Valcour Aime was renowned for his immense wealth, sugar refining experimentation, as well as his palatial plantation home and English garden.
Heralded as the “Louis the XIV of Louisiana,” Valcour Aime was renowned for his sugar-refining experimentation, his immense wealth, and his palatial plantation home and English garden, an estate known as St. James Plantation in St. James Parish near Vacherie that was nicknamed “Le Petit Versailles” ifor its grandiosity. Following the death of his only son, Gabriel, Aime became a recluse. Even so, he contributed to the St. James Catholic Church in Vacherie, reopened Jefferson College in Convent, and transferred the institution to the Society of Mary, re-creating it as the first Marist college in the United States.
Valcour Aime was born in St. Charles Parish in 1797. His parents had named him Francois Gabriel, but his nurse called him “Valcour,” and he became known by that name for the rest of his life. Valcour was the eldest son of Francois Aime II and Marie Felicité Fortier. Though Valcour’s father passed away in 1799, he and his brother Michel lived with their mother until her death in 1805. Afterward, the brothers lived with their grandfather, Michel Fortier II, in New Orleans, where they were educated by private tutors. As teenagers, the brothers served in the War of 1812, from 1814 until 1815, under Capt. Réné Trudeau in the Troop of Horses, St. Charles Parish. Following the war, Aime married Louise Josephine Roman (sister of Louisiana Governor André Bienvenue Roman) in 1819. The couple resided at the Roman plantation home in St. James Parish with Josephine’s widowed mother, Marie Louise Patin Roman.
Family and Plantation Life
Between 1819 and 1830 Aime fathered five children: Edwige (1819), Josephine (1821), Felicité (1823), Gabriel (1826), and Felicie (1830). As Gabriel was the only male child and Aime heir, Valcour doted on his son, had him educated at Jefferson College until it closed in 1847, then sent him abroad for further education in Europe. After Edwige was born, Aime sold his St. Charles Parish property to purchase land adjacent to the Roman plantation in 1820. He planted sugarcane and experimented with boiling and granulation techniques. By 1829 Aime was using steam pumps and vacuum-panning equipment to increase the productivity of his St. James Sugar Refinery.
Following the death of his mother-in-law, Aime offered to purchase the Roman family plantation from Jacques Telesphore Roman in 1836. Telesphore sold the plantation and bought Aime’s adjoining land, where he built Bon Sejour plantation (known today as Oak Alley). Throughout the 1830s and 1840s Aime expanded his plantation home, adding wings, large Doric columns, and marble floors. In 1842 Aime began construction of an immense English garden, adding an artificial lake and river in 1843. To further embellish the grounds, exotic plants were imported, bridges were constructed to span the false river, a Chinese pagoda was built, and a small, flower-covered “mountain” was erected with a brick-lined grotto underneath. A guest to Aime’s plantation reportedly stated, “Valcour Aime, you are the Louis XIV of Louisiana. The beauties of your plantation remind me of the Chateau de Versailles!”
In 1845 Aime sailed to Cuba to inspect regional sugar production methods there. Aime also sent assistants to England to examine alternative production techniques. He even instructed his son Gabriel to acquire syrup samples from various European countries and to investigate refineries where sugar was produced from beets. Aime’s research and experiments won him notoriety and increased his wealth. By 1852 the Aime sugar plantation, “Le Petit Versailles,” and the St. James Sugar Refinery consisted of 9,500 acres and 215 slaves, and was valued at $700,000. In 1853, when his plantation produced 1,867,000 pounds of sugar and nine hundred barrels of molasses, Aime’s refined sugar took first prize at the New York Exposition.
A Recluse in Later Life
In 1854 Gabriel returned from Europe and arrived in New Orleans during a yellow fever epidemic. After traveling to his family home, he became sick and died soon after being diagnosed with the fever. Gabriel’s passing marked the end of Aime’s sugar experimentation and the start of his withdrawal from society. The following is recorded in Aime’s plantation journal: “The diary of Mr. Valcour Aime closes on the 18th September, 1854, on account of his retirement from active life. His journal was continued by Mr. F. Fortier, his son-in-law. …” In 1856 Aime’s wife Josephine passed away, followed by his daughter Felicie in 1859. The loss of his son, wife, and daughter crushed Aime. In his diary, he writes, “Let him who wishes continue. My time is finished.” Aime secluded himself at home and converted the garden grotto into a makeshift chapel. There and at the local parish church he spent his time in prayer.
Despite being a recluse, Aime donated money as well as a pair of large silver candlesticks and a set of the Stations of the Cross to St. James Catholic Church. In 1859 Aime purchased and reopened Jefferson College for $20,000 and established a governing board of directors comprised of his four sons-in-law: Florent Fortier, Alexis Ferry, Septime Fortier, and Alfred Roman. Aime constructed a Gothic chapel on the campus dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in memory of Gabriel and Felicie. However, with the start of the Civil War, the college closed. Though he was not a secessionist, Aime contributed $500 to each military company formed in St. James Parish and organized Company A of the Louisiana Infantry. The company was known as “Valcour Aime’s Guards.” After the fall of New Orleans in 1862, Aime’s eldest daughter, Edwige, died. Aime returned to Le Petit Versailles and remained there for the rest of the war despite lootings by federal troops.
In 1864 Aime transferred Jefferson College to the Society of Mary, re-creating it as the first Marist college in the United States. Grateful for this donation, the Marists said masses for Aime and allowed his relations to attend the college free of charge. Following the college donation, Aime resumed his religious hermitage. Returning from Christmas Mass in 1866, Aime contracted pneumonia and, on New Years Day 1867, he died. His daughters Josephine and Felicité survived him.
In 1870 John Burnside, owner of Houmas House, purchased Le Petit Versailles; he eventually owned twelve plantations in Ascension and St. James Parishes. The house and gardens were neglected until a fire destroyed the plantation home in 1920. In 1961 a marker was placed in front of the former Aime plantation property by Valcour’s great-granddaughter, Estelle Fortier, and her son, Louis. Though the Aime family was interred in Vacherie, their remains were relocated in 1929 to St. Louis Cemetery Number 3 in New Orleans.