Minnesota city's French connection

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 29, 2012 - 11:05 AM

Centerville's Melvin Dupre doesn't need reminders of his French heritage. The evidence is all over town.

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Melvin Dupre, 92, has lived in Centerville his entire life. The former city historian relates tales of settlers who came to the area from Canada, to which he traces his own family roots.

Photo: Marisa Wojcik, Star Tribune

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Centerville's 92-year-old former historian, Melvin Dupre, pushed aside cigar boxes filled with hundreds of centuries-old arrowheads that he's discovered on his property. He picked up a shard of distinctly patterned pottery -- possibly 1,000 years old and one of dozens found on his family's land -- and began to tell the other story of his hometown.

"You ever hear of the legend of Father Goiffon?" Dupre asked.

He held up a scrapbook and pointed to a newspaper article about the priest who led Centerville's Church of St. Genevieve of Paris late in the 19th century. Goiffon lost a leg in a snowstorm. According to legend, a young girl near death was suddenly cured when a splinter from Goiffon's wooden leg was brought to her bedside.

"Of course, when I first heard the story, it was probably told to me in French," Dupre said.

"I was born here. My parents were born here. But until I went to grade school, I spoke nothing but French. That's all that was spoken in our house. We had to convert our parents."

Now Dupre is hoping that Centerville will say oui to its history.

"We've become a big community," he said of a city with fewer than 3,800 residents. "People here don't know the history. There's not as much talk about our French heritage anymore."

Yet that heritage remains Centerville's centerpiece to many. The names on weathered and faded gravestones in Centerville's St. Genevieve Cemetery tell the story of Anoka County's oldest community, sometimes in French.

Peltier, LaMotte, LaValle and, yes, Dupre are here. So are Leroux, LaBelle, Bernier and Sivigny. And Cartier, Houle and Proulx. From Sorel Street to Goiffon Road, the city's French roots remain firm.

The French have an expression for it: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Settlers du jour

"We didn't come out here till we were in our late 20s, about 40 years ago," said Centerville Mayor Thomas Wilharber, 71. "When I first got elected to the City Council, there were plenty of whispers.

"'He's not French!' That's what they were talking about. It was a big deal to some."

Centerville's French-Canadian heritage was and remains a big deal to many, said Mary Capra, the city's former mayor and current historian. And few can tell the story with the knowledge and passion of Melvin Dupre, she said.

It was originally called Centreville because settlers thought it was centrally located between Stillwater and Anoka. Among those first settlers were F.X. LaVallee, Peter Cardinal, Charles Peltier, Joseph Houle and Oliver Dupre, who arrived in 1847 from Sorel, Quebec. Brothers Michael and Peter Dupre also settled in Little Canada before moving to farms in Centerville.

"When you hear the stories of fur trading in Minnesota between the voyageurs and the Indians, you think of places like Pine County," Melvin Dupre said. "But I'm guessing there was trading here, too.

"I'm sure of it. I grew up on the farmstead next door, and we used to trap muskrats all the time."

Tilling for treasure

The artifacts he's collected on his family property -- arrowheads, a hatchet with a large stone and wood handle, and pottery pieces that were discovered with each tilling of the soil years ago -- add to the mystique.

"People from the University of Minnesota and the Science Museum told us that some of the pottery pieces are 1,000 years old," said Melvin's wife, Joyce Dupre, 82, who grew up in northeast Minneapolis.

"It was hard to believe when they first started showing up. But we've found so many of them!"

What they no longer see in town are many new French names, the Dupres say. They have 10 children (including eight daughters), 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Many remain in the area, so the Dupre name will at least live on here.

"But there's not many other French names left," said Melvin, who spent a career as a supervisor for St. Paul's water department.

"And when they [Anoka County] widened Main Street last year, they took out a few things that we considered historical. The blacksmith building, for instance. Things change."

He sifted through his fingers the arrowheads of many colors and sizes.

"I've got box after box after box of these," he said.

"Our kids used to take them to school for show and tell," Joyce interrupted.

"Yes," said Melvin. "But they'd tell everyone about them in English."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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