The Charcoal Queen of Sharon Mountain
By Brandon Lisi, Curator
On the morning of May 2nd, 1887, a young woman of 17 years passed through New York Harbor and stepped foot on American soil after a week-long voyage across the Atlantic. She would have been hard to miss, standing over six feet tall with merry blue eyes and curly blonde hair. Augusta Malcuit arrived with two acquaintances, none of whom could speak a word of English. It must have been an intimidating experience. The bustling streets of New York were, after all, a far cry from the small Burgundian village in France where she was born. Intending to live with her extended family in Connecticut, Augusta ended up on the wrong train, arriving in Albany instead of Bridgeport. Thanks to the intercession of a French-speaking restaurateur, she eventually found her way to Sharon Mountain, where she settled in with her cousins, working as a domestic servant in their house.
In two years, Augusta not only learned English but, as her granddaughter would later recount, “She had found the wonderful world of books and the printed word. She never ceased to study whenever she could.” At the end of this period, Augusta was reunited with her sweetheart. Emile Jasmin followed his lady love to America, and they married in Sharon on March 4th, 1890. In need of money, Augusta hatched an idea. The Barnum and Richardson Company, a major producer of railroad car wheels, was in desperate need of high-quality charcoal to power over a dozen iron furnaces in the area. Dressed in a tailor-made gray flannel suit with a fitted jacket and full-length skirt, Augusta arrived at the offices of company owner Milo Richardson.
Impressed with her knowledge of charcoal, Mr. Richardson placed an order for one ton.
When she arrived home, Emile was flabbergasted. He was only one man. To fill an order of that size, he would need an entire crew working day and night, with a team of horses for dragging logs. According to family legend, Augusta responded, “Work never killed anybody.” And work she did.
To fund the venture, she went to a banker, presenting him with a plan to break into the charcoal business. By the end of the meeting, the Jasmin Company was born.
Emile and Augusta both understood the value of the hardwoods on Sharon Mountain and with their crew, worked at all hours of the day making charcoal. Soon, their first order was fulfilled. Mr. Richardson was so satisfied with the final product that he granted Augusta an unrestricted contract for all the charcoal her company could produce. For over twenty years, the Jasmin Company fulfilled that contract, developing a reputation for quality and fair dealings. Augusta, a woman who towered over most people, became something of a local legend and was known in most circles as “Charcoal Annie.”
Her husband, gentle Emile, served as the company’s foreman, but everyone knew Augusta was the boss. She housed her crew of eighteen men and fed them four meals a day, seven days a week, all the while raising four children born over a span of five years. She kept meticulous records, maintained strict discipline, and allowed only one visit to the saloon per month. These rules applied to her husband as well. One night, Emile and the crew went into town for their monthly trip to the saloon. When they didn’t return in the morning, Augusta went looking for them. She quickly learned that they’d been arrested “for disturbing the peace with their singing on Main Street after midnight.”
We can be sure they all got an earful once released. In the ensuing years, the size of the crew doubled, and their operation grew more complex as deforestation forced them to move around. The crew lived in portable shanty towns that could be transported to a new location when necessary.
After more than two decades, time finally caught up with the Jasmin Company. Railroad lines crisscrossed the country, and it became cheaper to import soft coal from Pennsylvania rather than relying on ever-dwindling forests for charcoal.
But this did not deter Augusta and Emile. They bought a sawmill, supplying local builders with lumber. Now in their 50s, the couple finally retired in 1921, living on a small farm in Canton, Connecticut. Shortly thereafter, Augusta became an American citizen. The judge presiding over her swearing-in inquired about where she had been educated. She replied, “Your Honor, I taught myself.”
With the passage of the 19th amendment, Augusta even had the right to vote, though her husband (still a non-citizen) did not.
In 1950, she died at the age of 80, leaving behind ten grandchildren, whose descendants live across Connecticut’s northwest corner to this day.
Augusta Malcuit Jasmin was a woman who defied every norm of her time, who landed on these shores with passion in her heart and purpose in her eyes. Hers is a quintessentially American story of self-reliance, hard work, and limitless determination. Though the charcoal pits have long disappeared and the forests regrown, the tale of Charcoal Annie will live on, inspiring us all for generations to come.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Kirby, Ed. “Charcoal Annie.” In Seldom Told Tales of Sharon, Book One, 85–87. Sharon, CT: Sharon Historical Society, 2004.
