Harriet Beecher Stowe is known for her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this part of Florida, she’s also known as a benefactor to many in the Mandarin community on the St. Johns River.
After the Civil War, the Stowe family purchased property on the St. Johns River in Mandarin, Florida, as a winter home. During that period, she and her husband were instrumental in building the Church of Our Saviour, where her husband served as minister. They also created an integrated school in the area.
During their last stay, she commissioned a stained-glass window by Louis C. Tiffany for the church. It depicted a sunset on the St. Johns River and was placed on the west-facing wall overlooking the river. The light of the setting sun through that window was a glorious experience.
Unfortunately, I must say it “was” an experience because Hurricane Dora made a direct hit on St. Augustine in 1964 and the Church of Our Saviour was one of the casualties of the storm. Although the church has been rebuilt, the window was beyond repair. This photo is one of the few in the Florida Photographic Collection at the state archives.
While Mrs. Stowe is best known for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she did several other books including Palmetto-Leaves, which describes her life and travels in Florida. It has been described as one of the best travel promotions for Florida at the time and may have had some influence on Henry Flagler, who built the Florida East Coast Railway all the way to the Keys – opening the east coast of Florida to the tourist market.
Here is a chapter from Palmetto-Leaves discussing a trip to St. Augustine. Today, a trip from Mandarin to St. Augustine is a short drive down a scenic river road but in her day it was an all-day trip – first by boat, then by horse-drawn railway.
Mandarin, May 30, 1872
The thermometer with us, during the third week in May, rose to ninety-two in the shade; and as we had received an invitation from a friend to visit St. Augustine, which is the Newport of Florida, we thought it a good time to go seaward. So on a pleasant morning we embarked on the handsome boat “Florence,” which has taken so many up the river, and thus secured all the breeze that was to be had.
“The Florence ” is used expressly for a river pleasure-boat, plying every day between Jacksonville and Pilatka. It is long and airy, and nicely famished; and one could not imagine a more delightful conveyance. In hot weather, one could not be more sure of cool breezes than when sailing up and down perpetually in “The Florence.” Our destiny, however, landed us in the very meridian of the day at Tekoi. Tekoi consists of a shed and a sand-bank, and a little shanty, where, to those who require, refreshments are served.
On landing, we found that we must pay for the pleasure and coolness of coming up river in “The Florence” by waiting two or three mortal hours till “The Starlight” arrived; for the railroad-car would not start till the full complement of passengers was secured. We had a good opportunity then of testing what the heat of a Florida sun might be, untempered by live-oaks and orange shades, and unalleviated by ice-water; and the lesson was an impressive one.
The railroad across to St. Augustine is made of wooden rails; and the cars are drawn by horses.
There was one handsome car like those used on the New-York horse-railroads: the others were the roughest things imaginable. Travelers have usually spoken of this road with execration for its slowness and roughness; but over this, such as it was, all the rank and fashion of our pleasure-seekers, the last winter, have been pouring in unbroken daily streams. In the height of the season, when the cars were crowded, four hours were said to be consumed in performing this fifteen miles. We, however, did it in about two.
To us this bit of ride through the Florida woods is such a never-ceasing source of interest and pleasure, that we do not mind the slowness of it, and should regret being whisked by at steam-speed. We have come over it three times; and each time the varieties of shrubs and flowers, grasses and curious leaves, were a never-failing study and delight. Long reaches of green moist land form perfect flower-gardens, whose variety of bloom changes with every month. The woods hang full of beautiful climbing plants. The coral honeysuckle and the red begonia were in season now. Through glimpses and openings here and there we could see into forests of wild orange-trees; and palmetto-palms raised their scaly trunks and gigantic green fans. The passengers could not help admiring the flowers: and as there were many stops and pauses, and as the gait of the horses was never rapid, it was quite easy for the gentlemen to gather and bring in specimens of all the beau ties; and the flowers formed the main staple of the conversation. They were so very bright and gay and varied, that even the most unobserving could not but notice them.
St. Augustine stands on a flat, sandy level, encompassed for miles and miles by what is called ” scrub,” — a mixture of low palmettoes and bushes of various descriptions. Its history carries one back almost to the middle ages. For instance, Menendez, who figured as commandant in its early day, was afterwards appointed to command the Spanish Armada, away back in the times of Queen Elizabeth; but, owing to the state of his health, he did not accept the position.
In the year 1586, Elizabeth then being at war with Spain, her admiral, Sir Francis Drake, bombarded St. Augustine, and took it; helping himself, among other things, to seven brass cannon, two thousand pounds in money, and other booty. In 1605 it was taken and plundered by buccaneers; in 1702, besieged by the people of the Carolinas; in 1740, besieged again by Gen. Oglethorpe of Georgia.
So we see that this part of our country, at least, does not lie open to the imputation so often cast upon America, of having no historic associations; though, like a great deal of the world’s history, it is written in letters of blood and fire.
