Letter 1: Demers/DeLisle History

June 29, 2008


You may have opened a can of worms if you are showing interest in the older generation: Demers.

Wiliam Demerse with son, Leo, granddaughter, Alice

Though your mom and I are close in age, she left Saranac when she was young and went to Peru, NY where her mom had married for the second time. That part she can fill in. I'm sure because I seldom saw her except during apple season when our family would drive to Peru to pick our winter supply of apples. But on the Demers side - well, I grew up next door to my grandparents and my dad's siblings who lived with them. Add to that all the stories I heard - you get a good insight. Some I did not get or understand, until I was an adult, however.

Where to start? Well, I suppose grandma & grandpa is the best place. Grandfather William M. Demers was a junior and his father was the oldest son. David was our first French-Canadian immigrant. David and his brother entered into Vermont from Canada. They settled in St. Albans, VT near Lake Champlain, but shortly war began and David did not want to be drafted so he took his wife and one child and fled back to Montreal area. He entered the U.S. some years later through Wisconsin. (More about that later).

David left St. Albans and crossed Champlain and entered at Plattsburgh, NY. French-Canadians were not wanted so all the work they could get was day labor. It was a hard life but he persisted. He met his wife and when Wm. Sr. was born, they were living in West Plattsburgh which is now called Morrisonville. This is where my search in the early 90's went there. I went there with only one clue - a newspaper clipping saying there was a house there that had been owned by William, Sr. - next to the Saranac River. I found it and it was right by the W. Plattsburgh bridge. But I digress - oops.

What I found was that David had worked very hard to see that his children were educated. When William Sr. was married and had children he was a master wheelwright and could read and write schooled.

His oldest son (my grandfather) William, Jr. was about 12 when his father apprenticed him to another craftsman who had a son of the same age. This man allowed Wm. Jr. to be tutored along with his own son and that is how Gramps got so much farther than his counterparts at that time. But he was not satisfied to be a carpenter and a wheelwright - he wanted more so he worked and saved and went back to school to get a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He moved from Morrisonville to Bloomingdale when he worked as a wheelwright for a while until he got a job as Supt. of Water Works in Saranac Lake, NY. His task was to build the whole new water delivery system that exists to this day.

He met Mary DeLisle and was smitten, but her family disapproved. You see, the DeLisles came from the other side of the river in Canada where the Demerses had lived and they were considered "people of property". Well, in those days "property" meant at least 10 hectares of tillable land and a cow. Ha! Ha! They were sort of snooty. Unmarried young women would be sent to live with married sisters so they could learn to manage a household, husband and children. The older sister would pick a suitable husband and Mary's sister, Leah, did not see William as having "prospects". Actually he was more than suitable, but Leah would see that her sister was well provided for.

So, she demanded that Will build Mary a house of substantial size & he did. Fantastic job in those days, and he was an expert. It was actually grand by the standards of that day.

One thing I want to make clear before I go further: Gramps and his family are not drinkers. I never heard of Gramps ever drinking. On the other hand, the DeLisles were & that included the females as well as men. The men were overt about it, but the women "tippled" behind closed doors in the afternoons. DeLisles were married into the family members of Bailey, Lamy, Hooley, etc. quite a clan.

Our great-grandmother was the only one of that generation I can recall seeing. I believe she died about the time I was 8 or 9. She only spoke French and a tiny, little woman who had 8 children born in the USA. Rumor has it that she had more children born in Canada but they died in an epidemic.

So now we have William and Mary living at 63 Riverside Drive , Saranac Lake, NY in a huge house my grandfather made, built with his own hands, plus a garage with wood-working shop above it and a 2 story barn up on the back hill. He also erected the 2-story stone wall that held back the hill & my dad helped with that when he was 12.

