AUGUSTA — Norm Rodrigue fondly recalls growing up on Sand Hill, where small family-owned markets helped foster a better way of life in the then largely Franco-American working-class community.

He researched the stories of these dozens of tiny but often full-service stores, interviewed some of their former owners, workers and customers, and produced a video documenting what he found out, “Les Magasins,” French for “The Stores.”

“They were more than grocery stores – they were gathering places,” said Rodrigue, 67, who now lives in Manchester. “They served a social purpose. In many ways, they connected the hill.”

Judging by the response to the video Rodrigue made on the hill and elsewhere in and around Augusta and on social media, he wasn’t alone in being intrigued by the stories to be found there. A seven-minute trailer of the video has been widely shared on Facebook and other social media and has had more than 5,400 views on YouTube.

Rodrigue has sold all 100 DVDs he had made of the full, 47-minute video, with another 100 on the way.

Lucien Labbe, 78, who still lives in his Sand Hill home just behind the former Labbe’s Market built and opened by his father, Adelard Labbe, in 1952, is among the Franco-Americans interviewed for the video. Lucien Labbe closed the store in 1994 after spending about four decades behind the counter selling beer, candy, onions, bread and other groceries. When he heard what Rodrigue was doing, he sat down and from memory wrote down a list of nearly 30 stores that once populated the Sand Hill area of Augusta, though not all at the same time, until all the stores had closed in the 1990s.

Labbe said when he’s shopping or visiting in Augusta, people often recognize him from the video.

Rodrigue believes that the video touches people in part because of who is in it — the Franco-American families for whom the stores were their livelihoods and gathering spots.

That includes 93-year-old Madeline Patenaude and other members of the Patenaude family who, with their late father, Irenee “Rene” Patenaude, ran what was the largest of the Sand Hill stores, Patenaude’s Superette. Their grandfather, Wilfred Patenaude, ran the store from 1914 to 1946, when Rene took it over. Gerard Poulin, in an emotional close to the video, reflects on how Rene Patenaude was like a father to him after he worked at the store at the age of 10 and taught him the importance of treating people with respect.

“None of these people are actors,” Rodrigue said. “Part of what makes the video work is them. Their honesty, the way they come across.”

But the video also likely has gotten the response it has because many people like to look back at what was, Rodrigue and Labbe said, a better life than most people seem to be living today.

The small but full-service stores thrived in the days before supermarkets, especially in neighborhoods such as Augusta’s Sand Hill, where many people didn’t have cars and walked to work in local mills and shoe shops.

Labbe, who has lived in the neighborhood his entire life, said he used to know everyone and their family on each of the streets near his home and store.

“The reality is it was tough economic times. You had it rough on the hill, but at the same time you were in this together,” Rodrigue said. “There weren’t the haves and the have-nots. We were all have-nots. You felt safe as a kid. Everyone knew you, so if you even thought about getting in trouble, your parents knew about it before you did it.”

Rodrigue said his dad worked at the mill and would stop nearly every day on the walk home at stores such as Couture’s Market on Oxford Street or Clem’s on Northern Avenue for a cold beer – the stores also served as informal, if illegal, pubs. He said police generally looked the other way at the practice.

Rodrigue said his family of seven usually shopped at Patenaude’s.

Most of the stores allowed people to shop on credit, and some delivered. Rodrigue said Patenaude’s would deliver twice a day.

If no one was home when they were delivering, the doors to customer’s homes were left unlocked back then, so the store employees, usually Patenaude family members, would let themselves in and put the perishable groceries away for the customer.

The proliferation of small stores wasn’t specific to Sand Hill. In 1952, according to Manning’s, an annually produced directory, there were 76 grocery stores in Augusta, as well as three bakers, nine confectioneries, nine druggists, three fish dealers, three fruit dealers and sixteen meat retailers.

By the early 1960s supermarkets began opening in the city. Car ownership became more prevalent. As their financial situations improved, many Franco-American families moved off the hill. The demise of industry meant the gradual disappearance of mill jobs there. As all those things left, so did the stores. By 1978, it was down to only a half-dozen stores on Sand Hill. Now, only the Iraqi-run Mainly Groceries and Chen’s Chinese takeout and store at the site of the former Sunset Market remain on Sand Hill.

“They relied on that foot traffic and that concentrated ethnic neighborhood,” Rodrigue said. “Once that eroded, they couldn’t survive.”

Rodrigue has long taken still photographs and said he decided to make videos in part because his cameras can also shoot videos. He took an Augusta adult education class from Andre Cormier to further his video skills.

He said he may do more such videos in the future. He also plans to considering entering “Les Magasins,” which took him about a year and a half to make, in film festivals.

Neither he nor Labbe think the small family-owned stores, which they said provided the families that owned them with a good living, will ever come back to Sand Hill, at least not in the large numbers they once made up.

Copies of Rodrigue’s video will be available for purchase for $10 at Vickery Cafe on Water Street in downtown Augusta.

Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kedwardskj

filed under: