For centuries, long before Europeans ever set foot in the area that would eventually be Trochu, the Indigenous occupied the land. The bison were prominent throughout the region, and were incredibly important for the Indigenous.
The Indigenous that occupied the land were the Blackfoot, but as time went on, the Cree and Metis began to push into the region as Europeans started to settle in from the east.
You can still visit an important spot in the local Indigenous culture when you visit the Dry Island Buffalo Jump Park, located just to the east of Trochu. It was here where the local Indigenous drove bison over cliffs in huge bison drives that occurred for centuries before Europeans arrived. The Indigenous history aspect isn’t the only cool part of this park either. It contains the most important Albertosaurus bone bed in the world and it was first discovered in 1910 by Barnum Brown and then rediscovered in 1997 by Dr. Phil Currie. Bones are still pulled out of the area, dating back millions of years to when the entire area looked very different. The park also contains unique flora and fauna that are not usually found this far from the Rocky Mountains.
As people settled in the area, the Indigenous would often trade with them and helping the new arrivals survive in a land they were not accustom to. Remnants of the Indigenous culture would be found for years on the homesteads of the new settlers. Arrowheads, bleached bison bones and other items were all found throughout the region.
The start of Trochu would come thanks to a man named Armand Jean Louis Leon Trochu, who was born on Belle Island in 1857. The nephew of General Louis Jules Trochu, who was the Governor of Paris in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, he began as a stock broker in Paris but his unique life would eventually lead him to Canada and life as a rancher and the founder of the community that now has his name. It is believed that Trochu arrived in Calgary in 1902 and he stayed there for a time before moving to the ranch of Raymond de Malherbe.
Louis, the son of Raymond, began to tell stories of ranches in the area and this intrigued Trochu, who decided explore the region for a suitable site for a ranch of his own. Before long, they found the perfect site and Trochu got down to work to build up his new ranch, which included hiring hands and getting lumber shipped in from Didsbury.
Trochu was described as, quote:
“A distinguished looking gentleman of medium height and build with a beard and neat appearance. He was a fine gentleman, a good friend and a man with a big heart. Those who remember him say that he had no enemies and one would never hear an unkind word about him.”
In 1905, Armand Trochu, Joseph Devilder and L.C. Eckenfelder, who had all come from France separately, came together and formed the St. Anne Ranch Trading Company. This ranch would soon become a focal point in the area for a growing French-speaking community that offered services to travelers including a stopping house, store, blacksmith shop and dance hall. Before long, the ranch had 100 head of horses and 200 head of cattle.
The post office would open on Sept. 1, 1906 with the name of Trochu Valley, and with Trochu as the first postmaster. He would haul the mail himself through the region using his team of horses, which he did for several years.
Residents would slowly began to arrive in the area, but it was still hard times for many. The winter of 1906 was described as one of the worst in memory, with the cattle losing their hair and almost their hide from struggling through hard, deep and crusted snow.
It was the belief of the three men that the railroad would come through the area, near their ranch. The CPR had come through the area with surveyors for a proposed line that would bring the railway from Acme to the Calgary and Edmonton Railway. Trochu also knew the president of the CPR, so everyone was confident that the railroad would come through the area. Surveyors were soon hired to create a townsite, even as the snow was still deep. Lots were sold and as soon as the snow melted, building began. The first structure built in the community was the police barracks, followed by a butcher shop and a Roman Catholic Church.
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Of course, the CPR never built this proposed line and the old townsite of Trochu would never grow beyond a few buildings.
On March 31, 1906, one of the worst disasters to ever hit the area occurred when a fire broke out outside of the city. Two homesteaders named Taylor and Gibb took lumber out to their homesteads. They wanted to protect it from prairie fire so they burnt a fire guard around it but this fire soon spread out of control. Several men came out to help fight the fire and it was under control but then it was hit by a strong wind and quickly began to move across the landscape. Right in its path was the St. Ann Ranch and those fighting the fire were behind it, leaving the St. Ann Ranch at its mercy. Only Trochu himself was at the ranch at the time, and he had a valuable stallion in the barn and 100 horses enclosed in the pasture. A local ranch hand took the fastest horse in the region at full gallop to beat the fire and get to the St. Anne Ranch to save the horses and cattle but the flames were traveling faster than the horse. As luck would have it, the coulee protected the ranch itself but the horses in the pasture remained in the path of the flames. Sadly, half of the horses were killed in the fire, while coal stored in a dugout caught fire and burned for the next two months. Many individuals, including a local rancher named Jack Ross, lost their homesteads to the flames.
The area of the fire was reported to have covered from north of Olds across the Red Deer River and to the south.
Around 1909, eight Sisters of the Catholic faith left France and arrived in the Trochu area to begin a new life helping the people of the area, while also setting up a school, convent and hospital. Their new home would become a stopping place for individuals travelling from Trochu to Olds and back. A temporary hospital was soon set up, and it would remain operating until 1911. It was busy as well, with 16 patients being admitted between Aug. 23, 1909 and Dec. 21, 1909. The Sisters also set up a small chapel, and Holy Mass was first celebrated there on Sept. 16, 1909. On Nov. 21, 1909, they opened a school and within one year, 25 children were attending the school.
