Missouri State University. One of his professors pointed him in the direction of Old Mines. When he first visited the area, he came to Fertile, where he found a couple of parish workers sitting on a porch. He remembers saying, Bonjour. Comment allez-vous?, or, Hello. How are you?, to the group in a bad French accent.

Villmer, who was present on that porch, remembers how shocked Stroughmatt looked when her mother, Eileen, and the other parish workers started talking to him in French. The women helped connect Stroughmatt with people who knew the language in the area and could help teach him the traditional songs, which he was most interested in.

Stroughmatt spent weekends in Old Mines with the residents and would sometimes skip class to spend afternoons with Roy Boyer, who taught him traditional songs on the fiddle. Hed also attend bouillons, which translates to soup or party in French. Villmer describes a bouillon as a dinner with neighbors and friends, which usually includes playing cards and making a big pot of bouillon.

[Old Mines residents] were teaching me songs, but then having me repeat the words. At first, I didnt know what I was saying. I was just repeating it, Stroughmatt says. I just learned by ear.

Stroughmatt got asked to start playing the traditional songs he learned at the Old Mines annual Fte in 1997. Around this time, Stroughmatt also spent several months in Quebec. There, he took a verbal French test and passed with a 90%, but received a 7% on the written portion. He says his teachers had no idea how he could speak so fluently, without knowing how to read or write.

The teachers helped teach him the written language, without changing the way he spoke. Stroughmatt has used this knowledge to write down some of the Old Mines songs.

An attendee at the Old Mines 300th Anniversary Celebration carries a chair on his back. The community of Old Mines was surprised with a Federal Congressional Record at the celebration.

Photo by Jasmine Jones

Keeping the culture alive

Cindy Merx, president of the Old Mines Area Historical Society, organized the 300th anniversary celebration. She says they were intentional about focusing on French culture at the event and hosting Catholic Mass in French to help residents connect more with their history.

Merx says her favorite part of the 300th anniversary celebration was when they were surprised with a federal congressional record. The record is written in celebration of Old Mines 300-year anniversary and acknowledges the area was settled by the French in 1723, and that St. Joachim parish is one of the oldest churches in the state of Missouri. Merx says thinking about the congressional record makes her emotional.

This means we are here, Merx says. This proves we were here.

Merx says the historical society is making an effort to educate others on dialect through seminars and classes. She says the historical society recently found some flashcards with English written on one side and Old Mines French written on the other. They plan to use them to teach the language.

Some phrases in French are still spoken by residents. Villmer says it is not uncommon to hear people greeting each other with Bonjour and Comment a va? or responding to happy announcements with Cest bon a.

Its all about community, Stroughmatt says. The language, as it was, is not going to survive. Its not. But remnants of it can. Remnants and that specialness of it is, I think, whats really cool, being able to connect to it in some way. Our music, our stories, the idea of our community speak of another time and make us different.

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