The Confectionery of Monsieur Giron
(Reprinted from the Translyvanian for April 1907)
By WILLIAM KAVANAUGH DOTY
Source: The Lexington (KY) Herald, 15 August 1915
Lexington Kentucky is perhaps the most famous little city in the United States. The reputation it enjoys and the distinction it bears do not depend on a single thing, but upon nearly every stage of progress and upon every degree of human endeavour. It is among the quaintest of places and one of the most unique. The streets of the present day are of many widths, varying from those of Lexington, the village, to those of Lexington, the city; and to one who is acquainted with the history, traditions, and associations of this Kentucky, Lexington, it is a pleasure indescribable, while walking through them--diversified as they are with commingled styles of architecture, lawns, and gardens, covering the entire nineteenth century and overlapping the eighteenth and twentieth,--to dwell for a time upon those places of especial interest.
Hand in hand, and side by side, stand the old rambling mansions of slave days and the modern residences, more closely built, and consciously compact; and nestled there between buildings of dizzy heights is the small two-storeyed structure with its roof slanting toward the street and with its small windows with smaller panes--the business house of an ante-bellum metropolis. A strange mingling is this of ease and opulence, commercialism and romance, history made and history making.
But to lay aside for a while all thoughts of the present, to forget for a moment the greedy rush and noisy bustle of the day, it is something akin to inspiration in walking through such historic streets to look upon the oldest institution of learning west of the Alleghenies. To know that in that house over there the Marquis de la Fayette was entertained, and from its steps addressed a crowd of enthusiastic Kentuckians. To see farther down the law office of Henry Clay, and opposite it his residence previous to Ashland. In sight of this the spot whereon John Bradford printed the Kentucky Gazette, first newspaper in the West.
And adjoining that, the Confectionery of Monsieur Giron containing the beautiful dance hall of former times. Then there are countless others--Postmaster Ficklin's house where Jefferson Davis lived while a student at Transylvania; the Elkhorn, first water to be plowed by the first steamboat in America; Postlewaite's Tavern (now the Phoenix Hotel); and the Church of the Reverend James Moore--the sweet-souled parson upon whose ears forever smote the sweet celestial harmony of the spheres "like music playing in the distance,"--all perpetuated in history, song, and story to represent a short but most romantic portion of the United States.
One of the most interesting but not the most noted of the places mentioned is the Confectionery of M. Giron. It owes its chief interest at this far time to Mr. James Lane Allen's famous short story, King Solomon of Kentucky, which has been pointed to by eminent citizens as one of the best in the English language. In this story, M. Giron, his Confectionery, and his Ball-Room, are seen most vividly.
Many characters in legendary and historical fiction when traced through the misty years to their daily lives, and subjected to the critical test of serious research lose most of the subtle charm enshrouding them as characters in a beautiful story; their beauty, bravery and brocaded costumes all too often vanish when the clear light of a cold scrutiny falls upon them. Not so with M. Giron--"that M. Giron who made the tall pyramids of meringues and macaroons for wedding suppers, and spun around them a cloud of candied webbing as white and misty as the veil of a bride." He stands out lovable, in fact, no less than in fiction. Whether viewing him through the pages of romance, or reading of his transactions in the County records, or listening to an account of him by some of the old Lexingtonians who still live and remember him, he is equally interesting,--more interesting that any purely fictitious character could ever be.
This M. Mathurin Giron emigrated to Kentucky near the century line of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He was a Frenchman, speaking a piquant, broken English with an accent, which accent lent an animation to his speech. He was an attractive little figure, of heavy build, but of low stature--scarcely over five feet in height--and with a sunny, smooth-shaven face. He was, moreover, a gentleman of exceeding tact and kindliness, possessing the rare human quality of making and keeping friends; was ever active, cordial, and merry, a man of great adaptability--never alienating a friend, never irritating an enemy. After coming to Kentucky, he married Miss Philberte Vimont, of Millersburg, Bourbon County, daughter of a worthy citizen-Frenchman lately come into the West, and their descendents are now rather numerous in Central Kentucky where they represent a substantial element of citizenship.
Naturally enough a man like Mathurin Giron who had seen something of the world would be of more than passing interest in those days, and the more especially so when he told at length to his wondering auditors the stories of his travels and adventures in other times and climes; for the associated press and railways had not as yet dispelled as a mist of the morning the vast, dense "Wilderness" lying between Kentucky and the "Old Settlement," Virginia; the people were all but shut in from the news and happenings of the outside world; and, but few books of travel had found their way across the Alleghenies. He claimed to have been a French grenadier and in Napoleon's Guard--a thing much doubted by reason of his height--and to have lived in nearly every country of the Old World. One day while surrounded by an admiring group, he told of the places he had visited and the countries in which he had lived, not forgetting to give the time that he had resided in each. At the end of his narrative, a wag in the crowd with mathematical faculties piped up and said: "Well, Mr. Giron, that makes you an hundred and sixteen years old." Poor old enthusiast! Not a willfull Munchausen, but how hopelessly entangled now in his own venial fabrications!