- Ravenscroft, Loretta. “Charcoal & Augusta.” 2009.19.06 (Available through the SHS Archives)
A Crusader of the Cross in Sharon
By Linus Barnes, Intern
The year was 1739 when George Whitefield, a Methodist minister from England, arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to preach his views to the local Christians. Standing in this crowd of a few thousand was a printer for the Pennsylvania Gazette. This soon-to-be patriot was young Benjamin Franklin.
In his autobiography, Franklin stated that Whitefield’s mannerisms were so engaging and entrancing, that when the collection dish was passed around, Franklin “empty’d [his] pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.”
It seems that Whitefield had a way of winning over his ideological opponents, including men of the enlightenment, such as Benjamin Franklin. In fact, Whitefield was practically born to speak at the pulpit.
From a young age, Whitefield was a strong public speaker and developed a love for acting and holding theatrical renditions of Bible stories during sermons. Born into a family of modest means, he attended Oxford University by working as a servitor, cleaning, bathing, and assisting other students.
While at school, Whitefield joined the Holy Club, a student-run program led by John and Charles Wesley. Under their influence, Whitefield was introduced to Methodism, a denomination that emphasizes free will and a personal connection with God. These beliefs ran contrary to conventional religious thinking at the time.
Preaching across England and its colonies, Whitefield amassed hundreds of thousands of
followers. When arriving in a new community, he would ask the local churches if he could hold sermons from their pulpits. Holding opposite beliefs, the ministers refused and prohibited him from stepping foot in their churches. Barred from these places of worship, Whitefield would preach in open fields, standing on rocks or barrels in front of thousands of people. This period of religious revival would become known as the First Great Awakening.
On June 18th, 1770, Whitefield arrived in Sharon, Connecticut, with thousands of Christians (even ones with opposing beliefs) traveling miles just to hear him preach. At that time, however, revolution was brewing in the colonies. Whitefield, an English minister with Tory sympathies and a representative of the crown, was a controversial figure in Patriot-dominated New England. Nevertheless, Cotton Mather Smith, Sharon’s Congregationalist Minister, “prevailed upon [Whitefield’s] opponents to listen to the goodness of this messenger of God.” Parson Smith also arranged for Whitefield to spend the night at the Smith household before the sermon. That evening, the 56-year-old Whitefield suffered a serious asthma attack, threatening his ability to speak the following day. Luckily, Temperance Smith, the parson’s wife, had experience with medicine. She burned herbs and provided care to Whitefield, spending the whole night at his bedside. Thankfully, Whitefield “survived the night of agony” and gave a powerful sermon to thousands of Christians, showing no sign of weakness. Parson Smith wrote that Whitefield’s voice was “as soft as a flute and piercing as a fife,” even though only hours before Whitefield could barely breathe. In remembrance of this event, a plaque on Sharon’s Green marks the site of the sermon.
Only three months after this event, however, Whitefield suffered an uncontrollable asthma attack and passed away in Massachusetts on September 30th, 1770. But in his last hour, Whitefield wrote a letter to Cotton Mather Smith and his wife, thanking them for their hospitality.
In the words of Leonard Twynham, “Sharon cannot lay claim to fame because of a visit from a notable, but it can thank God at the site of this little shrine along the highway that He sent this Crusader of the Cross to speak here.”
Sources and Further Reading:
- Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 1791.
- Freeman, Joanne. The American Revolution, Lecture 2: Being a British Colonist. YouTube. YaleCourses, 2011.
- Twynham, Leonard. “An Important Marker in Sharon, Connecticut.” 2007.25.121 (Accessible via the SHS Archives)
Madam Eckel, Maria Monk’s Daughter
By Brandon Lisi, Curator
Our story begins in early 19th-century Montreal, with a young woman named Maria. As a child, Maria suffered a head injury, resulting in a neurological disorder at a time when those with mental health issues were treated like criminals. As a teenager, she was accused of promiscuous behavior and confined to an asylum for prostitutes.
But, in 1834, at the age of 18, it was discovered that Maria was pregnant. She was immediately dismissed from the asylum and cast out into a world that was hostile to single mothers.