Whoever would know, let him read Parkman’s “Pioneers of France,” under the article “Huguenots in Florida,” and he will see how the first Spanish governor, Menendez, thought he did God service when he butchered in c6ld blood hundreds of starving, shipwrecked Huguenots who threw themselves on his mercy, and to whom he had extended pledges of shelter and protection.
A government-officer, whose ship is stationed in Matanzas Inlet, told me that the tradition is that the place is still haunted by the unquiet ghosts of the dead. An old negro came to him, earnestly declaring that he had heard often, at midnight, shrieks and moans, and sounds as of expostulation, and earnest cries in some foreign language, at that place; and that several white people whom he had taken to the spot had heard the same. On inquiring of his men, Capt. H could find none who had heard the noises; although, in digging in the sands, human bones were often disinterred. But surely, by all laws of demonology, here is where there ought to be the materials for a first-class ghost-story. Here, where there has been such crime, cruelty, treachery, terror, fear, and agony, we might fancy mourning shades wandering in unrest, — shades of the murderers, forever deploring their crime and cruelty.
The aspect of St. Augustine is quaint and strange, in harmony with its romantic history. It has no pretensions to architectural richness or beauty; and yet it is impressive from its unlikeness to any thing else in America. It is as if some little, old, dead-and-alive Spanish town, with its fort and gateway and Moorish bell towers, had broken loose, floated over here, and got stranded on a sand-bank. Here you see the shovel-hats and black gowns of priests; the convent, with gliding figures of nuns; and in the narrow, crooked streets meet dark-browed people with great Spanish eyes and coal-black hair. The current of life here has the indolent, dreamy stillness that characterizes life in Old Spain. In Spain, when you ask a man to do any thing, instead of answering as we do, “In a minute,” the invariable reply is, ” In an hour;” and the growth and progress of St. Augustine have been according. There it stands, alone, isolated, connected by no good roads or navigation with the busy, living world. Before 1835, St. Augustine was a bower of orange-trees. Almost every house looked forth from these encircling shades. The frost came and withered all; and in very few cases did it seem to come into the heads of the inhabitants to try again. The orange-groves are now the exception, not the rule; and yet for thirty years it has been quite possible to have them.
As the only seaport city of any size in Florida, St. Augustine has many attractions. Those who must choose a Southern home, and who are so situated that they must remain through the whole summer in the home of their choice, could not do better than to choose St. Augustine. It is comparatively free from malarial fevers; and the sea-air tempers the oppressive heats of summer, so that they are quite endurable. Sea-bathing can be practised in suitable bathing-houses; but the sharks make open sea-bathing dangerous. If one comes expecting a fine view of the open ocean, however, one will be disappointed; for Anastasia Island— a long, low sand-bar — stretches its barren line across the whole view, giving only so much sea prospect as can be afforded by the arm of the sea — about two miles wide — which washes the town. Little as this may seem of the ocean, the town lies so flat and low, that, in stormy weather, the waves used to be driven up into it, so as to threaten its destruction. A sea-wall of solid granite masonry was deemed necessary to secure its safety, and has been erected by the United-States Government. This wall affords a favorite promenade to the inhabitants, who there enjoy good footing and sea-breezes.
What much interested us in St. Augustine was to see the results of such wealth and care as are expended at the North on gardening being brought to bear upon gardens in this semi-tropical region. As yet, all that we have seen in Florida has been the beginning of industrial experiments, where utility has been the only thing consulted, and where there has been neither time nor money to seek the ornamental. Along the St. John’s you can see, to-day, hundreds of places torn from the forest, yet showing the unrotted stumps of the trees; the house standing in a glare of loose white sand, in which one sinks over shoes at every step. If there be a flower-garden (and, wherever there is a woman, there will be), its prospects in the loose sliding sands appear discouraging. Boards and brick-edgings are necessary to make any kind of boundaries; and a man who has to cut down a forest, dig a well, build a house, plant an orange grove, and meanwhile raise enough garden-stuff to pay his way, has small time for the graces.
But here in St. Augustine are some families of wealth and leisure, driven to seek such a winter-home, who amuse themselves during their stay in making that home charming; and the results are encouraging.
In the first place, the slippery sand-spirit has been caught, and confined under green grass plats. The grass problem has been an earnest study with us ever since we came here. What grass will bear a steady blaze of the sun for six months, with the thermometer at a hundred and thirty or forty, is a question. It is perfectly easy, as we have proved by experiment, to raise flattering grass-plats of white clover, and even . of the red-top, during the cool, charming months of January, February, and March; but their history will be summed up in the scriptural account — ” which to day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven” — as soon as May begins.
The chances of an enduring sod for ornamental purposes are confined to two varieties, — the broad and the narrow leafed Bermuda grasses. These have roots that run either to the centre of the earth, or far enough in that direction for practical purposes; and are, besides, endowed with the faculty of throwing out roots at every joint, so that they spread rapidly. The broadleafed kind is what is principally employed in St. Augustine; and we have seen beautifully kept gardens where it is cut into borders, and where the grass-plats and croquet-grounds have been made of it to admirable advantage. A surface of green in this climate is doubly precious to the eye.
