I accompanied my friend Jean Coté through Alberta in the summer of 1994, where we stopped in the village of Jean Coté. There we visited Albert and Helene Lavoie, who have operated a store in the center of town since 1952. The sign at the edge of town celebrates the 50th anniversary of Jean Coté in 1985. Helene speaks first, and is more comfortable in English than is Albert. Jean tells her his name, and she asks if he is the son of the people who came last year. He says no, and asks her if many people named Jean Coté come to visit.
"No, only the people who came last year, and she wasn't named Jean Coté. She knew someone named Jean Coté."
"How did Jean Coté get its name?"
He was a surveyor who surveyed all this part of Canada, up to Alaska. When the town was named, they tried to give it other names, but they were not accepted. Finally, the name of Jean Coté was accepted.
Then we meet Albert. Albert is eighty. His birthday was last week. "Heureuse anniversaire", says Jean.
Albert was born in Quebec, but moved to Falher 15 miles away from Jean Coté as a child. When he was young, all the area around Jean Coté was big timber, and he used to go hunting there. Now it is all open farmland, with small, dense woodlots scattered about. It is very flat.
Before they bought the store, they farmed a few sections of land three miles out of town, but when the school was consolidated and his children had to travel to town instead of going to the neighborhood school, they sold the farm and bought the store.
Helene says she still misses her horse. Her saddle hangs from the ceiling. She brings out a photograph of her and Albert on horseback. Five years ago, when they visited Alaska, they paid $20 to rent horses and rode out in the hills. It is the last time they rode horses. "Now I am too old, but I still miss my horse."
They introduce us to their cat, a chocolate pointed Siamese with white paws. This cat is worth $200, Albert tells us. Helene explains that the $200 represents the cost of spaying her and other medical bills. “We like the cat, but we don't like her. She gets under foot, and I'm afraid we may trip and fall. She likes to go out. If we don't keep her we will sell her.”
"Is there a market for used cats," I ask? "Oh, yes", she replies. There's a man who was interested in buying the cat for his daughter, but he hasn't gotten back to make a decision.
Helene brings out a book, the history and genealogy of Jean Coté, compiled by one Father Denis Dubuc, a labor of great love. It is a painstaking compilation of data about every known inhabitant of the town and the liturgical and other history. Jean Coté was named for Jean Leon Coté, the surveyor, and later, senator, who died in 1924. When the town was named, it was an area north of Girouxville in need of a post office. One of the inhabitants filed a requested name of Parentville, which was turned down. He was Albert Parent, Helene's father. Jean Coté was accepted as the name in 1935. Gilbert Venne was the first resident. His grave is in the cemetery in the center of town, along with those of a sorrowful number of infants and children who died very young.
The most important historical events in Jean Coté are related to the school. The school that is in Jean Coté now is l'Ecole Heritage, a French speaking school except for one hour a day of English instruction. There are 300 students, who come from all over the Peace River area. Students in grades 7, 8 and 9 are permitted to come to Albert Lavoie's store, the erstwhile Jean Coté Cafe, on Fridays at noon, to buy candy or ice cream. Students in grades 10 through 12 are extended this privilege at lunchtime all 5 days of the school week.
In about 1949, there was great dissatisfaction in the area with the system of neighborhood schools, because of the quality and/or availability of teachers, meaning that some students were not able to attend schools. The people of the area wanted a central school in Jean Coté. This was denied because of a lack of funds to move a school there. The people got together and moved the school themselves, but the RCMP was sent to move it back. They then built a private school, which was mysteriously burned down the next night. Albert pointed this section out in the Jean Coté book, and then asked us twice if we had read about it. We asked if he had participated in the moving of the school. He smiled and said, "I was there". Helene said that they preferred the neighborhood school, since it was close to their farm, but had to go along with the townspeople because the priest wanted the school moved, and the priest controlled the town.
Albert: When he was young, there was no path for a bicycle, no road for a car. The only way to get around was by horse. When he met Helene, every other week he came to visit her by horse. It was 15 miles.
They have 7 children, born over the years from 1940 to 1954. Several of them live in Peace River now. Some of the names are Lorraine, Dorine, Gertrude, Raymond and Marie (Josephine). Marie is married to a man from Tulsa, but they live in Peace River.
When Albert was a young child, he lived in Baie St. Paul, Quebec. He remembers his father going to Massachusetts for work from time to time.
The ceiling of the cafe is covered with hats. It is their collection. They are almost all baseball caps. When someone moves away, often that person gives his hat collection to the Lavoies. Helene was proud to point out one from Desert Storm, and another commemorating the visit of Pope John Paul II to Canada. It has a photograph of the pope waving from above the brim.
They have over 300 more hats in boxes that they have not yet put up. Jean gave them his hat for their collection, and they gave him one commemorating the 50th anniversary of Jean Coté.
Helene told us with some respect that they had seen a place in Alaska five years ago that had a collection of over 3,000 hats.
Helene recommended to us the memorial to 12-foot Davis in Peace River. It is on a bluff with a view of the Peace River. We had understood the memorial as a tribute to frugality and husbandry, as we thought the meaning was that this man Davis had lived on a 12-foot plot of land and derived his sustenance from the vegetables he could grow there. This was resolved later when we arrived at the gravesite. The 12-foot plot was a mining claim between two other claims, which yielded $12,000 of gold in the mid-1800s. Davis parlayed this into a string of trading posts. "He was every man's friend and he never locked his door."
Helene invited us back into the part of the house that is their residence, and displayed for us the photographs of their 50th anniversary including their children and grandchildren, along with individual photographs of most of their 24 grandchildren. They also have 12 great-grandchildren.
Jean Coté has a hockey rink, and the local team has had some notable success, but the real recreational hotspot in town is the hill that was built when the pond behind the school was dug. There are actually three such hills, about 20 feet high, and at least one of them seems to serve as a ski hill and ATV riding area.
Albert used to be the barber for the area, and when things were busier, he used to cut a lot of hair. Nowadays he has only about three customers, which is okay with him. He says that his hands aren't very steady anymore, but he actually could probably continue to cut hair, since modern styles are crooked anyway.
When we first walked in, Jean said "Je m'appelle Jean Coté" to Helene, so she understood, but Albert had been in the other room, and apparently hadn't heard what Helene had said when she called him into the room. At some point I suggested that Jean show his driver's license, so he handed it to Albert. Albert studied the license for a long time, perhaps a minute, reading the small type, when he realized what the name was, and at which point a wonderful smile came across his face, and he looked up, beaming. "This is your name, Jean Coté?" he asked.
We realized that the town was very French when we drove by the church and saw the handwritten note on the door, "Messe Dimanche a 9h partir le 21 Mai - Père Claude Dumais".
The store, formerly the Jean Coté Cafe, has no sign on the outside, save for an Orange Crush advertisement. The building across the street still has a sign reading "Lemire General Store - Jean Coté", but is not currently in business. Mme. Lemire was the last person listed in the history book to serve as postmistress.
On the wall inside the Lavoies’ store are six calendars from 1960 - 1965 advertising the Jean Coté Cafe, with pictures of women and little kids.
Thanks for digging that up. I had forgotten some of the details.
Fascinating story. Lucky you to have a Canadian town as your namesake.