Armand Trochu and the Ninetieth Anniversary of the Founding of Trochu: A Speech

by Jacques Bence

In 1985, Lorene Anne Frere was asked to contribute a history of Ste. Anne Ranch to the local Trochu history book. Her research led her to the correspondence, held in the Glenbow Archives, between Armand Trochu and his family and relatives, dated from 1903. The letterhead had the address "La Venauderie, Saint-Clementin."

In January 1988, an envelope addressed to "Armand Trochu Descendants" arrived at La Venauderie, sent by Lorene Anne, asking permission to visit and speak with the "Descendants." Jacques Bence, Armand Trochu s grandnephew, immediately phoned Lorene Anne, expressing his delight and extending his friendship and support to this work. The collaboration has established new sources of knowledge and understanding about the "Frenchmen who founded a city."

136_tmOn July 26, 1995, Jacques Bence gave the following address at the Ninetieth Anniversary of the founding of Trochu, standing in the vale where his great uncle established Ste. Anne Ranch:


As I was flying above the North Atlantic and the boundless areas of Canada, your diverse and beautiful country, I was trying to imagine what could have been the thoughts of those who dared to cross the ocean 94 years ago, drawn towards the big Western Canadian prairie. Many studies have been printed in McGill University. Consequently, I shall not comment further on the various milestones marking how Trochu was created with a few horses, axes and dollars, the only tools the founders had; most of you know those historical facts.

On the other hand, I prefer to take an interest, as a Frenchman and member of Armand Trochu's family, in the type of mind and thoughts that pushed men like de Beaudrap, Butruille, de Cathelineau, de Chauny, Devilder, Eckenfelder, Papillard, de Preault, Sculier, de Seilhac, de Torquat, Trochu, de Vautibault, and many others whose names I apologize for not mentioning here, far away from their roots, and in what made them stay here. I live in France, in the village and the country home of my granduncle, Armand Trochu, which has not changed much in the last 100 years, so I often wonder, simply by looking around me, what sort of courage or sheer thoughtlessness was necessary in order to leave the comfort of that middle-class mansion, the quiet village or vibrant cities.

Most of them certainly had only a vague idea of the enormous size of the country, or of its extreme climatic conditions and the difficulties, types of sickness, isolation and dramatic events that they were going to encounter. Nothing in France is comparable or could have prepared them, except maybe horse riding. In France, the first village or community of some importance was at their doorsteps. Their comfortable residences and way of life reflected the old aristocratic conditions of the late 18th century, which were still quietly alive.

La Venauderie, where Armand Trochu lived, was a family country home supported by the revenues from a few farms with some tens of hectares of cattle and wheat. They had a small stable for three horses, a cowshed, poultry, a nice vegetable garden, water at will, and even an oven to bake bread. The climate was, as today, very mild, even if the winter temperature did reach 5 C below zero! In short, life was not difficult. There were receptions, garden parties, weddings, and other social events among neighbours at the same social level. Old photos that we own give evidence of this easy life. I suppose that the other members of the future French settlement must have had a similar, if not better life, especially in the cities. Consequently, there should have been no strong incentive for any of these young "aristocrats," as they were called in Calgary, abruptly to leave their douce France which they all loved.

Now that I have read some of the private correspondence of Armand Trochu and spoken with his nephew, my father-in-law, who knew Armand Trochu and his family well, it seems that the so-called difficulties he may have had as a stockbroken in Vannes are minor compared to his strong desire to prove to his father and his relatives that he had the ability to achieve something by himself. To better understand his desire, it is important to remember that his uncle, Jules Eugene Trochu, had been governor of Paris and president of the Ministers Council of France; his father, Armand Trochu, with whom he had an often strained relationship, was General Inspector for Agriculture and a personality of Belle-Ile-en-Mer, in Britanny; his grandfather, Jean-Louis Trochu, had been General County Councillor for Morbihan; and other eminent members within the Trochu family tree occupied honorable positions in the society of Britanny.

Armand Trochu inherited a country home and received from his father a position as a stockbroker. He had to demonstrate his ability at a time of economic difficulties in France, which certainly was a weight on his shoulders. A temporary problem and the simultaneous appearance in the French press of advertising for the opening of new lands in Western Canada was enough to light the fire of adventure. Trochu's great merit is that he made the decision to leave, alone, for an unknown country. Some years later, when he was honoured by the government of Quebec, and then by the prime minister, in spite of his modesty, his pride appeared in a rare letter addressed to his father describing his meetings. The same pride appeared some time later when he wrote in France: "We are just simply founding a town!" On their side, the officers' motivation was clearer. They resigned from the French army to keep their honour and their duties towards Catholics, when the government decided to use the French army against the Catholic Church's goods. Others probably had some good reasons and a strong sense of adventure to join them.

