The Argentine

My grandfather Henry de Büren (1900-1986) was born at the beginning of the last century in Argentina on the family ranch in established by his father. He was named after his explorer grandfather Henri de Büren (1825-1909) on whom many of my projects revolve. 

In 1891, my great-grandfather Philippe Frédéric de Büren left the life he knew in Switzerland for a new one in Argentina. He most certainly heard tales of prosperous Europeans in South America, but it is unclear if he was persuaded by his father to go, or left of his own accord. I tend to believe it was a bit of both. His father only three years before had sold the Château of Vaumarcus with its vast lands along the lake of Neuchâtel, and had moved the family to the manor home of La Châtelaine near Geneva. Philippe who probably thought he would take over the castle from his father, now had to come up with another plan.

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Philippe’s 1891 registration certificate with the Swiss consul in Buenos Aires

Thanks to researcher Juan Delius of Konstanz, Germany and his site (www.pampa-cordobesa.de), I know that in 1892 Philippe purchased 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) in Santa Victoria, Córdoba, near Chazón. He bought this land from Philippe Budin, a Swiss businessman living in Buenos Aires whose family was also from Geneva. Budin had purchased all 10,824 hectares (26,746 acres) of parcel I 76, one of the 100 parcels that was divided from the old Monte Molino ranch land area in Córdoba.

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Parcel divisions around the old Monte Molino ranch (shaded parcel 29). Parcel I 76 was purchased by Philippe Budin.

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Parcel divisions overlaid on the map of Córdoba and Santa Fe provinces.

Philippe would take a wife, Louisa Fabrini, who was an Italian immigrant to Argentina and 20 years his junior. They would raise a family on the ranch, named “La Elisa” after his first daughter, born in 1898. Philippe and Louisa would have 7 children in Argentina and one more when they returned to Geneva in 1911, presumably for their children’s schooling. It also appears that Philippe’s brother, Henri Paul lived in Argentina for a while at La Elisa. He would later return to Switzerland as well.

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The de Büren children (Philippe, Jeanne, Olga, Elisa, Carlos, Henri, and Natalie) with the their mother Louisa.

When the children had finished their schooling in Switzerland, it was time to return to Argentina. It seems however, that many of the children were very happy to stay in Geneva. It was up to the first born son, Henri (my grandfather), to return to the ranch and take over the day-to-day duties. My grandfather would have a falling out with his father, and in defiance of his will would not assume the duties his father intended for him. The task of returning to La Elisa fell to the youngest son Carlos, who in 1923 at the age of 17 left Geneva for Argentina. Philippe and Louisa would only return to La Elisa in 1928.

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Philippe Frédéric and his son Carlos in the orchard at La Elisa.

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Carlos and others hard at work.

Carlos would stay and raise a large family in Argentina. He would run La Elisa for many years until in the late 1960s when he was persuaded/threatened/forced by his siblings to partition the ranch and sell the parts belonging to his brothers and sisters. The stack of papers that highlight the back-and-forth between the Argentine lawyers, my grandfather and his siblings over the fate of La Elisa span some ten years and regrettably read like scripts from the 80s TV show “Dallas”.

A man of two world’s

My grandfather was handsome, athletic, and fiercely stubborn. In his early 20s while still living with the family in Geneva, his father got him a job at a local factory to earn some money. Henri would leave every morning with his lunchbox and overalls, and return in the evening, visibly tired. After a number of weeks, Henri’s father contacted the owner of the factory where he was supposedly working, and the owner said, “your son never showed up”. Being quite the playboy and bon vivant, Henri had thrown his lunchbox and overalls in the bushes a couple of blocks from the family home, and had been spending his days with his friends in town.

His father was none too pleased. In effort to teach his son a lesson and at the same give him the practical skills to run the ranch – which his father had always assumed Henri would return one day to take over – he was sent in 1923 to Tranquility, California, near Fresno to work on the farm of Lawrence Schorsch, a fellow Swiss. Why he was sent to this particular farm, is a mystery.

As the story goes, my grandfather arrived a bit like a dandy in Tranquility, only to be shown where the field he was going to be working in was.

Henri worked for a while on the Schorsch farm and then moved to Fresno where he got a job with the power local utility, among other things killing rattlesnakes in advance of workers installing power lines. He would later move to San Francisco and marry Emilie Lasserre, a teacher of French Basque origin, who interestingly had taught Joe DiMaggio as a boy.

At that point Henri had decided to make his life in San Francisco, and would only return to Europe and South America later in life only on vacation. Interestingly he traveled with an 8mm camera and many of his videos of 1950s Europe and 1960s South America are on my YouTube channel.

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A 1960 trip to Argentina to see his family. His first time back since he was a boy.

While in San Francisco Henri did many different jobs. Among them was draftsman for the famous architect Julia Morgan, and working the night shift at a local brewery.

My most enduring memories of him were his great love of nature and his incredible culinary talents, learned from his mother. He was able to prepare seven course French meals in a very small kitchen and when he was younger would give French country pâté “fait maison” as a Christmas gift. I used to call him “Grand”, short for the French grand-père, and he and my grandmother would often pick me up after elementary school and take me the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

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Henri and Emilie at the Russian river near Healdsburg, late 1940s

Henri died in 1986, followed only two weeks after by Emilie, his wife of some 50 years.

Henri was a study in contrasts. He was a very serious and reserved man, who could at times be incredibly gregarious. He valued his physical strength but at the same time was highly creative, and probably much more sensitive than he would ever acknowledge. And like many immigrants he walked a sometimes difficult line of being a patriotic American without forgetting his rich European heritage and Argentine roots.

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