While in New Orleans we toured the area known as the Acadian Coast, home of the well-known St. Joseph, Laura, Felicity, and Oak Alley plantations. These are all beautiful and interesting plantations in their own right and will be covered in latter entries. However, it’s a plantation that no longer stands, the only evidence of its existence a sign on the side of road, which brings me to this post.
It was home of the richest man in Louisiana, so wealthy he was called “Louis IV of Louisiana”; Francois Gabriel ‘Valcour’ Aime. Born in 1797, his father died two years after his birth and his mother, who was in poor health, married her uncle. She died when Valcour was nine and he was consequently raised by his great uncle/stepfather. Valcour made his fortune in real estate trading and raising sugar cane but he was also an amateur scientist who is credited with perfecting the vacuum pan method and was one of the only planters who refined sugar directly from cane juice on property. This technique gave him an edge over other refiners, greatly attributing to his wealth.
In 1819 Valcour married Josephine Roman, granddaughter of Frenchman Jacques J Roman who was the first Roman in the colony, and sister to future Louisiana governor Andre Bienvenu Roman. In 1820 he bought a tract of land with an “allée” of oaks planted by a French settler in the early 1700’s. In 1836, Valcour traded this tract of land to his brother-in-law, Jacques Télésphore Roman, for an aging Roman family home just downriver.
Aime’s diary indicates that he enjoyed competing with Jacques so it is possibly this pursuit that caused him to both improve and expand the old Roman home or built a new one. Whatever the motivation, the outcome was the exquisite “Le Petit Versailles”. Completed 3 years after his brother-in-laws estate in 1844, it was a typical double-galleried building with columns, but had wings on each end that enclosed a rear courtyard. Its gardens were extensive, the grounds managed by gardeners hired away from Versailles. It had hothouses filled with plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables from around the world, all of which were grown for consumption by the Aime family and their guests.
The Aime’s prided themselves on the self-sufficiency of their plantation, as did many planter families. Legend has it that Valcour wagered ten thousand dollars “on the premise that he could produce an entire dinner from his plantation without relying on anything brought from outside the estate.” Valcour and his guest dined on all manner of meats, fruits, vegetables, seafood, breads and desserts. They finished their meal with coffee and cigars whereupon the guest exclaimed that he had won the bet since coffee and cigars weren’t produced in Louisiana. Valcour then rode with his guest to the plantation hothouses and showed him the coffee beans and tobacco growing there. Apparently, Aime won the bet.
Valcour was a generous man and loving father. He bought Jefferson College in 1830, which he restored and enlarged then gave to the Marist Fathers, who operated it as an institution of higher learning for the sons of wealthy farmers. He gave his daughter Felicité a plantation as a wedding gift (named Felicity In her honor) and to his daughter Josephine he gave over $110,000 in gifts and a dowry which was used to purchase St. Joseph plantation from Dr. Cazamine Mericq.
The last fourteen years of his life were lived in stark opposition to his prior life. The death of his son Gabriel of yellow fever in 1854 was devastated him as did the death of his wife two years later in 1856 followed by the death of his youngest daughter in 1858. In despair, he moved into a cottage on the grounds and spent much of his time praying in a chapel there. At the time of his death in 1867, his business and property were in disarray and were soon sold to pay debts. In 1920 Le Petit Versailles burned, never to be restored.
The halcyon days of Valcour Aime and his Le Petit Versailles were very short; Fourteen years from the estate’s completion in 1844 until his youngest daughter’s death in 1858. Most will say that Valcour, in many ways, stopped living after the death of his son in 1854 which would shorten the total number of happy days to ten.
Today, the only vestige of the estate where Aime loved, worked and ultimately died heartbroken is this historical marker at the side of the road.
A small, fenced in parcel of land, overgrown and forgotten at the back of a field. It is an achingly lonely spot, belying its opulent past. Unfortunately, it is also a disturbing metaphor for so many of our lives of “quiet desperation”.