Written by Kim Lunman
posted on July 12, 2010 22:40
Baguettes, berets, French pastries, Canada's flag flying while “O’Canada” is being belted out from a singer on a main street bandstand en Francais. Wait a minute. Is this New York state? Mais oui. Why else would Napoleon Bonaparte be taking centre stage?
Welcome to Cape Vincent, a charming community that has been transforming into a French village one weekend a year for nearly half a century along these sweeping shores where the St. Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario.
This quaint River town just west of Clayton known for its historic Tibbetts Point Lighthouse also happens to share an international ferry service with Wolfe Island along the western gateway to the Thousand Islands.
The celebrated lighthouse is a beacon for tourism but its annual French festival - this year marked its 42nd - grabs the limelight for visitors by transporting them two centuries back in time. Thousands of people flocked to the coastal town to take part in the two-day festival in July and catch a glimpse of its most famous almost son in French military regalia sporting riding boots, sideburns and the hat that says it all: Napoleon.
The 19th century French emperor was portrayed by Ronald D. "Doc" Jacobs, of Cape Vincent. He has been playing the part in the annual civic festivities since 1994, leading the parade astride a horse.
In the early 1800's, Napoleon said he wanted to move to Cape Vincent, but he never escaped exile in the South Atlantic. French along with German settlers emigrated to Cape Vincent in the early 1800s, many through the patronage of a man named James LeRay Chaumont, who moved from France to America in the 1700s and owned much of the area's land. He was also credited with bringing in a contingent of French nobility, including Count Francis Peter Real, once the chief of police under Napoleon.
Count Real even built a home in Cape Vincent, noted for its unusual architecture as "the cup and saucer" house for its resemblance to the table ware. He built the house for none other than Napoleon in an attempt to rescue the exiled French emperor from the island of St. Helena. However, he never got the chance to make Cape Vincent home, dying in 1821. French exiles then received amnesty and a number moved back to France.
However, many remained and became lifelong residents of Cape Vincent including Louis Peugnet, a former officer in the Napoleonic army. And the unusual house here built for Napoleon burned down in 1867.
Cape Vincent embraces its French roots. The village is festooned with French, Canadian and American flags during the festival with a mass held in French at the Catholic church. The hamlet's Seattle's Best Coffee shop even has a 'Bienvenue' sign painted over its door to welcome visitors.
Annual firework celebrations are held over the waterfront to mark the occasion in the otherwise sleepy village with panoramic views proudly embraced by one homeowner with the words 'River Runs By' displayed over his front door and a porch overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence. Canada is always on the horizon with Wolfe Island visible from its shores and Horne's Ferry routinely pulling up to its docks.
Dignitaries wear berets and period costumes to honor the town's French ancestors during the festival in a celebration of its unique history. And Napoleon Bonaparte comes to life once a year here as a most unlikely visitor to the Thousand Islands in the place he might have called home, or most likely, 'maison.'
By Kim Lunman
Kim Lunman has been writing about the Thousand Islands since her return to her hometown of Brockville in 2008. In fact, we have published 30 of Kim’s articles in TI Life. At the beginning of May 2010, Kim's new company, Thousand Islands Ink, distributed 25,000 copies of Island Life, as an insert in eastern Ontario with distribution through the EMC papers and in New York though the Thousand Islands Sun. This summer she is gathering new material for next year’s magazine. This is one she graciously shared for our readers this year.