Director's Notes - Martin
I spent all my boyhood summers on land that my mother had inherited from Austin ancestors. But I never thought of Nicholas as more than a family legend until I started serious research for this film. Then I discovered that he was a life-time pioneer who opened up more than one frontier, and that he was a folk hero for a larger community than just my family.
The first frontier he broke was that of religious intolerance. In colonial New Hampshire, marrying outside your religion was taboo. Nicholas was one of the first Quakers to do it. His wife Phebe was just as courageous to defy her Congregational church. They survived by leaving the settled coastal area of New Hampshire and helping to open up the forested interior around Lake Winnipesaukee. I went down to New Hampshire to see it. It looks amazingly like Lake Memphremagog—a similarly large expanse of water (about 100 square kms) surrounded by beautiful wooded hills, small family farms, weekend cottages and tourist resorts. Nicholas is recognized as one of the founders of the town of Brookfield. There are still a few remains of the foundation of the house he built there. By the time the American Revolution came around, he had established a prosperous farm of 1300 acres.
But the people of Brookfield are still blinded by the patriotism of those times. They look upon Austin as a traitorous Loyalist, and have therefore not erected any stone in his honour. They have forgotten that he was a pacifist who stayed neutral during the Revolution, and that after it was over, he was elected twice to the state legislature. He represented those who wanted to preserve state power against the new government in Washington. It was when the state-firsters lost in the vote on the new constitution that he decided, at the age of 57, that the time had come to become a pioneer again. That was 10 years after the Treaty of Paris brought the American War of Independence to an end. By that time, the most fertile lands of the Eastern Townships, those around Lake Champlain, had already been settled. The people who had settled there were the true Loyalists—those who had fought on the British side, and fled with the retreating British army. So Austin had to look for unsettled land further east, and chose Brome County on Lake Memphremagog, in spite of its rocky fields.
He was soon followed by hundreds of others who, by the end of the eighteenth century, felt indifferent to the Revolution, no matter which side they had been on. They came as part of the flood of New Englanders who emigrated west and north after the war in search of virgin land. They and their descendants have maintained Austin's spirit of religious and political tolerance. Brome County has stayed clear of Quebec's language wars of the last three decades.
A Benedictine monastery now stands on the site of Austin's first homestead. The monks provided cheese and cider to the crowd that jammed into the Austin town hall for the launching of my film one bright Saturday afternoon in June of this year. The enthusiastic response to the film by francophone monks, anglophone farmers and bilingual cottagers convinced me that the spirit of Nicholas is still alive on the shores of Lake Memphremagog.Top of page