I. Pre-History: Les Misérables Matrot
Seraphin Matrot, the nineteenth century French immigrant known to his new neighbors as the eccentric "old gentleman," relocated his family 7,500 miles from Paris to the seclusion of rural Topeka, Kansas. He had been a wine merchant, a contractor, and a political refugee, who sought asylum in the beautifully crafted Normandy-style castle that he built from bare ground. He chose for his homestead one of the most remote but accessible locations in the West. Oral tradition has it that he had narrowly escaped the guillotine before fleeing his homeland with his wife and three children.
Documents verify a long-held local tradition that Monsieur Matrot was sought by French authorities due to his political affiliations in Paris during the mid to late 1800s. Having escaped to the Topeka Township sometime around 1873, it is a fair assumption that the political persecution he feared was related to experiences before, during, or after the notoriously brutal insurrection of 1870-71, a massacre known as the "Semaine Sanglanta" (trans. "The Bloody Winter").
During the period following the surrender of Paris to Germany at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, thousands of working class Parisians were summarily tortured and executed for their association with the Council of Paris (a.k.a. the Commune of Paris). The Commune, a populist political faction with roots in the French Revolution, consisted of well over 100 thousand Parisians who called for economic and political freedom from the monarchy, and from other perceived threats to social liberty for the common man. The origins of this political party are dramatically portrayed in the classic novel and stage play entitled "Les Miserables," by Victor Hugo. Consistent with the party's socialist if not purely democratic ideals, the Commune rebelled against their governments' surrender of Paris to Germany in 1870.
From what we've learned of M. Matrot's background as a Paris wine merchant, and a member of the Paris Police Force (which the Franco-Germans disbanded for its alleged treason during the insurrection), it is likely that M. Matrot came to Topeka with a fear for his life that was less than unreasonably paranoid. Oral family tradition relates an occasion in which Ms. Matrot had fought in a street battle alongside her husband, coming to his assistance to remove a black powder stain from his hand. Most of M. Matrot's comrades suffered much more in one of the shortest but bloodiest civil wars in modern history.
Contemporary observers estimated that 30,000 Parisians, most of them middle class men, women, and children, were tortured and killed. Thirty eight thousand were arrested and held in concentration camps, and over 7,000 were banished to deserted French islands. One such account describes the plight of Parisians who faced the same genocide that M. Matrot successfully avoided:
…Prisoners were formed into long chains… so as to form one body [in convoys from Paris to the camps]. … It looked like the population of a city dragged away by fierce hordes …Panting, covered with filth, idiotic with fatigue, hunger, and thirst, burnt by the sun, the convoys dragged themselves along for hours …harassed by the cries, the blows from the mounted chasseurs … The captives who fell were sometimes shot, [or] thrown into the carts that followed … There were no doctors, gangrene attacked the wounded; opthalmia broke out; deliriousness became chronic. In the night were heard the shrieks of the feverstricken and the mad. Opposite, the gendarmes remained impassive, their guns loaded. … Hunts were organized in the forests near Paris. Police watched all the stations, all the ports of France. Passports had to be renewed and checked at Versailles. The masters of boats were under supervision …
Some historians even trace the origins of the first World War to the Council's martyrdom. Many future revolutionaries and democratically-minded citizens looked back for inspiration at the legion of struggling merchants like Seraphin, who aligned themselves at their own peril with the cause of personal freedom and social security. Vladimir Lennon, the founder of modern socialism, requested that his body be draped and entombed with the Commune's red flag. It was from this chilling history that Seraphin Matrot brought his young family to build a fortress, a replica of the castle from which he was evicted in France, to the western Topeka, Kansas.
II. A Monsieur's Fortress is His Castle
M. Matrot's new homestead was in no city on a hill. To shelter his family with obscurity, he picked for a homestead a valley far from what little civilization existed in Shawnee County at the time. Although the castle is said to be identical to the home he left in France, as a gesture to his uprooted wife, the most remarkable aspects of the structure's architecture indicate that it was built, as the castles of the medieval period, for the protection of its inhabitants.
The windows in the three story turrets faced in three directions, and contained holes through which to fit the barrels of firearms. The walls of the castle were a full foot thick, sufficient to repel a small army, and well beyond what was needed to protect his family from a Kansas tornado. The most impressive feature of M. Matrot's security system was a secret tunnel that extended from the wine cellar, beneath the grape crops, to a ravine 500 yards northwest of the property. The wine cellar itself, with it's high arched brick ceiling, was built 26 feet long and 13 feet wide – small for a wine cellar, and adequate to hide a family of five in the event of an attack on the fortress from without.
The principal purpose of the wine cellar was to provide an optimum environment for the fermentation of grape juice into wine. The turrets were originally open from the cellar to the top of the three story spires to allow maximum ventilation for the casks stored below. Also, diagonal shafts forced low cool air into the cellar from the castle's east exposure, providing an optimum climate of air and light. Not only did the construction project demand painstaking hours of design work and labor, the grape vines that were planted needed to be carefully tended for several years before a harvest of grapes could be had. One can imagine the apprehension Mssr. Matrot must have suffered as his dream of recreating his life drug on slowly, year after year. As his fear of the French bounty hunters subsided, the forces of history were once again raising its misery to Matrot again.
