By Brett Nolan
“…but at last it was done; and a neat, pleasant little place it was.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Palmetto Leaves,” 1872.
When Harriet Beecher Stowe and her family flocked to Mandarin for winters in the land of sunny Florida during the latter part of the 19th Century, it wasn’t just to enjoy the state’s subtropical climate. In fact, Stowe was determined to bring a Northern influence to a rather desolate area following the Civil War. After much deliberation, Stowe successfully lobbied the Freedmen’s Bureau to erect a branch in Mandarin, and by 1869, a building for the agency was constructed. The structure would function as a schoolhouse for black and white children on weekdays, and a church on Sundays. This worked out exceptionally well for the Stowes, because not only was the building catty-corner from their winter cottage, but between their family members, they had a minister, organist, and choir. Stowe would frequently have a little Mason and Hamlin missionary organ carried to and from her home for each service, leaving the preaching in the hands of her dear husband, Professor Calvin E. