Asylum In Azilum
Refugees from the French Revolution, many of them of noble birth, built a unique community in the backwoods of Pennsylvania—and hoped their queen would join them
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
The pioneer spirit was there, but the town that was emerging was not at all like those erected by earlier settlers. Its inhabitants were determined to make it pretty as well as utilitarian from the start. Their houses were constructed of interlocked logs, but they were two stories high, with large windows and shutters that folded back (a letter in Aristide’s best English asks a Philadelphia merchant to send “50 pairs of hinges for the Window shuters”). The émigrés painted the shutters black with white trimmings, and soon individual taste added a transplanted poplar, a weeping willow, flowers, or lawns. Tree branches at the river’s edge were lopped off to allow a house a charming vista of water. Madame Sibert’s domaine consisted of a main house with two smaller side pavilions for kitchens, connected to the main building by covered passageways. The pretty stream flowed through her grounds, nine hundred apple trees were planted in her orchard, and huts ior her slaves lined the riverbank.
All this fuss about the niceties seemed very alien to local laborers, and they considered that fewer flowers and more vegetables would make greater sense; but the character of the town attracted visitors, which brought t7-ade and activity (Blacons was accused by Tioga Point residents of takingaway custom). Louis Lefèvre, Madame d’Autremont’s brother-in-law, who had run a smart Paris café, was host of Azilum’s first inn, to be imitated soon after by M. Renaud, a merchant who had salvaged considerable funds, and Lieutenant Beaulieu, late of Pulaski’s legion.
Standing a little removed from the gridiron pattern and approached by an avenue of Lombardy poplars was La Grande Maison , the Big House (or the Queen’s House, as it was romantically called years later). It was built of carefully planed logs, and it stood two stories high plus an attic, eighty-four feet long, and sixty feet wide, with double French doors and numerous large windows, all supplied with shutters, opening onto the river side. Tall stacks of chimneys serviced sixteen fireplaces. Inside was a forty-foot drawing room where Talon received visiting notables, plying them with Valois’s cuisine and imported French wines, while at either end two fireplaces made the room always delightfully warm. Here the social life of the town found its center. Pleasant evenings were spent when Mademoiselle Marin sang, accompanied on the piano by Madame Gui de Noailles (a lady from Santo Domingo, no relation of the vicomte), who could play equallywell for dancing. When a change of entertainment was sought, there was always the art of conversation or a game of trictrac, dominoes, or faro, amateur theatricals, or the invention of rhyming games. The little community flowed here in the evening to forget the hard work of the day, to shut out the thought of the busy guillotine in France, to dress up a bit and recapture a moment of grace and good manners. The candles blazing late in the Big House, the music and laughter at outlandish hours, with wine constantly flowing (it was said), shocked the native farmers who had moved in as paid workers or owners of lots.
These small differences in living habits began to take the first glow off the early days. The French ladies vied with one another to keep up a high level of elegance in dress, and this was resented; they were supposed to be farm wives like anyone else, so why did they need bales of fancy cloth from Philadelphia? Why did a house have to have wallpaper on the walls, and why was food eaten off delicate china? How could Montulé manage to bring in quite so many trunks of goods for himself alone? Long after the sun was up and an honest day’s work begun, the French were still drinking coffee and eating the strange bread they made in their bakery. At four in the afternoon they would stop work and dine for what seemed hours. Odder still, they would take fine linen tablecloths and real silverware up to the rocks above the town for a picnic and run races and fly kites. They built a foolishlyrustic bridge over to the little island that lay in mid-river and there erected a platform for outdoor theatricals. Word began to spread about the countryside that the French settlers were a frivolous, lazy, licentious lot. Instead of chopping wood they preferred to play teeterboard.
Talon did not help the mood of the place. He had spent, it was acknowledged, thousands of his own money to open a new road running west to connect—he hoped—the town with the fork of the Susquehanna and make speedier communication with Philadelphia, and he had rebuilt the old trail that Sullivan had left. But he refused to learn English, his manners were haughty, and his constant disappearances to the great world of Philadelphia were unpopular. Aristide had numerous disagreements with him, having to fight to get the 50cents-a-day wage paid to his workers, and he found himself suddenly the victim of jealous quarrels because of his friendship with Blacons, d’Andelot, and Beaulieu. He distrusted Talon’s promises of great rewards in the future and referred to Talon’s moments of affability as his “half-friendship.”