She then came to the attention of William Hoyte, an anti-Catholic activist. He brought Maria to New York, in an era when Catholics, particularly immigrants from Germany and Ireland, were looked upon with scorn and suspicion.
Hoyte offered Maria a sum of money and brokered a deal: she would assume the identity of a Catholic nun fleeing mistreatment in the nunnery. With few options, Maria agreed.
In 1836, the “Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk” was published, though Maria herself hadn’t written a word of it. It sold 26,000 copies in its first six months of publication and reached 300,000 by the mid-1860s. Its tales of grotesque sexual abuses and infanticide within the monastic world enthralled anti-Catholic audiences, even though scholars now regard the book as a hoax. Not only had Maria never been a nun, never spent time in the convent, she wasn’t even Catholic.
Despite the success of the book which bore her name, Maria fell on hard times in the ensuing years. In 1849, she was convicted of stealing a wallet and incarcerated on Blackwell’s Island, where she died.
But this is not the end of our story. Maria’s daughter Lizzie was taken in by a family in the rural countryside, who enrolled the young lady in Monson Academy, located in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. By way of her paternal uncle, she visited Sharon, Connecticut, and dreamed of building a church in the rolling hinterlands along the state line.
Retaining the name of her deceased husband, she is known to history as Madam Eckel. By 1869, after a round of international travel, she
settled in a cottage on Clark Hill Road and began raising money for the construction of St. Genevieve’s Chapel, what would become Sharon’s first Catholic church.
She even wrote to the Vatican, asking that a 30-acre section of Sharon could be added to the Archdiocese of New York. Her request was granted.
In 1874, Madam Eckel published her autobiography. Despite her mother’s infamous name, she entitled it: “Maria Monk’s Daughter.” She recounts the cruelty she faced at the hands of her mother, but upon learning the truth of her past writes: “Years have passed since that merciful hour, and since that time I have only cherished sentiments of sympathy and regret for my unfortunate and erring mother.” In the years after publication, Madam Eckel’s cottage and the church she built were destroyed by two separate fires, reducing her work to ashes. But what remains is the story of a remarkable woman, who despite the hardship of circumstance, forged a life of purpose that resonates to this day.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Eckel, Lizzie St. John. Maria Monk’s Daughter: An Autobiography, 1875.
- Kirby, Ed. “Catholics in Sharon.” In Seldom Told Tales of Sharon, Book Two, 105–11. Sharon, CT: Sharon Historical Society, 2008.
- Twynham, Leonard. Madam Eckel: The Weird Sister of Sharon and Amenia. Flushing, NY, 1932.
Noah Webster and the Sharon Literary Club
By Brandon Lisi, Curator
It was Monday, October 1st, 1781, at a session of the Sharon Literary Club, the first literary society in American history.
Chairman of the club was Cotton Mather Smith, the town’s pastor. The minutes were kept by his teenage son John (who, three decades later, would become Connecticut’s 23rd governor). His beautiful 21-year-old daughter, Juliana, was editor of the club’s magazine.
During the meeting, the parson’s study, parlor, and kitchen were crowded with almost a hundred attendees, all sitting huddled around a large fire as the latest issue of the club’s magazine was read aloud.
As the session wore to a close, the final speaker stepped forth: Noah Webster, the famed lexicographer whose name still graces the cover of Webster’s dictionary. At that time, the relatively-unknown Webster ran a small private school in Parson Smith’s attic, teaching both men and women in “reading, writing, geography, music, mathematics, Latin, and Greek.”
At the club meeting that night, he recited his latest essay to the crowd, never taking his eyes off Juliana while doing so. Webster had found a woman who reflected every one of his passions and values. She was a woman of letters, a writer as well as an editor. For a man who would dedicate his life to words, there could scarcely be a better match.
Alas, she did not share his feelings.
In the following months, Noah asked her hand in marriage. Juliana declined.
Of Webster, Juliana wrote in a letter to her brother, “In conversation, [Mr. Webster] is even duller than in writing, if that be possible.” Though she did add, “but he is a painstaking man and a hard student. Papa says he will make his mark.”
And so he would. It is not clear why Noah Webster closed his successful private academy in Sharon, though historians speculate that his broken heart played a role.
Webster’s Speller and Dictionary would have a profound impact on the language that all Americans use today, and the parson’s prediction would prove correct.
