"On any Christmas night in the middle of the 19th Century, two figures could be seen leaving the warmth of Valcour Aime's plantation and mounting horses. They were not setting out to visit friends and spread Christmas cheer, however.
Their destination was eight miles away - the red brick St. James Church, situated on the West bank of the Mississippi River across from the little town of Convent, about 75 miles upstream from New Orleans.
The men were Valcour Aime and his faithful Negro body servant. Valcour made the annual pilgrimage for a mournful cause. Each year on Christmas night Aime ordered a special commemorative Mass for his only son, who had died in New Orleans of yellow fever a few years earlier.
Every Christmas, Aime sat through the sad service alone and in silence, while his servant waited outside with their mounts. When the service concluded, Aime left without a word and returned, grief-stricken, to his plantation.
Since his son's death Aime had become a religious recluse. Few persons outside the family saw the wealthy planter of St. James Parish. The special Christmas Mass was his only regular appearance outside the plantation grounds. Although Aime was the man historian Alcee Fortier credited with being the first to refine sugar directly from sugar cane juice, and although he was brother-in-law of Andre Bienvenu Roman, a colorful Louisiana governor of the 1830's and 40's, he cared little for his fortune, his scientific achievements or the outside world after his son's death.
But he did pay tribute to the tiny St. James Church. Aime donated its 14 Stations of the Cross paintings, done in Italy, and also its massive silver candlesticks. Perhaps these items were also to honor his son's memory, for the young man's body had been laid to rest in the family tomb in the churchyard."
[The following article was first published in 1987, and was reprinted in December 2011 on www.ArcadiaParishToday.com]
"Valcour and his faithful servant started their journey to the Saint James Catholic Church, located 10 miles up-river, to attend midnight mass just as they had done for decades. It was a cold, rainy Christmas Eve night, and the six foot three inch Valcour found it difficult to stay warm beneath his black hat and heavy top coat. As the buggy bounced along the River Road, his mind drifted back to the former days when the children were still young. He envisioned his four daughters sitting opposite him, his wife and only son in their large coach on this same occasion. The remaining glow of a bonfire on the levee caught his eye, and prompted deeper memories to the time when he was courting his beloved Josephine Roman.
Francois Gabriel (Valcour) Aime, pronounced “M”, was born in 1797 in St. Charles Parish into one of Louisiana’s oldest families. He was the fifth generation born here. His father died when he was two years old, and he, his brother Michel and mother moved to New Orleans to live with his wealthy grandfather, Michel Fortier II.
In 1818, Valcour and Michel received their inheritance consisting of a large plantation in St. Charles Parish, 250 slaves, and $100,000 in gold. Valcour sold his share of the plantation and bought several plantations in St. James parish including the one next to Jacques Roman. Jacques was the father of Josephine Roman, soon to be wife of Valcour Aime. One of her brothers, Andre Bienvenu Roman, was twice governor of Louisiana 1831-1835 and 1839-1843. Another brother, Jacques Telesphore Roman, built Oak Alley. On January 4, 1819, the handsome and astute Valcour married Josephine Roman, and then bought the Roman plantation from his widowed mother-in-law. However, he later sold to his brother-in-law, Jaques Telesphore Roman, a portion of the plantation that had this row of 28 live oaks.
Valcour kept a daily journal from 1820 to 1854 documenting temperature, farming techniques, as well as experiments with new varieties of cane and equipment. In 1795, Etienne de Bore’ introduced sugar cane to Louisiana, but it was the genius of Valcour Aime that perfected the refining process. He learned to harness steam power and designed and made this equipment by 1829. He traveled to Cuba and other countries to study the latest developments. Some of his experiments cost over $40,000 per year and their success earned him the title of “The father of white sugar.” VaIcour’s sugar was judged best in the world at the New York Exposition in 1853.
|La Petit Versailles, St. James Parish, LA|
By the 1830’s Valcour’s plantation had grown to 10,000 acres and he was reputed to be the world’s leading sugar producer and the richest man in Louisiana. He named his plantation, the St. James Refinery Plantation, and in 1833 he added a railroad to his estate. This railroad stretched from his steamboat dock through the fields and to the remote cypress swamp. He disliked waiting for steamboats since they never were on time, so he bought his own, and named it for his son Gabriel.
Valcour built two huge green-houses which contained rare plants, trees and shrubs from all over the world. Valcour’s plantation was so self-sufficient that he wagered $10,000 ($1 million by today’s standards) that he could produce from his plantation alone, a meal complete with wine, coffee and cigars that would surpass any. He won the bet.
He read all the industry related literature available and he employed only the most competent personnel to oversee each segment of his operation. However, the keys to Valcour’s success were his abilities to delegate responsibility, to document all orders and experiments and to follow-up on each.
