Thomas Gustave Plant was born in Bath (Maine) in 1859. Both his parents came from Lower Canada. His mother, Sophie Rodrigue, had "travelled through the woods" with her family in the 1820s. His father, Antoine Plante, had come to Augusta in 1834. Antoine and Sophie settled at the mouth of the Kennebec River in Bath, married, and had children. Antoine worked as a sailor, fought in the Civil War, and was wounded during an infantry charge against a Confederate position in Virginia. His father being invalided, Tom grew up in poverty in a French-Canadian neighbourhood called "French Hill". He left school at age fourteen, during the depression of 1873, and took work as a boilermaker and an ice cutter. He was also known as one of the best baseball players in Maine. At this time, Massachusetts shoe manufacturers had begun to establish factories in Maine as a strikebreaking tactic against their home shops. Tom became an apprentice shoe laster in one of these "country factories".
In 1880, young Tom left Maine for the "shoe-making capital of the world" in Lynn (Massachusetts). The work conditions damaged his eyesight, so he left his job to recuperate with relatives in California. Upon his return, he entered manufacturing as an employer, at the age of 25, with money made from a baseball wager. He moved from a co-operative venture in 1885 to a partnership in 1887, then began a private company in 1891. Over the next twenty years, the Thomas G. Plant Company of Boston grew into what was claimed to be the world's largest shoe factory. Tom became an advocate of "enlightened" capitalism and a supporter of Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Party. He entered the world of invention and patents to develop a new line of shoe-making machines. After a vicious industrial confrontation, he sold out to the multinational United Shoe Machinery Company in 1910 and retired as perhaps the wealthiest Franco-American of his era. Some estimate his fortune as high as $26 million.
Tom built a 6500-acre estate and one of the most exclusive golf clubs in the United States on Lake Winnepesaukee (New Hampshire), as well as an old folks home for impoverished workers in Bath. However, just before the stock market crash of 1929, Tom's investments began to go sour. He had invested in Russian bonds just before the October Revolution, in sugar just before its collapse after World War I, and in unproductive lands throughout the Jazz Era. He did not successfully make the transition from industrialist to financier and was forced to borrow money from even his neighbours. Tom Plant died broke, in 1941, just before creditors auctioned off everything he owned. His factory is now in ruins, a casualty of the reputedly largest single-building fire in Boston's history, and his estate exists as a major tourist attraction run by a national corporation that bottles water from his mountaintop under the label of Castle Springs.
Although Tom Plant never appeared in Franco-American directories, such as Le Guide Officiel, he would be considered a Franco-American by any of the yardsticks with which we measure ethnicity. Both his parents were French Canadian, he was raised in a French-Canadian neighbourhood surrounded by family and friends from Canada, apparently spoke French, spent his leisure time studying French history and travelling in France, and was identified by contemporary Yankees as being French Canadian. Nonetheless, Francos who tour his estate have not known about his heritage, a subject that has been equally obscure to the Yankee tour guides. Fortunately, this "ethnic cleansing" has begun to change as the details of his life have been made known and his French-Canadian heritage reclaimed.
My research about Tom Plant caused me to ask not only why he was such a dramatic exception to the popular stereotypes of French North Americans, but if these stereotypes themselves had much basis to begin with. I began to search for clues in the story of Tom's family and their generation that had migrated between Lower Canada and Maine in the early 1800s. This quest for new information on these "lost Francos", about whom so little is known, led to my research about the Canada Road and its Québec and Maine frontier area for the period of 1810 to 1860.