My friend and colleague Sally Bright told me about a book club that meets in the Broken Arrow Historical Museum: Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma. The book club is part of the Oklahoma Humanities. From the Oklahoma Humanities Web site: “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma (LTAIO) offers more than your average book club for adults. With the added benefit of a humanities scholar to inform and broaden discussions, participants are able to explore the human experience through literature in meaningful and thought-provoking ways.
A series consists of 4-5 sessions, each featuring a book from the chosen discussion theme. A humanities scholar opens each session telling about the author’s life, giving historical context to the book, sharing its contemporary relevance, and explaining how the book ties into the overarching theme. Participants then discuss their own thoughts about the book.”
I missed the first session in the book club when members discussed Leaves in the Wind by LaDonna K. Meinders. I will be joining when the club discusses Hurrah For My New Free Country by Leon Charles Fouquet. Fouquet’s twin granddaughters Rosalie Fouquet Davis and Mathilde Fouquet Ruggles compiled and edited their grandfather’s journals which he kept from the time he was a young boy. The journals began as gifts from his mother, and Fouquet developed the lifelong habit of recording his experiences.
Leon Fouquet was born in France on 12 December 1849, an only child. When his father became ill and had to be hospitalized, Leon’s mother sent him to live with his uncle and two aunts in Paris. In 1860, Leon’s father died, so Leon’s mother came to Paris to live also. Leon had four years of schooling. He describes the teasing he experienced. The other boys called him “Red Squirrel” and teased, “Go climb a tree” because Fouquet means squirrel.
Because schooling after age ten required that parents pay for the child to attend, Leon ended his formal education and became apprenticed to “a firm to learn the trade of packer, box, and trunk maker.” Instead of teaching him the trade, though, the boss sent Leon throughout the city delivering goods. As a result, he earned his salary and tips. He gave the salary to his mother, but he saved the tips for himself.
Leon was quite industrious from an early age. He was a quick study and had a pleasant disposition, so he advanced in all the jobs he took. He was also careful with his money and saved as much as he could. At first, he thought he wanted to become a doctor; then he decided he would like to go to military college and travel the world. His mother and aunts objected violently to this new ambition. His family told Leon stories about “the new wild country of America.” They persuaded him in1868 to go to America to seek his fortune. Aunt Francoise and Uncle Gaillard lived near Leavenworth, Kansas, so Leon booked passage on a ship to New York and then would travel to Kansas to join his aunt and uncle.
Readers follow Leon on his trip to the US and then on to Kansas to his aunt and uncle’s. He was helpful to his aunt and uncle, always willing to work hard. Leon worked many kinds of jobs over the years. Those jobs included freighter, ferryman, farmer, storekeeper, and postmaster. He remained cheerful and optimistic despite economic downturns and disappointments in various businesses. Even when he did work for promised pay that did not materialize, Leon took the disappointment in stride and carried on.
He describes buffalo hunts in Kansas along with meeting people of all sorts. He also meets Native Americans, some of whom he feared; most often, however, he found ways to communicate with the Native Americans. He met the Foucher family, who had also immigrated from France. Their daughter Mathilde quickly caught Leon’s eye. Leon and Mathilde were married 6 November 1875 in Wichita. By this time, Leon’s mother had come to the US also.
Leon and Mathilde’s first son, Charles, arrived on 5 October 1876 and daughter, Emily Marie, was born 5 July 1878. Their second daughter, Rose Modeste was born 1 October 1879 followed by Alice Renee on 27 January 1881. Sadly, Alice died the following August. Blanche arrived on 17 January 1883, but died in July. Hermance Pearl was born 27 February 1886. Leon Eugene, a second son, arrived on 18 February 1890. Leon wrote of the happiness of having his sons and three daughters and the heartbreak of losing three infant girls: “In these last five years, we have learned the meaning of joy and grief—life and death.”
Leon was an inventor as well as entrepreneur. Because two of the infants died during summer heat, he invented a cooling device that would “help cool the rooms for the feeble and sick.” It could even dispense medication through the water in a reservoir. Because of that invention, he became a member of the American Inventors Association. Physicians invited Leon to attend the meeting of the South Kansas Medical Society where the doctors endorsed his cooling invention. Although Leon received a patent on the device and it was manufactured, he says he “did not prosper from it.”
After living in Kansas and very briefly in Rich Hill, MO, Leon and his family moved to Oklahoma. They settled near Chandler at a place they called Dreamland Fruit Farm. They planted three thousand apple trees and six thousand peach trees. They also had twelve acres of grapes and six in berries. Below is a picture of early Chandler about the time Leon and his family lived in the area.
Leon and Mathilde celebrated their golden wedding on 6 November 1925 with a party that included most of the adult children and grandchildren. The seven children produced a large number of grandchildren. Leon and Mathilde’s descendants are spread across the US. The Fouquets’ story represents one of the many about hard-working immigrants who came to a young, free country and made a good life for themselves and their families.
Library Journal says of Hurrah For My New Free Country that Leon Fouquet’s “optimism never flagged.” The review also goes on to report that “a few famous names slip into the story, but [Hurrah For My New Free Country] is first and foremost a fine example of an average pioneer’s narrative.”
Dreamland Fruit Farm is gone, but Sparks Vineyard and Winery located in Sparks, OK, credits Leon Fouquet and his family for paving the way to vineyards in OK.
The next book in The Oklahoma Experience: In Our Own Words include The Cherokee Strip by Marquis James, On Coon Mountain by Glen Ross, Flight from Innocence by Judson Jerome.