The name of M. Giron first appears among the transactions on the records of the County Court in January, 1811. He was a "confectionery." So state the records. From the day he had first set foot in Lexington, that trade had been for him vocation and avocation alike. He prospered. His increasing trade demanded soon an assistant. He thought of an apprentice (journeymen were not yet become obsolete), and he articled one accordingly, a youth of eighteen summers, by name, Francis Rennals. This youth must not have had the most favourable of advantages up to then, but in M. Giron he found a kindly-disposed master who treated him well and prepared him fully for his after life. The apprentice bond is interesting because of its peculiar old style and because it is illustrative of the time. It ran thus:
M. Giron's first partner in the confectionery business was Henry Terass. They operated their Confectionery under the firm name of "Terrass and Giron." This partnership did not continue very long; and on December 10, 1811, Mr. Peter John Robert bought out Mr. Terrass' interest in the building and confectionery, assumed half of the debt of the firm, but was not to work or stay in the confectionery. On the contrary, he paid M. Giron three hundred dollars a year for his extra trouble. His brother, Mr. Henry I. Robert, assisted M. Giron, but took no control in the management. This firm was known as "Giron & Company." The profits and losses were to be divided equally, and they were to continue for three years under the contract unless they mutually decided otherwise.
The confectionery of M. Giron stood and yet stands, on Mill Street between Short and Main. At that time (1811) it was a wooden structure, twenty-two feet wide, covering just one-half of the space that the present building occupies. He owned, however, an adjoining lot of equal width making a splendid front of forty-four feet upon which he built in later years the present attractive old house of brick.
Fortune favoured the little Frenchman. Soon he added other property to his list. He purchased a building of twenty-four feet in width on Short Street in 1818. His confectionery was near the corner of Mill and Short, with only one building between his shop and the corner, and his new purchase was just behind this corner building, facing Short Street, and in close proximity to the confectionery itself. The lots upon which they were built were joined in the rear and formed a right angle. The upper rooms of these two buildings were destined to become the famous ball-rooms of M. Giron.
The firm of "Giron & Company" was finally suspended, leaving Monsieur Giron to continue the trade alone with more or less success until that ever memorable year of 1833. Lexington was not now the Lexington that he had first known; he had seen the growth of her University, the ingress of the first railroad, the spread of her distinction, and the distinction of her public men. He had seen it all: he had contributed his part--a fine and notable part-- toward the upbuilding of this, the metropolis of the West. He had, and others had, and the dawning of the spring of 1833 found them dreaming big dreams and seeing visions of greater things to be: "for Lexington was the Athens of the West, the Kentucky Birmingham." Close upon the growth of wealth and education was that of a brilliant society. Travellers of this period pronounced Lexington one of the most fashionable of places, and in hospitality, manners, and intellectual attainments no whit below the most pretentious of the Eastern cities. Notwithstanding the bitter polemical contentions and sectarian prejudices, and the puritan element, deep-rooted, and ever threatening to wipe out the mere suggestion of pleasure, pleasure continued. Those who read the Observer and Reporter of March 28, 1833, saw this announcement, printed in italics under a bold heading:
They saw the announcement on April the third. Madame Blaique saw it. P. Jones saw it.
Monsieur Xaupi had realized the opportunities for practising his profession in America, and upon his arrival in this country, settled in aristocratic, pleasure-loving old Virginia. He resided there for several years, until, fascinated by the reports from the West, he decided to follow the wave of emigration to that happy land where plenty and contentment reigned, and where his sad little life was so soon to become a memory.
Now Madame Blaique, lately of France, had taught a dancing class at Lexington in recent years, as had P. Jones, and seeing their rights disputed by a new comer, they respectfully announced their intentions of continuing their dancing academies just as before. Mr. Jones notified his patron through the Observer and Reporter that his class at M. L. Taylor's ball-room "on Main Street, near the Postoffice," would be opened on Saturday, the thirteenth of April, and that he would conduct classes "for young ladies and masters," and an evening school for gentlemen. In addition to these classes, one would be opened for gentlemen who to become acquainted with that delightful instrument, the violin.
And Madame Blaique tendered her thanks, as well, for patronage in the past. She placed in the Observer and Reporter a very flattering article concerning her ability from the Bardstown Herald, in which town she had recently given dancing lessons with so much success and satisfaction. She was to have two classes, also, one for young ladies and for young gentlemen. "Waltzes, Galopedes, Cotillions and fashionable modes of dancing" would be taught.
Soon after M. Xaupi's arrival in Lexington, he arranged with his compatriot, M. Giron, to have his headquarters in the Giron ballrooms above the confectioneries, and thereupon inserted the following card in the Observer and Reporter.
