French Azilum: The Best Kept Secret in America!

The Rural Pennsylvania Settlement Intended for Marie Antoinette

In 1793, a group of investors in Philadelphia decided to take advantage of a number of simultaneous events, and establish a settlement intended for French aristocrats fleeing the Revolution and the guillotine. They even hoped that the beleaguered French Queen, Marie Antoinette, might escape France and make her way to the refuge. That settlement, along a horseshoe bend in the Susquehanna River in what is today Bradford County, Pennsylvania, was called ‘French Azilum.’ The 22-acre site, now run as a historic museum, is all that is left of the 2000-some acres of the original settlement; over time, land parcels were sold off, foundations were plowed under, and all of the original buildings were removed or razed. A house built by the son of one of the first settlers is a focal point at the site, which tries to give visitors an idea of what late 18th-century life at the settlement was like.

An overview of the site today. The tall trees to the right of the red barn at the left of the photo mark the center of the original two-acre town square.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Nick's Pics©

Visitors to Azilum are treated to a short video in the Museum Cabin, where they may also view some artifacts which have been dug up over the years when archaeologists and metal detectorists have explored the site. Following a self-guided tour that takes them to the labyrinth, an exposed wine cellar, the gazebo, smokehouse, blacksmith shop/carriage house, and barn, guests may end their visit with a tour of the LaPorte House, given by a costumed docent.

Costumed docents conduct tours of the LaPorte House every weekend during the summer.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Sadie the Sheep©

Life in northeastern Pennsylvania must have been very different for the nobles who made their way to Azilum. Many French who fled the Revolution settled in Philadelphia, as well as other large French settlements in the new United States, particularly Cahokia, Illinois and Baton Route, Louisiana. Some also ended up in Canada, in the principally French province of Quebec. These enclaves, although different in many ways from France, were at least urban rather than rural, and offered the refugees some familiar diversions. But about fifty noble French families made the trek to what were then the wilds of Pennsylvania, and settled at Azilum, where their houses were—although quite grand in the eyes of their English and German farmer neighbors—made of split logs; where all furniture, much food and wine, and most goods had to be shipped upriver over several days to the site; and where the harsh winters cut them off from nearby villages for weeks at a time. It is not surprising, then, that in 1803 when Napoleon issued a pardon to all who had opposed the Revolution, the majority of settlers at Azilum returned to France.

The community at Azilum was laid out with the French penchant for order: nine wide roadways—four which ran east to west and five which ran north to south—divided the main portion of the village. There was a two-acre town green, around which were ranged shops, a theatre, a school, a chapel, and other establishments. A marker today, just as one enters Azilum, points out the center of the town green. Beyond this were the residential streets with their half-acre plots, on which each two-story home was set. Further afield were agricultural lands, then pasture lands, and finally farm fields and forests. At Azilum, more than 1000 fruit trees were planted, some of which survive to the present day. Plots were often delineated by stone walls, and a few of these still remain at Azilum, too.

The LaPorte House was built in 1836 by John LaPorte, the son and only child of Bartholomew LaPorte and his wife, Elizabeth Franklin. John grew up at Azilum, having been born in 1798 at ‘La Grand Maison,’ the large, impressive house that had originally been constructed to house Queen Marie Antoinette. He became a US Congressperson, a PA State Senator, the Commonwealth’s Surveyor-General, a Bradford County Court Judge and a leading light in early 19th century rural Pennsylvania society. When John was about 35 years old, having travelled in the US and abroad and seen grand estates and palaces, he decided to build a summer home on a tract of land at Azilum. John’s father, Bartholomew, had purchased much of the land from the original settlement when so many of its residents were returning to France, so John had his pick of properties.

The LaPorte House
PHOTOGRAPH BY Concertpix©

He selected a spot on a gentle rise just behind La Grand Maison, where his parents still lived; over the course of three years, the LaPorte House was built, and John brought craftspersons, artisans, pargeters, and woodworkers up from Philadelphia and New York to create the ornamental style he wanted for his summer home. Although the architectural style is broadly called French Colonial, elements of Federal and Georgian architecture are also present, from the Palladian windows to engaged pilasters, to fanlights; the original part of the house boasts 27 windows, all but two (in the former servants’ quarters) an impressive twelve over twelve panes of glass, or ‘lights.’ Inside, visitors are treated a gracious staircase, magnificent wood moldings, still-beautiful stenciled ceilings, and several pieces of original ornate furniture. These all indicate John LaPorte’s intention that the LaPorte House, though only his summer home, still be impressive to anyone who might visit.

French Azilum is not well known, as are other living history museums of its ilk like Sturbridge Village or Colonial Williamsburg. People have called it ‘Pennsylvania’s Best Kept Secret,’ and ‘a hidden gem,’ and some new to northeastern Pennsylvania think people are joking when they relate the story of the small community built for French nobility and the doomed Queen. The trip to the site is not straightforward, either, as visitors must cross the Susquehanna River and then travel some of the original roadways set out in and around the town.

However, the time spent at Azilum is always worth it. A busy schedule of events keeps people coming all summer long, while tours are given every weekend too. Azilum has its own official mascot, Sadie the Sheep© who can be found on Twitter at @Sheep_Sadie, and it has a website, frenchazilum.com, and a Facebook page at TheFrenchAzilum.

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Sadie the Sheep