One year after the Sisters arrived, a location for a Convent-Hospital was chosen on top of a hill near the community. Construction soon began, even while at the same time the Sisters were working day and night due to a typhoid fever epidemic that hit the area. The winter was also bitterly cold that year, but construction continued and was soon completed. There were no architects for the building, and it was designed by Mother Marie Louis Recton, based on her sketches. In 1912, the Department of Health officially recognized the hospital. The hospital, with its multiple floors and expansive design was easily one of the most beautiful and imposing buildings in the entire area. More sisters would come over from France as well to work at the convent and hospital.
The convent would sadly be torn down in 1975 but the work of the sisters over the course of those 65 years lives on, with the St. Mary’s Hospital that operates to this day in Trochu.
New life would come for Trochu around 1910 when the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway built its line through, and it laid down its own townsite. The original townsite was soon abandoned by settlers, as they moved to the new town. Entire buildings were transported intact, and new ones were built at the new site. It would take some time for the first passenger service to start in the area, and that would not begin until 1913. It didn’t matter though, everyone was ready to start the move.
With that move, the importance of the St. Anne’s Ranch soon declined. You can still see St. Anne’s Ranch today and several of the original buildings still stand. On the eight hectare site, there is the Devilder house, the Eckenfelder house and a barn. The ranch played such an important part in the eventual creation of Trochu and settlement of the area, that it was made a Provincial Historic Resource in 1989.
During these early years, the Trochu area attracted some unique characters. There was a Frenchman named Napoleon Gregoire who wanted to start a business in the area. He erected huge sheds outside town for the purpose of storing hay but his business never did well and within two years he sold the sheds and hay to Pat Burns, the man who helped start the Calgary Stampede. There was Manley Downing, who was noted for spinning a tall tale. One day he came into town to celebrate something but he ended up celebrating too much and the local police confronted him. Downing jumped onto his horse to ride away but the constable grabbed the bridle. Downing then slipped the bridle over the horse’s ears and rode off as fast as he could, leaving the constable to hold the bridle in the fading distance. Manly Downing also broke horses for the Boer War and he would become known as one of the best horsemen in the area, bringing up hundreds of horses from Montana. He even made the semi-finals at the Calgary Stampede in 1912.
Soon after the new townsite was built up, a coal mine was opened just to the east of Trochu in the Ghost Pine Valley. Small coal mines had actually been operated in the area since around 1903, but it was in the 1910s that things really got moving. Soon enough, several coal mines sprang up in the area, often operated by the individual who owned the land. The Ghost Pine Valley coal became a lucrative business in the area and coal from the area began to be shipped out on a regular basis to Calgary, for use elsewhere in the country. The coal industry would continue to thrive, before it eventually faded away and was gone for good with the closing of the Halbert Mine in 1965 after 54 years of operation.
In 1946, a man named Dr. A.J. Stewart Hay would come to Trochu and for the next 27 years, he would serve the medical needs of the community. During his time in the area, he had a five-acre property that had 60 species of mature trees and shrubs. It was a beautiful area but with his sudden death in 1973, the town wondered what it was going to do. He was so well respected that even though the town had 900 people, 1,000 attended his funeral. The town decided the best way to honour the man so many respected was to turn his land into something everyone could enjoy. Throughout the 1980s, the town developed an arboretum on the property so that many could enjoy the beautiful area he helped to create. Today, the Trochu Arboretum is called an oasis on the prairie and it now features over 1,000 varieties of trees and shrubs through the property. There are several species from well outside of North America, including a Manchurian Elm and a Siberian Larch that is quite imposing. Today, that arboretum still exists and can be visited throughout the summer.
Without a doubt, the most recognizable aspect of Trochu is the giant golf tee that looks over the golf course in town. The golf tee isn’t just the largest in Alberta, or Canada, but the entire world and it has to be seen to be believed. I have visited it and it is quite the structure as it rises 40 feet into the air on a cliffside, making it a perfect spot for Instagram photos. The golf tee came about in 2009 when ATB Financial held the Teenormous Contest. First prize in the contest was the world’s largest golf tee and town councilor Bill Cunningham felt that Trochu was the perfect place for it. A video was shot at the golf course, which included 1,618 golf balls spelling out T is Fore Trochu, and that is Fore in the golf sense and spelling. The video was sent in, and soon enough Trochu, along with Camrose and Marwayne, were announced as the finalists. The public could then vote on which community would get the structure and Trochu won with over two-thirds of the vote.
If you want to learn more about the fascinating history of this small town in Alberta, near Three Hills, then the best place to go is the Trochu and District Museum and Tourist Information Centre. The centre features the history of the area from the early French settlers in the 1900s, all the way up to nearly the present day. Available to see in the museum are many artifacts, including antique printing presses used by the local newspaper for decades. Other exhibits highlight the coal mining history of the area, St. Mary’s hospital and convent, the world wars, and the sports history of the area. There is also a walking tour available of the community that follows the downtown murals that present the history in an interesting manner.