Paul LaBrousse (also known as Paul L’Abrousse or Paul Le Bruce or Paul LaBrousse Dubreuil) was born in 1758 in France. A few years after moving to Philadelphia, Paul LaBrousse established a vineyard on the former Bankson family plantation in Southwark.
Believe it or not, some of our early colonists thought that Pennsylvania offered ideal conditions for harvesting grapes and producing wine. Shortly after arriving on this side of the Atlantic, William Penn boasted of discovering an “extraordinary” native grape plant which could be “cultivated into an excellent wine.” According to estate records, Penn had installed a vineyard at “Springettsbury Manor,” his property located outside of the city, in the neighborhood we know today as Francisville. Unfortunately, Penn’s attempts to produce wine were ultimately unsuccessful as all of his grape vines had reportedly died by 1699. Francis Pastorius, the founder of Germantown, had also experimented with winemaking at his own estate around the same time with little success.
In the early 1800s, a second wave of winemakers settled in and around Philadelphia and set up vineyards on their properties. This group of aspiring vintners were very likely aware of the difficulties that Penn and others had faced a century before. In 1802, an organization called the Company for the Improvement of the Vine was formed and, at the time, there were at least seven vineyards located in the Philadelphia area. James Mease’s vineyard, which was located “in the centre of the ground-plan of Philadelphia, on the line of Cherry Alley” had over three thousand plants. Stephen Girard, a native of Bordeaux, had about “forty or fifty plants” on his property near the Schuylkill River. A few miles outside of the city, Peter Kuhn was cultivating vines that had been imported from Lisbon, Malaga, and Madeira. In Southwark, Paul LaBrousse set up a vineyard on the former Bankson family plantation, located “between Second and Third Streets, near Mr. Crousillat’s [Crosby’s] tavern.”
LaBrousse, a native of Saint Lazare, may have been a winemaker in France, but records of his life there are scarce. According to family lore, he was born in 1758 to Guillaume LaBrousse (1711-1781) and Catherine Charpenet (born 1730) and had two sisters, Jeanne and Antoinette.
While still living in France, LaBrousse married Louisa Martine and had two children, John Baptiste and Catharine Celeste. It is possible that events related to the French Revolution caused him to uproot his family and move to Philadelphia. While this cannot be verified, the earliest records of LaBrousse in Philadelphia date to 1793, a month after the “Reign of Terror” began. Esprit Felix, his youngest son, was born in October of that year and was baptized along with his daughter at Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church on Willings Alley.
LaBrousse and his family spent the next six years in Philadelphia and census records indicate that they lived in the Cedar Ward. On April 12, 1799, LaBrousse successfully petitioned the Pennsylvania Circuit Court and became a United States citizen. The very next day, he acquired approximately 38 acres of land in Southwark and began cultivating a vineyard on the southern portion of his property.
Over the next three years, LaBrousse traveled to Europe with the purpose of collecting materials for his own use and for resale purposes. In 1802, he placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette for the sale of vine plants “of the very best European quality” along with “various specimens of grapes which [the public] will find excellent.” He also advertised the sale of “roots at one quarter dollars each” and “cuttings at 10 dollars the hundred.”
LaBrousse and his family rented a house at 178 Pine Street, located between 6th and 7th Streets, and made it their home for twelve years. In 1815, he bought two adjacent homes on the very same block from James Maguire, the merchant who sponsored his citizenship application, and probably moved into one of those properties. Around the same time, he served as the secretary of the St. Joseph’s Society for Educating and Maintaining Poor Orphan Children.
Unlike Penn and other early colonists, LaBrousse’s winemaking venture may have been somewhat successful. There is no record of LaBrousse having any debts and it seems that he made no attempt to unload the vineyard during his lifetime.
It is not clear why LaBrousse returned to France in 1844, but he reportedly fell ill and proceeded to file his last will and testament there. He died three years later in Laville and bequeathed his entire estate to his daughter Catharine. LaBrousse’s granddaughter, Pauline Louise Lagorsse and her husband Jean Eugene took over the vineyard and held onto it for six years before relocating to France. Catharine maintained the northern portion of her father’s estate and resided at 219 Morris Street until her death. In the early 1900s, the City of Philadelphia demolished Catharine’s house and built the Abigail Vare Public School in its place.