The bear trainers from the "valley of the Americans”

bear trainers of AriegeThe "montreur d'ours" — literally, "displayer of bears", a man who trained a bear and took it from town to town, charging the public to see it perform tricks — was an occupation peculiar to the Alet and Garbet valleys of Ariège. As elsewhere in the Pyrenees, these two valleys were once highly populated. Around 1850 there were up to 10 000 inhabitants; today there are 1500. Living conditions were very difficult and traditionally a significant portion of the population, mainly men, would leave to work temporarily in other regions of France and in Spain. During the 18th century many became "colporteurs" --itinerant peddlars--returning to their villages in the spring to replenish their stocks.

It was in Ustou, at the end of the 18th century, that the first montreurs d'ours appeared in the Pyrenees. This practice originated with gypsies and bohemians in the Middle Ages throughout Europe. One probably gave the idea to an inhabitant of Ustou to train bear cubs captured in the surrounding mountains. Later this activity died out in Ustou but expanded greatly in the Garbet valley.

From the middle of the 19th century until World War I, more than 200 montreurs d'ours left the villages of Oust, Ercé and Aulus to travel the world. The first showed their bears in France and neighboring countries. Later, some traveled to the United Kingdom, then to Canada, the United States and throughout North and South America.

In the beginning the bear cubs were caught in the Pyrenees. However, because the mother bear was killed in order to get the cub, this activity decimated the bear population. Eventually montreurs d'ours had to travel to Marseille, where animal traders sold cubs from the Balkans.

By the early 20th century the number of montreurs d'ours began to diminish. World War I hastened the demise of this occupation in the Pyrenees, though it never completely disappeared among the gypsies and bohemians.

The "Americans" from the valley of the Garbet

In the Garbet valley, any inhabitant who has been to the United States to earn a living is called an "American". In the beginning the immigration was temporary and once they'd made their fortune most returned home. Others remained but retained strong links to the valley.

There were three major waves of immigration:

The first phase lasted from the middle of the 19th century until 1914, and was a result of the travels of the montreurs d'ours. Some of these men eventually realized a better living could be made in the U.S. not by roving with their bears but by becoming animal trainers in the circus, or by changing their occupations completely and going to work in the mines or in hotels and restaurants.

During the second phase, from World War I on, a large number of women immigrated to work in the hotel and restaurant trade, in particular to NewYork.

After World War II a third wave of inhabitants from the valley immigrated to the U.S., sponsored by relatives or friends already living there. Again they gravitated to the New York catering trade. Today five French restaurants in Manhattan are owned by Ercéens.

This immigration greatly affected the Garbet valley. Even today it is rare to find homes whose occupants have not lived in America or at least have relatives there. English-speaking visitors may be greeted warmly by elderly inhabitants in English with a perfect New York accent.

The above information was drawn in large measure from a 1982 masters thesis by Mary Lou Descossaux entitled "From Dancing Bear Masters to Chefs in New York: Three Generations of Ariege Migrants" as well as from an article she drafted for an Occitan Journal in 1983 , Amiras Reperes Occitans, and from her 1995 book, SAPOU. Jean-Louis Deschamps used texts and photos from her research as well as materials that he collected in order to put together the photo-text exhibit in the Foyer Municipal in Ercé. Mary Lou was born in New York and is the descendent of a montreur d'ours.

Many thanks to these photographers

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