Marguerite Gallant was born in 1890 at Terre-Noire, around 25 kilometres from Chéticamp. Marquerite is second last child of a family of 10 children, six brothers and three sisters. Two of the sisters, older than Marquerite, died, one in infancy and the other in her early twenties. The last sister was born after Marguerite.
Her parents were humble Acadians. She used to say that her father, Padé, had been a sea captain with three ships which he sailed from Chéticamp to the West Indies. He lost one ship, another burnt and the third was taken by the sheriff. “For a measly $84, they took his boat, a rowboat, some cows and sheep as well as his home and barn.” Having lost everything to back taxes, he had no option but to try his hand at fishing.
He moved his family from Terre-Noire to St-Joseph-du-Moine and then to Chéticamp where he built a small home to shelter his family on a small strip of land which connects Chéticamp “island” to Cape Breton Island. Having no more luck, he ended up in Glace Bay, no doubt hoping for jobs for his sons. Indeed, most of them became miners and made a good living at it.
Marguerite had the gift of finding and appreciating beauty in ordinary things, specifically in items of no use to others. Still a child, she started collecting small, empty perfume bottles. At the tender age of 11, she was hired out as a maid at her uncle’s home in Terre-Noire.
When she was 16, Marguerite immigrated to Connecticut in the United States where she worked as housemaid and even as companion to elderly ladies. Her first employer was Mary Cahill, the widow of antique dealer, Edward Cahill. At her death, Marguerite inherited several pieces, one of which was a huge, ten-foot table which was shipped to Chéticamp, along with its chairs and a few other items, the cost covered by the Cahill family. She had also requested a pair of boots worn by Douglas Fairbanks, a friend of Mary Cahill, in his role of Robin Hood. She traveled a lot with her American employers, visiting 46 of the 48 states in the Union at the time.
In 1938, when she was only 58, Marguerite retired and returned to settle in Chéticamp. She moves into the small home inherited from her father. While still living in the US, she had had the small cottage enlarged and moved closer to the road. Added to her own collections of all kinds, Marguerite had inherited a collection of books and encyclopaedias from her brother, Charles, who had taught her to read.
She welcomed anyone who came to visit the small home filled to the brim with all her treasures: bottles, oil lamps, books, marine knots which hung from nails on the walls or cup hooks screwed to the ceiling and more. As her reputation spread, more and more people came to see her, often bringing articles they no longer needed, yet were hesitant to trash.
Marquerite had a little wooden wagon built by a friend who had cut the wheels out of a large log and covered them in tire-rubber. One day, a visitor driving a Chrysler offered to trade his car for her wagon. “Never in this life”, said she, “I’ll have my wagon long after your Chrysler is gone.” And in fact, that wagon is now in a museum, while the Chrysler…. well who knows?
When she died in 1983, her collection became the property of Société Saint-Pierre and was moved to Les Trois Pignons. One year later the collection had been catalogued and was ready for exhibition. The museum opened its doors in 1985 as part of the Chéticamp Bicentennial celebrations.
Her souvenirs and treasures still thrive. They continue to encourage simplicity and to remind us of our responsibility of maintaining and promoting the treasures of our past.
To learn more about this great Acadian lady, check out her treasures at the museum in Les Trois Pignons’ Cultural Centre and pick up the book, “Marguerite Gallant, legendary Acadian”, by Béatrice Desveaux and Daniel Doucet.