Zoé Vallé Lightfoot was born Marie Zoé Vallé on November 24, 1849 in St.Genevieve, Missouri. Her great grandfather, Jean Baptiste Vallé, was Commandant of St.Genevieve until the Louisiana territory was transferred to the United States in 1804. Her great, great grandfather, on her mother’s side, was Josiah Bartlett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Ste. Genevieve began as an agricultural settlement in the late 1740s, on the west bank of the Mississippi River. It was established by French-Canadian habitants. The Vallé family, for example, traces its roots back through Quebec to Pierre La Vallée of Rouen, France. The Vallés, while “holding firmly to their French traditions, including language and religion, embraced ‘modern’ features of life, including an American-style home and American goods brought by steamboat, such as cloth, glass and housewares.”
Zoé’s father, Francois Jules Vallé, made his fortune in iron mining and processing near Ste. Genevieve. Sometime after the Civil War, the family moved into a large home on Washington Avenue in St. Louis, where Mr. Vallé got involved in other businesses such as insurance. The Mississippi River, which flows by both St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve was an important corridor for trade and transportation.
Zoé married Alfred Lightfoot, of Pass Christian, Mississippi on the Gulf coast, not far from the mouth of the River. Zoé Vallé was thirty-eight when she married Alfred Lightfoot. A newspaper announcement from the Nov. 17, 1887 gives us a glimpse into the event: “At 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon Mrs. Zoé Vallé, daughter of Mrs. Jules Vallé, was married to Mr. Alfred Lightfoot, a young lawyer of Birmingham, Alabama. The Rev. Dr. Robert performed the wedding ceremony in the presence of the family. Mr. Amadee Vallé gave the bride away. She wore a Parisian costume of rich blue silk, with garniture of point lace, and on her arm, the groom’s present, a bracelet of sapphires and diamonds. Mr. Lightfoot and his bride left at once for Pass Christian, where the groom’s early life was spent, and will go from there to their home in Birmingham, Alabama.” The couple lived in Birmingham and then in Manhattan. Records from Ellis Island in New York reveal they lived at 62 West 39th Street, near Bryant Park. Alfred passed away in 1911 and now rests with Zoé in the Vallé family plot in St. Louis.
Alfred Ross Lightfoot, was born in Pass Christian, Mississippi on June 2,1852 to William and Sarah Lightfoot. William Bernard Lightfoot, originally from Port Royal, Virginia, was a graduate of the University of Virginia and became a large cotton planter and had a fine estate with many slaves, living the life of a southern gentleman previous to the Civil War. He married Sarah Bee Ross of Mobile, Alabama, who was the daughter of Jack Ross, the first State Treasurer of Alabama. A charming antebellum seaside community, Pass Christian features examples of historic architecture fronting the Gulf of Mexico. “The Pass,” with its balmy climate and peaceful shores, was in Alfred’s day an internationally known resort and the Gulf Coast was called the American Riviera. His father, William, was Recorder(mayor) of Pass Christian and the family had a home on the Gulf Coast next to the Pass Christian Hotel. William and Sarah moved to Mobile after the Civil War and are buried at the Old Church Street Cemetery.
In 1903, Zoé purchased the Chester property that would become the Library, in her own name. The History of Chester prepared by the Chester Branch of the Women’s Institute of Nova Scotia states that Zoé was among the first summer visitors to Chester to buy a property here. They also mention that she had a house in Bordeaux, France. The Ellis Island records also note that Zoé travelled back to Manhattan in 1905 on the S.S. Rosalind, a steamer that did a run from St. John’s and Halifax to New York On this trip she was accompanied by seventeen year-old Lionel Lordly of Chester, who was on his way to visit his uncle, Dr. James E. M. Lordly, who lived on West 84th Street. It is unknown whether Zoé knew Dr. Lordly before coming to Chester or became acquainted afterwards. The Lordly family property was located just across Central Street from Zoé’s house. A cane that still remains in the Library, bearing an inscription to Dr. Lordly from his Lodge brothers, seems to indicate they were good friends.
Zoé had ten brothers and sisters, four of whom died before the age of three. Her sister, Grace Vallé, married Jess Lindell January and they had one child who was named Isabel Vallé. Isabel lived most of her life in Italy with her family. As a young woman, she inherited over a million dollars from her mother and the family resort in San Remo, located in the Italian Riviera. In 1927, Isabel married Robert Somers Brookings, a wealthy St. Louis businessman who retired at age forty-six to devote his life to public service. Robert Brookings had been a family friend since Isabel Vallé January was born, and despite their age difference (he was almost 30 years older), he married her when he was in his fifties. Even before marrying Brookings, she had collaborated with him in philanthropic work through her own family fortune. Isabel moved back to St. Louis and continued supporting his philanthropic activities, such as their gift to the Washington University, January Hall, named after her mother Grace. Robert S. Brookings was also the founder of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., a well-known independent research organization. In 1929, Isabel contributed, in memory of her mother, the bulk of the money necessary to build the Brookings Institution’s new building at 722 Jackson Place, N.W., and continued to make annual contributions for the rest of her life. Mrs. Brookings was made a trustee of the Brookings Institution in 1949 and remained one until her death on April 7, 1965. Her bequest to Brookings included the equivalent of some $8 million and the Brookings’ home at 2700 Upton Street, N.W.
Another of Zoé’s sisters, Isabel, married George Austen of New York. In 1896 they acquired Sweet Briar Farm in Geneseo, New York, from the Wadsworth family and built a large house and stables at the top of the hill overlooking the Genesee Valley. Over time, the house took the name Sweet Briar among the local public. The Austens sold this house in 1906, probably due to their divorce as the marriage was apparently not a happy one. Isabel moved to Newport, New York, where she lived at the time of Zoe’s death and then moved back to St. Louis again before her death in 1947. It was Isabel Vallé Austen who was named as executor and beneficiary of Zoé’s estate in her will. Through Miss Dorothy Gilman, who summered here in Chester at ‘White Gate’, she made the offer of Zoé’s property for use as a library in memory of her sister and contributed generously to help the Endowment Fund meet its target in the first year. Even as late as 1937, when she was seventy-three, she contributed 121 books. Both Isabels, Austen and Brookings, sister and niece, came to Nova Scotia to take care of Zoé’s remains when she died of pneumonia at the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax on October 27, 1926. Her final resting place is in the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.