The business houses of Missoula were just opening on the morning of October 20, 1920, when news reached the city.
Gaspard Deschamps, a local pioneer, had been killed in an accident near Erie, Pennsylvania, when two New York Central trains sideswiped west of the Union Depot. He was returning from Montreal, where his brother was seriously ill.
Everyone in Missoula knew the Deschamps family back then; most everyone has at least heard the name (pronounced DAY-shaw) even today.
Gaspard Deschamps was one of three French Canadian sons of Antoine and Julia Marca Deschamps who settled in the Frenchtown and Missoula area in either the late 1860s or 1870s (accounts vary).
This week’s look back at the life of Gaspard Deschamps was prompted by news a few days ago that part of the historic Deschamps Ranch west of Missoula is up for sale – 279 acres, for $3.2 million. Deschamps’ ranch land, back in the 1800s, encompassed thousands of acres.
Upon his death, Deschamps was remembered by many as honest and caring. One of Gaspard’s employees described him as a man to whom “the square deal was his guide in life.” He recalled times when “old-timers – French Canadians – whom he had never seen … came into his store (Deschamps Implement) out of luck and in despair.
“He would talk with them a few moments, then (announce): ‘Nobody must go hungry in this country. Come!’ And the old merchant would take his newfound friend to a restaurant and provide for his wants.”
But you had to get to know him to see that side of him. To others, he could be a bit gruff and “stern when necessity demanded.”
For instance, he would routinely take out ads in local newspapers announcing: “All persons are warned against hunting, fishing or otherwise trespassing on any property belonging to me. I will prosecute, to the full extent of the law, any and all persons violating this notice.”
Then there was the time (whether it was Gaspard or one of his brothers is uncertain) that a couple of “hot-headed young Frenchmen, named respectively Deschamps and LeBeau, got tangled up in a dispute over a load of hay at the Mascot (theater),” according to the Evening Missoulian in 1894.
They “attempted to settle their differences by a free use of fists. The fun was nipped in the bud, however, by the arrival of a couple of stalwart policemen.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Gaspard Deschamps was born December 8, 1846 in Montreal, Canada. He attended public schools, then apprenticed as a blacksmith before heading first to New England, then cross-country to San Francisco as a young man. According to most accounts, this was around 1870.
A short time after arriving in San Francisco, he and five other French Canadians – hearing of the gold strike at Cedar Creek, west of Missoula – headed to Montana territory.
He spent a couple of years placer mining, then headed to the Flathead region in 1872, “where he ran cattle and was one of five white men living with the Salish Indians,” according to a family history written by Robert ‘Dusty’ Deschamps III, former Missoula County attorney and now a district court judge.
In 1877, Gaspard moved to Missoula, where he established a blacksmith shop, but within a year sold it to his brother Joseph.
Gaspard’s true love was ranching and farming, which took him to Frenchtown where he married Denise Cyr and “over time came to operate a 2,500-acre ranch in Grass Valley and had 12 children.” Other accounts have Deschamps arriving in Grass Valley as early as 1869.
Whatever the case, Deschamps became one of the most successful farmers and ranchers in the region. Even when the weather failed to cooperate, he seemed to have the Midas touch with his crops in Grass Valley.
Gaspard was among those who submitted agricultural products to the Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) in Chicago in 1893, including “several heads of rye, one of the number being eight inches in length,” according to the Helena Independent newspaper. Both Deschamps and John Cyr won first place honors at the exposition.
He would send beef cattle to the Chicago market by the carloads. One five-carload shipment in 1914 returned about $129 a head on beeves averaging 1,405 pounds.
In 1905, he opened his farm equipment business, described as “one of the largest and best equipped in the state.” He would not only explain to prospective buyers all the fine points of the latest models of tractors, but then demonstrate the equipment at his ranch, west of Missoula.
Over the years, Deschamps became a director of the Western Montana National Bank and dabbled in politics as well, serving two terms as Missoula county commissioner, back when the county covered most all of western Montana.
At his death in 1920, his estate was valued at something between $500,000 and $1 million.
Summing up the family history, “Dusty” Deschamps says in the span of eight generations, the Deschamps family “has played a major role in the growing and changing economy of the Missoula area. Many members of the family have been active in state and local politics, education from grade schools to the University, community and civic activities, and the arts.”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.