III. Les Misérables on the Wagon
Prohibition came to Kansas in 1881. Kansas was the first state to constitutionalize the prohibition of intoxicating beverages, and one of the last states to repeal it. Presumably unknown to the French king of Matrot Castle, his was now the home state of Carrie Nation, and becoming the Kansas law, which took effect in 1871, strictly enforced the prohibition. During this time, M. Matro was building his wine cellar, and nurturing his grape vines to maturity. Enforcement, particularly in the capitol city, was lax.
Many wineries and breweries skirted the prohibitory law by taking advantage of the exception it created for intoxicants prescribed by physicians. This prevelantly channeled loophole garnished national attention; the Boston Transcript noted in 1882 that "Kansas physicians help the droughty ones to get around the prohibitory law by prescribing liquor for [every] ill. For a boil on the arm, one patient was ordered to take, in eleven days, ten pints of "spiritus fermenti" [i.e. wine] and thirty bottles of beer … boils are very fashionable in Kansas."
But by 1885, at about the time M. Matrot's cellar and vines should have been ready to re-establish him in his new neighborhood as a wine merchant, the Kansas Legislature tightened its restrictions. In short order, all of Topeka's established local breweries, wineries, and distilleries were out of business or converted to other commercial purposes. No reference has been found to document that M. Matrot ever sold a bottle of wine. If he did, it was likely to organized bootlegging operations, which generally specialized in liquors rather than wine or beer, because the "hard stuff" could be transported more compactly, with more punch, and pennies, for ounces sold.
The Matrots may have harvested grapes for juice, and a very limited amount of wine for medicinal purposes, but the latter practice was also greatly curtailed state-wide by the 1885 legislation.
Even if no one else benefited from the Matrot Winery and Vineyards, Seraphin himself apparently did. Family tradition holds that the "old gentleman" even had a dumbwaiter mechanism to draw wine, a bottle or glass at a time, from the cellar through the turret floor to his first story living quarters so that he didn't have to navigate the castle's brutal spiral steps for refills.
History leaves to curious speculation the question of Madam Antoinette's misery during her years at Matrot Castle. One can only wonder about her attitude toward the drinking habits of her husband, and about the way she felt about the scores of Shawnee Indians that he retained, paid with wine on site, to literally build the castle up around her family. Some have suggested that it may well have been Antoinette's outrage over Seraphin's drinking, not to mention his notoriously miserable luck, that accounted for his decision to build the cellar hide-out and secret escape hatch to begin with. Perhaps the hidden tunnel was built with escape from his wife in mind!
Altogether, it would seem that the M. Matrots' long and hard labor was virtually in vain. "The old gentleman," as some of his contemporaries remembered him, was seemingly oppressed again by political realities over which he was repeatedly rendered powerless. He passed away on the second story of his home, in May 1898. According to his neighbors, Seraphin was a man with no religious beliefs. Newspapers report that his coffin could not be navigated up or down the narrow spiral staircase, so a second story window had to be removed in order to hoist the coffin up and down. This suggests that by the time his body was found and tended, rigor mortis prevented the transport of his body down the staircase as well.
Antoinette is said to have fled back home to France only to be stoned to death in 1914, presumably for her and her husband's involvement in the Paris underground. Census records support that in 1910 she was still living in the castle, with her son-in-law, Eugene (by marriage to her late daughter, Blanch), and Eugene's six children. No record of her is known thereafter.
IV. Modern Misérables
Prior to Antoinette's departure from the castle, Eugene's family lived there for several years. Subsequent owners made various efforts to renovate and restore the property. These include E.E. Moore to 1933; Elroy Vitt, from 1933-1946; George Burns and Earl Green, Jr (cousins returning from World War II) from 1946-1947; Julius Perkuhn, who added the west addition around 1947; S.K. Vincent until the early 1970s; Paul Clark, who restored the original mortar work and undertook several modernization projects through the mid 1970s; Brad Miller for a couple years thereafter; Mark Stillings through 1978; Caroline Kirk from 1992-2004; and Jerry Wittmer from 2004 to the present.
Previous owners have been spooked by strange phenomena that some believe is caused by the unsettled spirit of M. Matrot himself. One of Paul Clark's sons recalls: "We have many stories of furniture moving, doors opening and closing, pounding noises coming from the living room floor, the sound of phantom footsteps when no one else was present, and other poltergeist-type events…[and other experiences] which were very frightening… "
In addition, other owners, including its current inhabitants, have noted interior lights igniting when no switch was turned, and noises from various vacant locations within the castle. Sadly, at least one former resident of the Matrot castle ended her own life on the premises.
V. Post Misérables: The Ghost of Matrot Future
The future of the Castle and Vineyards promises to redeem, and hopefully appease, the unsatisfied dreams of its original master. Much work has been undertaken by the current owner, and is still underway, to furnish and refurbish the interior of the castle, and to landscape the acreage on which it stands. Alongside grape vines that have miraculously survived for over 120 years, new vines of several different species are being nurtured and grown. An application for a farm winery license is being prepared for future commercial sales of Matrot wine. Tours of the newly refurbished castle are being booked, and castle parties are being planned. The Matrot Castle and Vineyards have now been officially included in the State and Register of Historic Places. We believe that Seraphin Matrot would be pleased with these efforts. And we hope that the fruition of the Monsieur's dreams of a fruitful Castle and Vineyard will allow him to rest in peace at last!