New Year’s tradition celebrates life, family in Gonzales

Uplifting effort

— New Year’s Eve means family, togetherness and tradition for the extended Duplessis and Laiche families.

Every winter for years, the large family would come together around a bonfire to herald the New Year. In 2001, however, the tradition changed after the death of family member Luke Villar.

It was during a Thanksgiving week camping trip that year, just a few months after Villar’s death, when the male cousins got together and concocted an imaginative plan to kick things up a notch. They would design a bonfire to commemorate all that was lost and celebrate life.

“We always did a pile of logs. That year, we decided to start building,” Chad Duplessis said. “The first (bonfire) was a tepee.”

That tepee was the first of many more elaborate bonfires to come. Nobody knew what kind of tradition they would be starting when that first plan was drawn.

Tepee-styled bonfires are traditionally built along the Mississippi River levee on Christmas Eve. However, some area families build square or box-styled or small tepee-styled bonfires to usher in the new year.

The Duplessis and Laiche families have taken that tradition to the next step, building a helicopter, a fleur-de-lis, a replica of the south end zone of Tiger Stadium, a 10G Peterbilt debris loader, a FEMA trailer and a bulldozer.

What has amazed the family as the years have passed is the cousins’ commitment to the tradition even as they have grown older, starting families and working jobs.

Duplessis regretted that they did not have the foresight to start a tree replanting service, as they have had more trouble in recent years finding wood. The family was grateful that this year a friend invited them to take the wood that was being cleared off a lot of land.

“Fifteen years ago, we didn’t know we were going to be this detailed,” Duplessis said.

After 12 years of building bonfires, the family has established a set routine. During their Thanksgiving camping trip, the cousins review the events of the year, ranging broadly from the political to the personal.

From there, they devise a plan for the bonfire. One year, a guitar was built in memory of Luke Villar. Last year, a 28-foot space shuttle was constructed to symbolize the end of NASA’s shuttle program. This year, the family chose something that would represent their work life, an 80-ton Link-Belt hauler crane.

“Generally, it’s never me that comes up with the idea,” Duplessis said. “(My cousins) give me an idea, and I go on the Internet and start searching for pictures. And then, I start designing and drawing the structural aspects of it.”

This year was not any different. The family devised a plan, hauled five trailer loads of sycamore and willow logs, and commenced the art of building, a process that takes cumulatively six to seven days. The result was a crane, supporting a 40-foot boom, built precisely to scale.

Greg Duplessis, Chad’s dad, was a crane operator for 30 years. He was impressed at the exactness of the replica being built before him.

The tricky part of the operation, he said, was pinning the boom, which was hoisted by a cable. As the boom lifted into the air, jokes were told and pictures were taken. A sense of accomplishment and fraternity permeated the atmosphere.

“It just makes me proud,” Greg Duplessis said.

Greg Duplessis remembered that the 2007 design of a 1973 Winnebago motor home, depicting an LSU tailgating scene, received the most “oohs and aahs.”

What originally began as a family’s effort to draw together is now a tradition beloved by family, friends and neighbors alike. In fact, Greg Duplessis estimated that 100 to 300 people come to view the bonfire each year.

Food is always part of the New Year’s Eve celebration, which is held in Sherry and Dooney Laiche’s backyard on La. 74 in Gonzales.

As the cousins worked on the crane Sunday afternoon, Roger Blair, Sherry and Dooney Laiche’s next-door neighbor, remarked that he has always admired the family’s team effort to work together.

Usually, Blair will shoot his own cannon, which he built, as the bonfire is lit and fireworks surge into the night sky.

As the bonfire burns and another year ends, the family takes the time to celebrate into the dawn hours.

On New Year’s Day, the family gathers again to begin the cleanup, another long-standing tradition.

Due to deadlines, this story was written before the bonfire was lit on New Year’s Eve.