When TLC first aired “17 Kids and Counting” in 2008, it stirred controversy. The reality show follows the Duggar family, now 19 children strong. And on Nov. 8, they announced on the “Today” show that they are expecting their 20th child in April.
While some people thoroughly enjoy the show, the Duggars often face the head shaking and finger wagging of strangers, the stigma attached to raising a large family in modern times. But not long ago large families were applauded by society. In fact, they were sought after by the government to run farms in northern and central Maine.
When the Rancourt family moved to Winterport in 1937, they were their own “17 kids and counting.” Today, just four of Alice and Harry’s 17 children are alive, but they all still live in Winterport.
“As a family, we never fought too much,” said John Rancourt, 81, as he sat reminiscing with his sister, Geraldine, 79, and his brother Reginald, 82, over brunch at the Rise & Shine Cafe in Winterport. “If we did, Dad straightened us out.”
The fourth, Marguerite, 93, had an appointment the day the remaining Rancourt children met with the Bangor Daily News and couldn’t make it to her favorite cafe, but her son Rodney was there, and also John’s wife, Ruth.
The Rancourts have long been local celebrities and perhaps would have starred in their own reality show, had television existed in their day.
They first appeared in the BDN in 1937, when they became the first large family to move onto farmland as a part of the New Deal Resettlement Administration State-of-Maine Farms Project. The family traveled days by buggy from their previous home in Hartland to their new home, Meadowsweet Farm.
In Hartland, the Rancourt children attended a one-room school, and when they left, the school closed down. Thirteen of the school’s 17 students had been Rancourts.
In Winterport, their lives changed. They lived comfortably in the massive 13-bedroom farmhouse, and they had more than 100 acres to plant, keep livestock and harvest wood.
“We had 34 cows that we had to milk by hand in the morning,” said Reginald. “Sometimes we missed the bus and had to walk or hitchhike to school.”
They typically had 700 hens, 50 acres of corn and 4 acres of string beans, as well as workhorses and pigs — one that grew to be 700 pounds.
“John and I were left to run the farm while the other six brothers went to fight in WWII,” said Reginald.
“The girls did work on the farm, too,” Geraldine corrected him.
“We left you the easiest cows to milk,” Reginald said, smiling.
It all began in 1909, when Alice, then 15, and Harry, 18, wed in a two-day farm celebration.
Between the ages of 17 and 40, Alice gave birth to eight boys and nine girls, without having twins, let alone triplets. The list goes: Dorothy, born in 1910; Gaspar, 1911; Mildred, 1912; Leo, 1914; Marion, 1916; Marguerite, 1917; Corinne, 1919; Clara, 1920; Harry, 1921; Leon, 1923; Clayton, 1924; Alton, 1926; Kenneth, 1927; John, 1930; Celestia, 1931; Geraldine, 1932; and Iris, who was born in 1933 and died shortly after.
“I have found that a mother can scratch for a dozen just as well as she can for 10,” said Alice in the 1938 article in the BDN. “I wouldn’t swap one of my children for all the money in the world.”
Their first child, Dorothy, died giving birth in 1929. Her son, Reginald, was adopted by his grandparents, thus becoming the 17th child of the Rancourt family.
“[Mom] said that having children helped keep her young,” Geraldine said.
In 1938, BDN columnist Henry Buxton visted the Rancourts at their farmhouse, which Alice kept immaculately clean and organized. During a period of 14 days in the summer of 1938, the family — both parents and 10 children still at home — picked an average of two tons of beans per day for the canning factory.
“I have brought them up to the idea that honesty is the best policy, and that only criminals refuse to work,” Alice told Buxton. “All the children at home have their work to do, and they take pride in doing that work well.”
In addition to believing in big families, Alice believed that farms were the place to raise healthy, happy children.
Geraldine remembers riding with her father in the wagon down to their pond where he would cut ice blocks to be stored in the ice house.
“They were the best days of our lives, if anybody realizes it,” said Geraldine softly, perhaps to herself.
The Rancourt family came to Quebec from France, then lines of the family trickled down to Maine, mainly the Waterville area. Harry spoke French fluently and always said the Rosary in French.
At the Rise & Shine Cafe, the three siblings freely exchanged stories from their childhood.
John and Reggie remember haying with pitchforks, tossing bundles onto a wagon where their father was standing, smoking his corncob pipe. They were in a hurry to get to the Bangor State Fair, pitching hay so fiercely that their father had to yell at them to stop.
“By Jesus, if you guys think you can bury the old man, you go ahead and do it!” says Reggie, echoing his father. They boys eventually made it to the fair, after they milked the cows.
Everyone came home for the holidays. One time, Reginald counted 45 relatives at Meadowsweet Farm for Christmas. Bedrooms were shared and laughter filled the house. The younger girls had to set the 8-foot-long dining room table three times before everyone got something to eat.
“[Mom] was the best cook in the world,” Geraldine said.
“One thing I remember is that every time we came home from school, before you hit the bridge at the bottom of the hill, you could smell the food she’d been cooking that day,” John said.
When Alice made her delicious baked beans, she soaked 3.5 quarts of raw beans to feed everyone. It took four pies and usually a pound of butter to supply the family for one meal. In one summer, Alice put up 700 quarts of fruit, vegetables and pickles so they could have a good reserve food supply in the winter.
She didn’t just feed her own family. If she saw the neighbor’s children walking to school without a lunch, she would beckon them inside and fix them some food. And during the Great Depression, Alice marked the farm fence to notify passing hobos that they could eat a hot meal at the Rancourt’s if they sat on the porch.
Sometimes, the boys would contribute special treats to the food supply. The hunted deer, rabbits and the occasional porcupine, their top corn pest, said Reggie. They also ate squirrels on occasion.
“I don’t remember eating squirrels,” Geraldine said.
“You weren’t told, that’s why,” said Reggie, laughing with John. “You thought it was chicken.”
The large Rancourt family was ideal for working and thriving on farmland in Maine, but that doesn’t mean the family had an easy time of it.
“When one of us got sick, everybody would get sick,” said Geraldine.
“You didn’t have the best of everything, that’s for sure,” said John, who usually wore patched clothing that had been handed down through four siblings. “In a big family, you had to take care of each other. That’s how it was.”
The Rancourt family was in the newspaper again when their farmhouse burned down in 1958, it was rebuilt soon after, and when Alice and Harry were written about for their golden anniversary, 60th anniversary, and 70th anniversary in 1979. By that time, they had 64 grandchildren and 97 great-grandchildren.
Alice and Harry considered their family blessed. She died at age 89 in 1982, and Harry died two years later at the age of 94.
Today, most parents draw the line at one or two children, fearing he economic hardship of raising a larger family. Some look at the bigger picture, a global population of more than 6.8 billion and its projected growth of 9 billion by 2050.
It makes sense today that some people disagree with TLC’s Duggar family and others who choose to raise large families, but for Winterport native Mary Flemming who first met the Rancourts at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church, the Rancourts’ large family was wonderful.
She recalls being invited to dinner at their farm when she was 10 years old.
“I was just overwhelmed. I’d never seen such a big family in my whole life,” said Flemming. “What impressed me is that everything was so smooth, everybody was quiet, no one screamed or yelled. It was very pleasant. You felt like part of them. … People today forget about how wonderful it was. The big families weren’t a chore, they were a blessing.”