Demers family

They had 8 children, my dad, Leo was the oldest. There was Albert, Francis, Bill III, Russell, Margaret, Marie & Seaver. Gramps was a hard taskmaster, but grandma was not. This led to many confrontations . When the boys were old enough to drink, they hung out with the Baileys and Lamy boys who were heavy drinkers. Gramps totally disapproved, but grandma would hide the boys away in the attic when they were drunk. Gramps would be furious. The day he found out that grandma was giving the boys money to drink, and he told her "I'm not sleeping in this house again as long as they drink and you help them". He was a man of his word. He'd eat, bathe and change clothes there, but he slept at the Water Works building. They continued to drink - including Marie by that time - but not my dad.

He was off to Albany to college for his degree, then WWI and back to work as Asst. Supt. of the Water Works with his dad. Mom & dad bought the house next door to his parents - that is how we came to know the family so well.

I will break here with one summary of Gramps: Hard as nails, but just a sweet softy inside where his grandkids were concerned. He was a marvelous carpenter, & his work stands to this day. We adored him & I was 9 when we lost him tragically. Next letter I pick up right there. Save these for your kids. I doubt they'll ever be on paper again.

Love, Alice

Letter 2 Demers/DeLisle History

July 8, 2008

Dear Bill,

Willam Demers

The story continues with the sudden death of my grandfather, Wm. Jr. I was 9 years old when one evening in summer my uncle Bob & I decided to walk downtown for an ice cream. The ice cream store was ½ block from pump house where my grandfather slept each night. So we decided to stop there for a moment and say hello to gramps. We rapped on the big double doors several times. Gramps was slow to respond. When he finally opened the door - just a little - it was obvious he was not well. Uncle Bob Bouck was concerned and wanted to go in and check on him, but gramps wouldn't let him in and merely said he would see us in the A.M. and sent us on our way.

The next morning he was found in the spillway water under the cellar of the building - and because of his condition - it was called "Murder". It immediately caused such an uproar the town had ever seen or since. Gramps was beloved by just about everyone in town. They called the State Police and every newspaper in the state carried the headlines: "Murdered!" You can imagine how it hit the family - and me. Yes, they questioned me, too. They actually arrested my father and his brothers and put them in jail, with no reason or proof of any kind. It devastated my dad, who loved his father. It took 2-3 days before the truth began to evolve and weeks before the matter as cleared up legally.

What really happened was the following: When gramps answered the door that night that we stopped by - he was indeed ill. He shut the door on us and proceeded back to his bed behind the water pump. But he staggered and reeled along the narrow corridor - he hit his head on a big wood picture frame hanging on the wall and bled profusely. It blinded him and he staggered between the pumps - towards an open stairwell that went down to the cellar. They feel he was blinded by the illness and other concussion of the blow. He fell down the stairs and hit the concrete floor. Some how he managed to get up and reeled around trying to find a way out - knocking over tools, etc. on the workbenches and finally found a doorway. But it was the door to the spillway where water samples are taken daily. Gramps fell from the narrow platform and into the water and drowned. You can see why the police thought it was a murder because of all the blood - damage, etc. - like a fight perhaps. Gramps was buried a week later and the whole town shut down and attended. There was a line of cars over 2 miles long. My father was so ill over the whole thing & being in jail - that it was months before he even came close to being normal again. Uncle Albert (your father) went on a bender and ended up in the hospital. Russ drank heavily for weeks. Bob Bouck never forgave himself for not insisting on Gramps letting him in that night & I have never forgotten being the last (of two) to see gramps alive. I adored him, too.

Immediately the autopsy also showed that gramps had severe heart disease and an encapsulated hernia that must have been painful for years.

After gramps died, the family lost its strong (sober) hand and sort of fell apart. As brothers drifted apart with no direction or desire. My poor dad took over as Supt. of the Waterworks, but had no heart for it. His brother-in-law, Frank Buck, became assistant and he wanted to be Supt. and he began a campaign to get it - and did finally.

Russell, Seaver, Francis, Leo, William and Albert

My dad - some years after gramps died - injured his right hand in an accident with the water pumps and he lost one finger and another was left stiff and nearly useless. It gave Buck the opening he needed - as temporary Supt. while dad recuperated. But that was another story not worth telling. Dad would not appreciate our telling it & we didn't. When you have an entire family (many branches and generations) living in one small town - it is different. Saranac was almost 100% Democratic and the mayor controlled everything. I had to work for him once but I never let him lord it over me like he did to my older generation.

