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The Desrochers Triplets – March 2014 Edition of History & Heritage

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Welcome to March’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.

The Desrochers Triplets

The triplets were just six weeks old when their mother died.  Born October 5, 1920, Leo, Albert, and Francis were the 10th, 11th, and 12th children of Alfred and Julienne Desrochers.  Julienne never recovered from the difficult birth even though the limited medical tools of the day were supplemented by the nearly constant murmuring of Hail Marys and Our Fathers of the nurses, nuns and the entire parish.  The five older siblings, aided their father with the care and feeding of the babies, as did neighbors in the tight knit French enclave low under the shadow of the imposing stone spires of the Notre Dame des Victoires Catholic Church.

The Pearl Street/Maple Street/ Clarks Avenue neighborhood had sprung up during St. Johnsbury’s boom times that followed the arrival of the railroads in 1850.  Attracted by the rapidly expanding Fairbanks Scale factory, along with a score of other manufacturing enterprises, the hard working sons and daughters of French Canada drifted southward to fill the ready opportunities of the industrial revolution.  Many inhabited the well porched tenements that clung to the steep bluffs between the “plain” of Main Street, and the newly developed Railroad Street. Work was plentiful, but it was also hard and frequently dangerous.  Alfred toiled long hours in dreary conditions as a stone cutter.  The stone dust, supplemented by cigarette smoke, settled into his lungs and eventually killed him, in 1924, at age 45.  At the time of their father’s death, the triplets were two and a half years old.

Along with Felix, Raymond, Angie, Jennette, and Fedora, the Beauregard family, who lived in the upstairs apartment, became instrumental in the triplet’s upbringing.  The Beauregard’s oldest daughter, Alma, would eventually marry William Racette and move to the large red Victorian home at the top of North Avenue.  Alma never bore children of her own but eventually ended up with a very full house, not only of triplets, but of various Bennetts, Demers, and Montminys as well.

Throughout their childhood, the Caledonian Record closely followed the triplets.  Some examples: on their first birthday… “The triplets are laughing, rollicking babies, the joy and delight of the North Pearl Street neighborhood where they live”.  “Four years old last October, the three black eyed boys, identical in appearance to the casual observer, are out of door youngsters and their antics on skis are watched with interest by the residents of North Avenue.”  On their first day of school…. “Hand in hand they enter the parochial school (St. Gabriels on Cherry Street) yesterday, the proudest, happiest day of their five year old lives.”

The triplets attended St. Johnsbury Academy and graduated as the dark clouds of an impending Nazi threat spread across Europe, and into northern Africa. Although the U.S was not yet directly involved in the conflict, military readiness was trumpeted by several large projects in our area.  The Depression busting make-work programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) gradually transitioned from conservation efforts to more military and defense readiness projects.  Albert worked on the construction of the St. Johnsbury Airport (where the Industrial Park is now located). We have pictures of Francis breaking rocks with a jackhammer as part of constructing the Portland Street Overpass, an image that all us kids find to be curiously at odds with somewhat tool challenged pharmacist that we knew.   Leo, for his part, worked as a welder’s helper building theMontreal- Portland Oil Pipeline.

As the pace of the war picked up, Leo joined the Army Air Corp and was deployed to Northern Africa as an armorer on the twin tailed P-38 “Lightning”.  This versatile fighter bomber was instrumental in hounding Erwin “Desert Fox” Rommel’s German and Italian forces across Tunisia, on through Sicily, and north up the spine of Italy.  Francis served in an Army medical unit as a pharmacist.  After landing on the beaches of Normandy, his unit was attached to Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army, following the front lines through France,Germany and Austria.  Albert, who from birth sported a somewhat “crippled” right hand, stayed in his hometown and worked delivering Western Union Telegrams. Forty seven St. Johnsbury boys were killed during the war and it is very likely that Albert carried many of those dreaded messages to the parents.

Being fluent in French, both Leo, in Tunisia, and Francis, in France, were often called upon to act as translators. Leo describes translating for a foraging party negotiating for cattle and pigs.  He attended several parleys in Bedouin tents that surely must have seemed a million miles from his St. Johnsbury roots. Francis writes of working with several French nationals brought into the U.S. medical camps for treatment.  He describes working with the Judge Advocate General’s Corp., taking testimony from French citizens alleging wrongdoing by errant U. S.military personnel.  Also, because of their language skills, they were instrumental in establishing contacts with local families, frequently being invited into the homes of newly liberated, and very appreciative, local families.  These celebratory dinners often stretched to the wee morning hours, and included long conversations enthused with ‘beaucoup vin et cognac.’

The boys were camera bugs as well.  Albert, on the home front, never missed a chance to photograph a parade, a fire, family and friends.  Leo has many photos of the Air Corps ground crews in Tunisia as they prepare their P-38 for the next mission, shots of local Tunisian officials, and one of the culminating dramas of a successful scavenging mission where a pig is squealing his last earthly squeal as he looks up the barrel of a service revolver.  Francis has a photo of George Patton driving by in a Jeep, several of a succession of French families that welcomed him into their freshly liberated homes, and a particularly haunting series of the entry into the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Now, here is the truly remarkable thing…. Alma, Mrs. Racette, later,”Memere” or “Auntie” to our generation, worked in the office of Calbeck-Cosgrove, the predecessor of Allen Lumber Company on Bay Street.  Skilled and organizationally proficient, she typed and saved numbered carbon copies of every letter she wrote.  Also, she saved every letter and every photo she received from the boys.  This written and photographic record of Leo in Africa and Italy, Francis in northern Europe, and Albert, along with the rest of the family here at home has preserved a priceless picture of the times. This remarkable collection of letters and photos is now in search of a home and will eventually be headed to the new St. Johnsbury History and Heritage Center.

It is important to remember that St. Johnsbury’s historical legacy is not limited to the dusty artifacts tucked away in the far nooks and crannies of the Fairbanks Museum. History resides in the cornices and columns of our houses and churches. It lives in the granite markers of our graveyards and parks.  And it also speaks to us through the stories, legends, and traditions that are passed down around our cook stoves and dinner tables.   I am certain that other families, like ours, have significant treasures of their own squirreled away in closets and attics. The St. Johnsbury History and Heritage Center will be a focal point for the collection and preservation of all aspects of our rich history and through programs, exhibits, and a significant educational outreach, shall strive to bring history’s significant lessons into today’s world and preserve them for the many generations to come.

This article was written by Bob Desrochers who is a member of the History & Heritage Board. His father was Francis. 

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