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Bauvais-Amoreaux House on Felix-Valle Historic SiteThe 1792 Bauvais-Amoreaux House on the Felix-Vallé House State Historic Site is an example of poteaux en terre, where logs are stood upright in an earthen trench to form walls.
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Bolduc HouseIn 1792 Monsieur Louis Bolduc moved three miles inland with the rest of Ste. Geneieve after flooding of the Mississippi destroyed many of the houses. According to scientists who have studied the building there is at least one board in the Bolduc House ceiling which may have been salvaged from the original house.
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Jacob Philipson HouseThe Jacob Philipson House has living quarters and a merchant's store; it is operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and open to the public year-round.
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Jean Baptiste Valle HouseAlso known as the Commandant's house, this house belonged to the last commandant at Ste. Genieve before the French took over the village from the Spanish.
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Jour de FeteDuring the Jour de Fête, kids can try on historic costumes.
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Jour de Fete MusiciansMusicians perform a centuries-old New Year tradition in song, La Gui-Annee.
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Jour de FeteSte. Genevieve residents dress in colonial costumes and recreate the past during Jour de Fête in August.
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Southern HotelThe Federal brick building was built in the 1790s as a private home. Joseph Vorst bought the building in the 1860s naming it The Southern Hotel.
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Overlooking Le Grande Champ, the Bequette-Ribault House is one of three poteaux en terre homes in Ste. Genevieve. There are only five in the United States.
Some people sample and collect fine wines, but I like to collect and savor vintage museum experiences.
Following a workshop last spring at Cape Girardeau, I visited the Felix Vallé House State Historic Site in historic Ste. Genevieve. The experience of discovering a truly unique aspect of Missouri life interpreted by a first-rate museum made this French-American varietal a very special vintage indeed.
While Missouri was the American frontier for a very long period of American history, it was also the New World long before there even was an America. My German ancestors in the 19th century envisioned the Missouri River valley as a New Germany that would preserve their culture in an abundant natural setting; many French people a century before them also projected their dream of a New France into the fertile river valleys of North America.
Missouri had a way of transforming such cultural dreams, though, and the Felix Vallé House State Historic Site at Ste. Genevieve tells the story of what happened in the New World to their dream of a New France. The Felix Vallé House State Historic Site in historic Ste. Genevieve offers visitors an opportunity to see how French cultural traditions, especially their unique architectural style, were translated here on the Missouri frontier.
The site features the 1792 Amoureaux House, a rare example of traditional French architecture in North America, and the 1818 Felix Vallé House, a residence and mercantile store that interprets American influence on this French community following the Louisiana Purchase and subsequent American settlement. Telling the story does require a little bit of French vocabulary. Parlez-vous francais?
Or as Mr. Rogers might say, "Who are the people in your village?" Ste. Genevieve was founded by French Canadians who followed the explorations of Joliet and Marquette. According to Bonnie Stepenoff of Southeast Missouri State University in her book From French Community to Missouri Town: Ste. Genevieve in the 19th Century, by 1750 Ste. Genevieve was a mature village of some 600 people. It was also a diverse, Creole society, free and slave, French, French Canadian, American-born French of mixed racial backgrounds with few traditional feudal obligations on land ownership, opportunities for a rising merchant class, and even strong rights for women under the law.
More French moved west across the Mississippi River after 1763 in the wake of the French loss to England during the French and Indian War. Even though France ceded its western land claims to Spain, Ste. Genevieve remained a French colonial village with light Spanish control or influence.
At the Felix Vallé House, you can see how Americanization and mercantile capitalism brought dramatic changes to this unique cultural landscape. As contemporary America struggles mightily with the concept and issues of cultural diversity, we might want to consider going back to this period and talking with les habitants about their experiences.
Le Grand Champ
The Great Field, or common land, at Ste. Genevieve, represents both a unique and tangible system of land allocation and some highly intangible French beliefs about the New World. Le Grand Champ was 3,000 acres of rich, alluvial soil given to Ste. Genevieve by King Louis XIV as common lands. The land was then divided into extremely long, narrow lots, one mile long and 192 feet wide, reaching all the way down to the river. This system of long lot subdivision ensured all farmers in the village access to good river land and reinforced village life, still a core value of French culture.
You can still see the long-lot pattern from the air in Louisiana parishes, and you can still see the pattern of tight little villages surrounded by open space on train trips across Quebec. Or you can come here and see both in an impressive diorama of Ste. Genevieve in 1832, on display at the 1792 Amoureaux House.
Behind the very practical applications of long-lot subdivision lay some very deep-seated French beliefs about liberté and equalité. In his famous novel Candide, French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire criticized European society but ultimately recommended tending one’s garden rather than revolution as the answer.
Although he strongly criticized French colonial policy, he, too, envisioned New France as the garden of the world, an abundant new natural environment where Frenchmen could escape from rapid population growth, crowded cities, and oppressive social institutions. As I watch development oozing across the Missouri landscape, I think about Voltaire and Le Grand Champ quite a bit.
Poteaux en Terre
The Amoureaux House faces Le Grand Champ but adds some new vocabulary to our French lessons. The walls of the Amoureaux House were formed from thick, hand-hewn logs that were then set upright in a style known as poteaux en terre, or posts in the ground. It is one of only five known surviving examples of this style in the United States.
The vernacular, or common, style of the building is that of the French Norman countryside, but quite intelligently adapted to its specific Missouri setting. Its builders used Missouri cedar, a hardy native species strongly resistant to rotting; it seems to have worked. But they also incorporated a steeply pitched, hipped roof from French Canada to deal with occasionally heavy snow, along with breezy wraparound porches called galeries adapted from the French West Indies to capture as many cross-currents of air in the steamy Mississippi River valley as possible. How many buildings being constructed these days will attract visitors two hundred years from now?
As Bonnie, who is also director of the Historic Preservation Field School at Southeast Missouri State University, observes, “It’s one thing to read about vertical log construction; it’s another to stand in the cellar of the Amoureaux House and touch the eighteenth-century timbers in contact with the ground in their original location.” We hear a lot these days about “green architecture,” but a building that has endured for 215 years surely has something to say to us.
À la Recherché du Temps Perdu
“When to the sessions of sweet, silent thought,” Shakespeare wrote, “I summon up remembrance of things past …” Why should we preserve the memory of our long-lost French colonial traditions for Missouri life?
Historians sometimes employ counter-factual history, or alternative endings, to better understand the network of relationships in a particular period. Here we can participate in “sweet, silent thought” about how Missouri might have developed differently, perhaps revealing some cultural heirloom seeds awaiting transplantation to the right conditions. For example, I often think of Sacagawea’s son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, unwelcome in two worlds, and how he might instead have helped bridge American Indian and American cultures.
What if we re-imagined cultural diversity? How we subdivide land? How we build our dwellings? These issues remain very much alive. Jim Baker, site administrator for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Felix Vallé House State Historic Site, also mentions that the site has become increasingly a focal point for the study of French colonial society, creating a unique kind of knowledge industry with wonderful possibilities for cultural heritage tourism.
“The past is never really finished,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s never even really past.” Perhaps it’s time for a cultural exchange program with ourselves, to clarify who we became and think about what we have left behind that we might yet go back and reclaim.
198 Merchant Street, St. Genevieve, Missouri 63670 View Map
Summer Hours (On-Season) * April through October 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday Closed Easter day Winter Hours (Off-Season) * November through March 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's days