Monday, July 21, 2008

Azilum, Pennsylvania

Last September, while driving north on a winding road through the mountains of Pennsylvania, we passed through an isolated little town called Towanda. I had no idea at the time that right outside Towanda is a place called Azilum (Asylum), founded in 1793 by French exiles, mostly aristocrats. I had heard of Azilum before but did not realize it was there, in the middle of nowhere. If it is in the middle of nowhere now, what must it have been like in the 1790's? It must have been pretty rugged. Anyway, it is Azilum where, according to a charming but unverified legend, royalists planned to bring Marie-Antoinette and her children, had her friends been able to persuade her to escape. Since the queen found it impossible to escape without both of her children and her sister-in-law, she remained in prison and was killed in October 1793.

Azilum stood out among other primitive settlements since the French emigrants seemed determined to make the village as attractive as possible. According to an article in American Heritage Magazine:
The land was plowed by teams of oxen. Grain was planted, maples were tapped for sugar, flax was raised, a gristmill was built (a lady gave her skirt for the first piece of bolting cloth), and icehouses, barns, and sheds sprang up. In all this activity there was a pride in accomplishment and an astonished joyin discovering a new skill. No aristocrat, priest, or officer in France of the ancien régime had soiled his hands either with trade or with manual labor. Ladies had always known how to do charming embroidery, but they had never made their own clothes. The will to overcome old prejudices and master the art of survival shone bravely in these early days of Azilum.

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 for her slaves lined the riverbank.

The infamous Talleyrand was among many nobles who passed into Azilum in the 1790's. (Talleyrand also stumbled into a settlement further south which he dubbed "La Belle Fonte" "beautiful fountain," now known as Bellefonte, where our parish church is.) In spite of the hardships, there were also dancing and festivities at Azilum, and the ladies would wear their jewels. As is recorded on the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission website:

Life at Asylum was not entirely a monotonously grim battle with the wilderness. The volatile, fun-loving French found time for picnics, for boating and sleighing parties, for dances in the pavilion on Prospect Rock, and for staging plays in their theater. "La Grande Maison" was the scene of gay assemblies and dinners in honor of notable visitors such as Talleyrand, Louis Philippe, who was later king, and his princely brothers, and Liancourt. Jewels and richly embroidered silk gowns were worn by the ladies on these festive occasions, and their male escorts were but a shade less dazzling in their satin knee breeches, colorful coats, and buckled shoes.

But Asylum was not to endure. There was latent and at times open dislike of the colonists by some Americans, aggravated by the wartime edicts of the French government that after 1795 resulted in seizure and confiscation of American ships and cargoes. The income of the colony's founders from French sources had been cut off, costs were high; titles to lands of the Asylum Company, formed as a speculation in a million acres of surrounding county, were disputed; and Morris and Nicholson went into bankruptcy for the sum of ten million dollars. Times were hard and money tight.

There is not much there anymore. I do not know if Azilum merits a trip for itself, but if we ever happen to be in the neighborhood again, we might stop by. The scenery is breathtaking; it is incongruous to imagine someone like Talleyrand wandering through those mountains, totally out of his element, but gallant all the same.


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