Perhaps Webster’s heartbreak in Sharon served to motivate him to greatness.
As a Saturday Evening Post writer would remark in 1883, “Unlike most disappointed swains, he did not turn to puerile poetry for relief. It took a whole dictionary to express his feelings.”
Sources and Further Reading:
- Kendall, Joshua C. “Spelling the New Nation.” In The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, 59–64. New York, NY: Berkley Pub Group, 2012.
- Smith, Helen Evertson. Colonial Days and Ways, as Gathered from Family Papers. Ungar, 1966.
“Our Youthful Hero, Bold in Arms”
By Brandon Lisi, Curator
The protagonist of this story is Samuel Elmer Jr. of Sharon, a strapping young lieutenant in the continental army and the son of a colonel. In 1777, Samuel came home to Sharon on furlough to visit his family. The Declaration of Independence had been signed the previous summer, and at that time, the war seemed somewhat removed from the Connecticut backcountry.
Then, on a rainy April night, a rider came charging through the town, banging on the shutters of every home, and shouting: “The British are Burning Danbury!”
This was a crisis for the revolutionary cause. Danbury was an important regional trading and manufacturing center at the intersection of several major roads. It also served as a supply depot for the continental army: storing food, clothes, medicine, weapons – commodities that the revolutionaries badly needed.
Consider that 8 months after the attack on Danbury, Washington’s army would suffer through a brutal winter at Valley Forge and face an ongoing supply problem that they never truly resolved.
So to lose a supply center like Danbury would worsen an already desperate situation. Samuel Elmer knew it. He was one of the first to rouse from his sleep and organize with the local militiamen, including Lieutenant Colonel Ebenezer Gay (a local merchant and financier of the Continental Army).
They all marched south with great haste, not knowing that they were already too late.
Danbury was lightly defended by a garrison of only 150 militiamen, up against nearly 2000 British regulars and loyalists under the command of New York’s Royal Governor: Major General William Tyron. He had sailed up Long Island Sound to conduct a raid behind enemy lines.
Before dawn on April 26th, the British entered Danbury, burning much of the town and its 22 storehouses, including 1000 barrels of flour, 4000 barrels of salted beef, 5000 pairs of shoes and stockings, and just for good measure: the town’s printing press. (Clearly, the British knew where to hit the Americans hardest.)
Thankfully for the people of Danbury, they had received ample warning of the attack. Legends speak of Sybil Ludington (the 17-year-old daughter of Colonel Henry Luddington), who rode 40 miles across Putnam County to warn the people of Danbury and the surrounding towns of the incoming British forces.
The residents of Danbury evacuated with the supplies they could carry to New Milford and immediately began organizing with the local militias (including Sharon’s).
Leading them were two Connecticut residents: Major General David Wooster and Brigadier General Benedict Arnold (three years later, Arnold would be wearing a different uniform).
The day after the burning of Danbury, the revolutionaries would meet the British at Ridgefield. However, American militiamen were no match for British regulars in open battle.
General Wooster was mortally wounded trying to rally his troops, and the call for a retreat sounded from the American ranks. But Samuel Elmer refused to surrender. This brave young officer shouted to his men, “For God’s sake, don’t retreat! Don’t run! March up the hill and drive them off!”
As he spoke these words, he was struck by a bullet, dying in the arms of his uncle, George Pardee, living long enough to utter, “Uncle George, I am a dead man.”
The Americans were routed. Reports vary on the number of casualties, but all estimates range in the hundreds on both sides. Though the British had achieved a tactical victory, American resistance was fiercer than expected, and this would be the last inland operation in Connecticut of the entire war.
The Sharon militia hadn’t succeeded in saving Danbury, but they had fought valiantly and demonstrated the extent of America’s resolve.
Samuel Elmer was initially buried on the spot where he was killed. But he was later moved to the cemetery at Green’s Farm, where he still rests today. His epitaph reads:
Our youthful hero, bold in arms,
His country’s cause his bosom warms;
To save her rights fond to engage,
And guard her from a tyrant’s rage,
Flies to ye field of blood and death,
And gloriously resigns his breath.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Sedgwick, Charles F. General History of the Town of Sharon, 40-41. Sharon, CT: Sharon Historical Society, 2000.