We were visiting in a house which is a model for a hot climate. A wide, cool hall runs through the centre; and wide verandas, both above and below, go around the whole four sides. From these we could look down at our leisure into the foliage of a row of Magnolia grandiflora, now in blossom. Ivy, honeysuckles, manrundia, and a host of other climbing – plants, make a bower of these outside corridors of the house. The calla-lilies blossom almost daily in shaded spots; and beds of fragrant blue violets are never without flowers. Among the ornamental shrubbery we noticed the chaparral, — a thorny tree, with clusters of yellow blossoms, and long, drooping, peculiar leaves, resembling in effect the willowleafed acacia. The banana has a value simply as an ornamental-leaf plant, quite apart from the consideration of its fruit, which one can buy, perhaps, better than one can raise, in this part of Florida; but it is glorious, when the thermometer is going up into the hundreds, to see the great, fresh, broad, cool leaves of the banana-tree leaping into life, and seeming to joy in existence. In groups of different sizes, they form most beautiful and effective shrubbery. The secret of gardening well here is to get things that love the sun. Plants that come originally from hot regions, and that rejoice the hotter it grows, are those to be sought for. The date-palm has many beautiful specimens in the gardens of St. Augustine. A date-palm, at near view, is as quaint and peculiar ;i specimen of Nature as one can imagine. Its trunk seems built up of great scales, in which ferns and vines root themselves, and twine and ramble, and hang in festoons. Above, the leaves, thirty feet long, fall in a feathery arch, and in the centre, like the waters of a fountain, shoot up bright, yellow, drooping branches that look like coral. These are the flower-stalks. The fruit, in this climate, does not ripen so as to be good for any thing.
One gentleman showed me a young palm, now six feet high, which he had raised from a seed of the common shop date, planted four years ago. In this same garden he showed me enormous rose-trees, which he had formed by budding the finest of the Bourbon ever-blooming roses in the native Florida rose. The growth in three years had been incredible; and these trees are an ever-springing fountain of fresh roses. There is a rose-tree in St. Augustine, in a little garden, which all the sight-seers go to see. It is a tree with a trunk about the size of an ordinary man’s arm, and is said to have had a thousand roses on it at a time. Half that number will answer our purpose; and we will set it down at that. Rose-slugs and rosebugs are pests unheard of here. The rose grows as in its native home. One very pretty feature of the houses here struck me agreeably. There is oftentimes a sort of shaded walk under half the house, opening upon the garden. You go up a dusty street, and stand at a door, which you expect will open into a hall. It opens, and a garden full of flowers and trees meets your view. The surprise is delightful. In one garden that we visited we saw a century-plant in bud. The stalk was nineteen feet high; and the blossoms seemed to promise to be similar to those of the yucca. The leaves are like the aloe, only longer, and twisted and contorted in a strange, weird fashion. On the whole, it looked as if it might have been one of the strange plants in Rappicini’s garden in Padua.
The society in St. Augustine, though not extensive, is very delightful. We met and were introduced to some very cultivated, agreeable people. There is a fair prospect that the city will soon be united by railroad to Jacksonville, which will greatly add to the facility and convenience of living there. We recrossed the railroad at Tekoi, on our way home, in company with a party of gentlemen who are investigating that road with a view of putting capital into it, and so getting it into active running order. One of them informed me that he was also going to Indian River to explore, in view of the projected plan to unite it with the St. John’s by means of a canal. Very sensibly he remarked, that, in order to really make up one’s mind about Florida, one should see it in summer; to which we heartily assented.
By all these means this beautiful country is being laid open, and made accessible and inhabitable as a home and refuge for those who need it.
On the steamboat, coming back, we met the Florida Thoreau of whom we before spoke,— a devoted, enthusiastic lover of Nature as she reveals herself in the most secluded everglades and forests. He supports himself, and pays the expenses of his tours, by selling the curiosities of Nature which he obtains to the crowd of eager visitors who throng the hotels in winter. The feathers of the pink curlew, the heron, the crane, the teeth of alligators, the skins of deer, panther, and wild-cat, are among his trophies. He asserted with vehemence that there were varieties of birds in Florida unknown as yet to any collection of natural history. He excited us greatly by speaking of a pair of pet pink curlews which had been tamed; also of a snow white stork, with sky-blue epaulet on each shoulder, which is to be found in the everglades. He was going to spend the whole summer alone in these regions, or only with Indian guides; and seemed cheerful and enthusiastic. He should find plenty of cocoanuts, and would never need to have a fever if he would eat daily of the wild oranges which abound. If one only could go in spirit, and not in flesh, one would like to follow him into the everglades. The tropical forests of Florida contain visions and wonders of growth and glory never yet revealed • to the eye of the common traveller, and which he who sees must risk much to explore. Our best wishes go with our enthusiast. May he live to tell us what he sees!