In any case, what strikes me first is their courage and their fierce will to win, even as they arrived in this open country, which is apparently hostile, with its tremendously severe winter/summer climate variations, compared to France. All had several qualities in common: an eagerness to work, an extraordinary ability to face any situation, an acceptance of a rugged life, and, above all, honesty, and a sense of honour and duty. Here are the true instruments of their success. Their will to succeed is easily perceived. Within a few weeks they had built residences made of boards bought at Didsbury or Calgary or shacks made of logs cut on the banks of the Red Deer River. These modest dwellings, so convenient for a team of bachelors, after 1905 became much more comfortable, sometimes with two storeys. The timber constructions then reached greater dimensions, notably with the building of Sainte Anne-des-Prairies and the St. Mary hospital.

The sweet French life was forgotten. There was a sweeping change from the society life to the rough prairie life, far from the conventions and conformism. Truly inspired, all of them rolled up their sleeves to build ranches, an inn, a post office, a general store, a school, a butcher shop, a creamery, a saddlery, and so forth. Before four years had passed, a business centre grew up with a modern spirit that many European villages could envy. What does it matter whether it was freezing cold inside most of the places, for a new city was soon born. All this signifies an integration of will and a collectively independent disposition against the conformism of the establishment. Everybody adapted immediately to the way of life imposed by the prairie, the horses, and ranching, including typical British expressions which they used in their correspondence with people in France.

However, the life was hard. With very little manpower available, they had to build their housing and domesticate the great open prairie, where many herds of roaming buffalo fed on the grassland. They had to do this despite freezing temperatures, snow, fires, mosquitos, scabies, and all sorts of dangers, some of them a result of their isolation. With no roads, and no one for miles around, they had to find their own way, especially at night when they came back from journeys on horseback to find cattle. They were able to do everything: grow cattle by the thousands, cultivate hundreds of hectares of wheat, and enclose many kilometres of land or corrals. They were cooks, butchers, bakers, saddlers, mechanics, engineers, carpenters, gardeners and businessmen. It seems, according to Philomene Butruille, that "there was always new prairie!"

They adapted themselves to all sorts of discomfort except loneliness, which forged their personality and character. The word is often cited in their letters to their relatives in France. Those who did not learn to endure it returned to France. Life was hard but beautiful, to the point that Joseph Devilder later wrote: "Those were the most beautiful years of my life. Life of work, of deprivation, of open air, of horseriding, of risks, of big and lovely physical activities." This daily battle by men, women and children in turn created such an incredible core of relationships and strong friendships between the families of pioneers that 55 years later, Valentine Eckenfelder maintained a correspondence with Adrienne Trochu, whom she had known for a very few years in Trochu Valley.

As a necessary compensation for the hard life, the close relationships of the Trochu community soon generated a need for various distractions — balls, dinners, birthday celebrations, hunting, harvest celebrations, races, rodeos — to meet people, to break the loneliness, and to re-create the French atmosphere in part. Weddings, births, and deaths still formed the links. All joys, success, and distress were shared. Mutual aid was a duty. There is a striking contrast between the beautiful conviviality of Trochu Valley and the suspicious rigidity of many villages in France.

One might think that the departures for the European War of 1914 would have ended the Trochu venture, but nothing of the kind happened. The arrival of the CPR induced a new wave of enthusiasm for new projects with the arrival of more pioneers, among them the Frere family, whose courage, strength, and will matched that of the first pioneers. Not only should we pay tribute to the first settlers, but also to those after them, up to the present day, who have developed Trochu's valleys.

I would like to pay a special tribute to Lorene and Louis Frere. On a cold day in January 1988, when a large envelope addressed to "Armand Trochu Descendants" arrived at La Venauderie, we did not know that our uncle's Canadian souvenirs and letters, which had been slowly getting dusty for ninety years, would be roused out of their lethargy by the desire of a Canadian family to bring the first days of Trochu valley to life. This has now happened. Today, 26 July 1995, the St Anne Ranch Museum, full of souvenirs, is just behind us. Great accolades are due for the tenacity and perseverance of Lorene Frere who travelled to Europe searching for and tracking down every bit of memorabilia. Congratulations to Lonis, and his family, and the children whom we have seen at work beautifully restoring the log building housing this museum. I wish as well to thank Patrick Brunet-Moret, near grandnephew of Armand Trochu, who did not stint on his time to put together all available correspondence of our pioneers and organize our trip to Trochu. Without him, many of us may not have met on this historical site. Here I take the liberty to express, in the name of the French delegation, our great emotion at attending such a big commemoration. On behalf of all of us thank you so much, Louis and Lorene.

Lorene, to end this long speech for which I apologize, I would like to offer you, for your Museum, a souvenir of this commemoration. I am sure it will find a place somewhere.

Vive le Ste. Anne Ranch! Vive Trochu! Vive L'Alberta! Vive Le Canada!

Related Links:

Musée Trochu (in French only)

From Aspenland 1998 — Local Knowledge and Sense of Place
Edited by: David J. Goa and David Ridley
Published by: The Central Alberta Regional Museums Network (CARMN) with the assistance of the Provincial Museum of Alberta and the Red Deer and District Museum.