The War came along and everything changed forever. My 3 brothers went into the services. My mom was ill and I virtually cared for and raised my younger bro Bill (I was 8½ years older than him). It was hard times and all my salary went to the "house" so it is remembered only as my "teens" - not much else. I did not see your mom and Eddie, for years - so we did not share that era.

By that time, Uncle Seaver had moved away. Uncle Bill III was in a mental hospital near Phoenix. Uncle Francis was successful and in Phoenix, AZ also, then got married and moved to Escondido, CA and had twin sons & a daughter. Albert was adrift in Saranac, a tiny man of kindness and manners, but drank a lot, and lived alone. He was always a welcome visitor in our home but came rarely. Aunt Marie and her husband, Bob Bouck, had bought a house on Lake Ave. and Russell was living in gramps house with his wife Blanche and her mother. Grandma had died.

Soon Frank Buck, Sr. had died of cancer & his son, Frank Jr. took over that job, but not a success and moved with his family to Georgia. He later died of cancer, too. After my mom died (54), in 1961, my dad and Russ got closer - almost friends - but my dad had a heart attack in 1955 and never really recovered fully. He worked part-time for my brother Dean, who had a greenhouse and seemed content. And a bit later Russ died, and then my dad. Francis, & Bill III, & Albert & Seaver all died before him, so you could say my dad was the survivor. Marie & Margaret died before Russell, I believe.

Mary, Emma, Anna, Rena

One thing I'd like to add here because it is significant. All the Demers men were gifted but few ever used the gifts to make a living or a difference. It always seemed like such a waste to me. Francis & Seaver were remarkable artists. Russell had a gift with wood and tools & had many patents. He made the first ball bearing roller skates - but let the patent lapse. He invented dozens of wonderful wood stains, etc. that he used in his business of restoring antiques. He and my dad build boats, too. Albert could fix and kind of clock - & would build them, too - was good with his hands and delicate things like music boxes, etc.

Uncle Bill was gifted engineer but drink drove him crazy. My dad had a college degree but couldn't stand being cooped up in an office so he chose to work with his dad. He had a photographic memory & read voraciously. We kids called him our human "Encyclopedia". I never stumped him once. He had a vocabulary beyond belief & fantastically beautiful hand at writing. Yet he was insecure a lot & I know not why.

Uncle Francis was always an enigma. He left home at 14 & worked on bridges and dams until he finally got his engineering degree. He had 1400 patents in his name at the end of WWII - most were for jet engine parts. He did copper etchings that would put the great artists to shame, but he did not share them. I asked for one many years ago and he sent me two. He was surprised that I would ever want one! His daughter has hundreds & has never shown them - to my knowledge. They are exquisite.

He did portraits for the Governor of Arizona and one for Pres. FDR - that hung in the White House. No one would ever know it. He also did horoscopes for some people - very secret. He did a graph type for my dad in 1935 & it correctly ended in the year my dad died. Weird! Francis told my mom that he knew my dad (before Francis was born!) and that (Francis) chose his family before Francis' birth. Imagine that! He believed it. Not sure I do. Ha! Ha!

There you have a synopsis. There are many more stories but they come to mind only now & then. The other half of our family (DeLisles) are another anomeli entirely. I'll get to their story someday. I hope you understand, Bill, that these are my feelings and impressions. I am sure others would see them differently so they can not be considered facts - only so far as I've tried to tell them.

Dad & Russell virtually lived on the river in their boats and were deer hunters as well. The rest were not. More later. (Save for your kids.)

Love, Alice Demerse O'Hare

PS: I'm horrid on dates and chronology. Oops!

PSS: No matter what my stories say, I liked all my of my uncles and aunts, but I was afraid of Bill III - he was capable of killing, I believe.

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