Since 2001, the Laiche and Duplessis families have been building a nontraditional bonfire to honor their late cousin Luke Villar, 18, who was killed during a 2001 armed robbery in St. Amant.
The bonfire continues to honor the memory of Villar, but with each passing year, the building process has become more of a bonding experience for the cousins who construct it.
“When we started this, we were 15 or 16 years old, and it used to be easier to get together, but now everyone has kids and works a ton of overtime,” said 31-year-old Tyler Laiche, of Gonzales. “The biggest thing for me is being able to hang out and be with family.”
Each year the family chooses a new structure that often nods to a current event from the past year. They've constructed a guitar, helicopter, LSU-themed RV, fleur-di-lis and an airboat on the Laiche-Duplessis family property on La. 74 in Gonzales.
This year, the cousins are building a 1931 Model A Ford to honor their late grandmother, Audrey Duplessis, who died last month at 98. Audrey served as the official bonfire lighter on occasion over the years.
“It was the model of my grandparents’ honeymoon car,” Laiche said. “My grandpa had a little Diecast model of it that he was super proud of, and we had sort of talked about using it as the model for our bonfire this year before she passed away."
Duplessis' death was preceded by her late husband, Joe Duplessis, who passed away in 2005, who used the car to drive his bride to their honeymoon spot in Denham Springs in 1939.
According to the Laiche's mother, Sherry Laiche, the decision of her son and nephews to replicate the car was a touching way to memorialize her mom’s long, full life.
“We were thrilled when the boys told us they chose to build the car this year,” Sherry Laiche said. “Mom was a housewife who made nine kids. She loved working in her flower bed, sports, especially LSU women’s basketball and was an adventurous cook.”
Although he has been close with his cousins his entire life, Tyler Laiche feels the death of Villar drew them closer together
“We had been close our entire lives, but after that happened we got a lot closer,” Tyler Laiche said. “The year it happened we went camping the Friday after Thanksgiving and discussed what we were going to do and we haven’t quit yet.”
Traditionally the bonfire is lit around 8 p.m. New Year’s Eve after one of the cousins gives a speech explaining the meaning of the structure and thanks everyone for coming out.
Afterwards, the fireworks show begins and the gumbo and sauce piquante prepared by Sherry Laiche’s husband, Dooney Laiche, is served.
Over the years, word has spread about the event, and the crowd that shows up to take pictures, enjoy fireworks and eat some food, ranges anywhere from 100 to 200 people every year, depending on the weather.
The crew’s schedules were packed with their usual work responsibilities and family obligations this year, but one crew member’s reason for taking a few days off from building process was cause for great joy.
“Tyler’s cousin, Lance Villar, had his baby yesterday and he and Tyler are just a few months apart,” Sherry Laiche said during a Dec. 23 interview. “Now Tyler is having his first baby in February, so we’re hoping that they grow up to be close and become the next generation to build the bonfire.”