Besides this dancing class, M. Xaupi planned to have a great ball each month, a "Cotillion Party," most beautiful to see. The first of these was given on May the third. The ladies who had received invitation tickets were invited to attend the May ball, and the gentlemen were notified that they might obtain admission cards at M. Giron's Confectionery and at Mr. Postlewaite's Tavern.
The second and last Cotillion Party was on May the thirtieth; and this was the last announcement that the poor little Xaupi ever made--printed in beautiful italics:
It was a great event in social circles. Kentucky's fairest were present, and with them rival beauties, their visitors, from other States. "It was the opening party of the summer. The men came in blue cloth coats with brass buttons, buff waistcoats and laced and ruffled shirts; the ladies came in white satins with ethereal silk overdresses, embroidered in the figure of a gold beetle or an oak leaf of green. The walls of the ball-room were painted to represent landscapes of beautiful orange trees, set here and there in clustering tubs; and the chandeliers and sconces were lighted with innumerable wax candles, yellow and green and rose. "Old King Solomon attended M. Xaupi's ball too, but "in his own way and in his proper character, being drawn to the place for the purpose of seeing the fine ladies arrive and float in like large white moths of the summer night; of looking in through the open windows at the many colored waxen lights and the snowy arms and shoulders; of having blown out to him the perfume and the music; not worthy to go in, being the lowest of the low, but attending from a doorstep of the street opposite." This ball was the gay predecessor of a gloomy aftermath, the most melancholy in the annals of Kentucky--nay, the Mardi Gras of the summer of '33. Poor old Xaupi--poor little Frenchman! whirled as a gamin of Paris through the mazes of the Revolution, and lately come all the way to Lexington to teach the people how to dance. Hop about blithely on thy dry legs, basking this night in the waxen-radiance of manners and melodies and graces! Where will be thy tunes and airs tomorrow? Ay, smile and prompt away! On and on! Swing corners, ladies and gentlemen! Form the baskets! Hands all around!"
The cholera came. Hundreds were swept away. M. Xaupi was among the first. The big-hearted, much-persecuted old King Solomon of Kentucky laid him to rest in the old Baptist burying ground, where came at that solemn time all creeds and all parties.
But the Plague was not everlasting. Toward the autumn its ravages lessened and finally subsided. M. Giron, his wife, and daughter escaped. Those who had fled were now returned. The grass was cut from the streets; business was resumed; sorrows and losses began to be forgotten. The more fortunate helped the less fortunate, and King Solomon received his "coronation."
M. Giron, after experiencing many degrees of fortune, at last obtained an unshared and unencumbered title to his property. The days that now came were happy; his wife, Philberte, was a kind and helpful companion; his daughter, Cecelia, grew to be a very beautiful lady. An old gentlemen who remembers them said that he had never known two more pleasant and lovely ladies.
In 1837 M. Giron built the present brick building. It is now as it was then with the exception of a small iron balcony that ran the full length along the upper story in front. On this balcony the dancers were used to come to rest and cool between the sets; and on circus days it was crowded with spectators to better see the Elephant and other "natural curiosities." There are halls in the centre below and above. The confectionery shop was on the lower floor , and the ball-rooms were above, on the right, and extending back and forming an ell with the front of the building and connecting with the room on Short Street. The style of architecture employed is unusual, dignified and graceful. With its air of sturdy grace, the old Confectionery looks as though it might have been designed by Gideon Shryock who conceived Morrison College, Transylvania, and the old State Capitol at Frankfort. The semi-classical note of the Tuscan columns along the front is strongly suggestive of this gifted Kentucky architect of the first half of the nineteenth century. Around this aged remnant of days long dead hover many associations not possible now to another. And for its own simple attractiveness, just as for its interest as a survivor of a period that is past, but never to be forgotten, it should at all odds and without question be preserved.
On this site there has been a confectionery for over a century. It is a long period of continuous duration, but there have been but four people in charge of it--Torrass, Giron, Reardon and Norris. When M. Giron was proprietor he always served the supper at the balls given in his ballrooms above, and was a caterer at many a famous banquet. It was he, forsooth, who made the wonderful cake for the Marquis Fayette--round and rich and high, and covered with a brilliant, beautiful flag of tinted icing in red and white and blue. These spacious rooms were used also as a meeting place for political clubs, especially to be mentioned, as tradition has it, during the high tide of Mr. Clay's career, and through the heated campaigns of Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison. And therein plays were sometimes acted. Very likely, if the truth were known, many a noted player trod these boards and fretted his little hour on the stage.
Years passed on, as they must, and M. Giron grew old. His daughter had since married and moved away. The life of a confectionery was a hard one and he must soon give it up. He was not wealthy, neither was he poor. Active and unceasing labour had built for him a comfortable fortune. He was independent of charity; his child was provided for; and he and his wife could now await their summons in happy, untiring love, at peace with the world and all men.
Their graves in the old Baptist burying ground have long since been erased; but happily the old Confectionery stands today, a fitting and lasting monument to the memory of M. Giron--him who strewed the sweets of life along his way.
Transcribed by pb, October 2000