Valcour and Josephine had five children; four girls and one boy. Edwige Aime born in 1819, married her cousin Florent Fortier. Josephine Aime born in 1821, married Alexis Ferry. Fellicite Emma Aime born in 1823 married her cousin Alexander Septime Fortier, brother of Florent. Felicie Aime, born in 1825, married her cousin Alfred Roman, son of Governor Roman. Francois Gabriel (Gabi) Aime was born in 1826 and never married.
The Aime’s spacious mansion had 22 columns on three sides and in the rear-center was a courtyard. This Creole family’s reputation was known extensively throughout the Mississippi Valley, not just for their wealth, but for their genuine hospitality. It was customary before each meal for the servants to check the wharf and River Road for travelers and invite them to eat.
Tragically, nothing remains of the mansion. It burned in 1920.
In March 1842, Josephine’s desire to cover the marshy land in front of the house, spurred Valcour to begin construction of an English park. He used 120 slaves to dig the lake and rivulets that circled within the 20 acre park. In 1844, he hauled in 1,200 wagon loads of river sand and 1,400 wagon loads of manure to complete the construction phase. He then planted trees, flowers and plants never before seen on this continent.
When completed, the English Park-Garden consisted of: a mountain that contained a brick lined “grotto” and a brick lined cave entrance used to store ice from up north, a Chinese pagoda on top of the mountain, a fort for the children to play in, several bridges and several small buildings. There were also exotic birds and animals such as kangaroos, deer, peacocks, ostriches, parrots and wild ducks that were on the lake and rivulets. A steam pump supplied the water and pressure for the cascading waterfalls and fountains throughout the garden. Valcour later hired a Japanese gardener to work with the Oriental plants and a French gardener. Joseph Muller to oversee the entire garden with thirty slaves.
This magnificent park and horticultural conglomeration was considered the finest in North America and dubbed La Petite Versailles
Recently, a concerned preservationist purchased the garden ruins, and secured it in an effort to stop the vandalism. Perhaps, one day this treasure will be restored.
Valcour was a very devout and kind person. He gave to the St. James Catholic Church and helped to build Jefferson College. When Jefferson College experienced financial difficulties and was on the verge of total collapse, Valcour rescued the complex by purchasing it. Later, he gave the entire college to the Jesuits. Today this facility, called Manresa, is a spiritual retreat home.
Valcour donated to the St. James Catholic Church priceless treasures such as two solid silver candle holders four feet tall, an organ, statues of the apostles and a communion rail. His most valuable gifts were the twelve paintings of the stations of the cross and the two large paintings which hang over the side altars. He commissioned a famous Italian artist to paint these. Today, tourists make a point of visiting this historic church just to see these fabulous paintings.
The educational requirements of the aristocratic Creoles of this era consisted of a college degree and concluded with a grand tour of Europe. Gabi graduated from Jefferson College in 1847, and started his “grand tour” with instruction from Valcour to visit sugar beet refineries and report their procedures. Gabi meant everything to Valcour; he adored his honest, articulate and brilliant young son. Like his father he kept a very descriptive daily journal of his trip that reads like a novel.
Gabi became Valcour’s ambassador to the world and he sent him to all parts of the globe. On returning home from a European trip, he stopped briefly in New Orleans on September 17, 1854, the height of the yellow fever season. He arrived at the plantation that evening not feeling well and asked to be excused from dinner. The next morning a servant found Gabi dead. He was only 28 years of age.
Valcour was devastated. He wrote the final entry in his journal, “Continue who would wish. My time is finished. He died on September 18. I kissed him at five o’clock and again the next day.” Then he sealed his journal with wax. Valcour gave his son-in-law, Florent Fortier, complete authority and he stepped away from the day to day operations of the business.
Valcour and Josephine could not fill the void of their beloved Gabi. Josephine died of a broken heart in 1856. In 1858, daughter Felicie died in Paris while on a trip with her husband.
|Valcour Aime Family Tomb at St. James Catholic Church|
[reinterred at St. Louis Cemetery #2]
Valcour, so affected by these events, spent most of his days and nights in the “grotto” on his knees praying and reading his Bible and Gabi’s journals. His self-imposed penance didn’t make him bitter but further humbled him. Valcour would date and write the comment, “A tear to you” on certain pages of Gabi’s journal as he read it day after day and year after year.
When Valcour and his servant arrived at the church for midnight mass, all his remaining children and grandchildren were there. His granddaughter sang a solo that night and this so pleased Valcour that he gave her a gold piece.
On the trip home, the rains came down in sheets and soaked Valcour. A “hawk” blew in that week (a strong arctic cold front), and the temperature plummeted to record lows. Valcour’s condition advanced to pneumonia, and on January 1, 1867, he died."His obituary was published in the New Orleans Times and Daily Picayune newspapers on January 3, 1867. It contained just one line. For a man who had reached the pinnacle of success - once the wealthiest man in the state, considered by some as the father of white sugar, host to innumerable people of power and wealth at his plantation known as "the small Versailles", a scientist, and renowned businessman - when he died his obituary contained only one line.
|Notice of Death New Orleans Times, page 8; 3 Jan 1867|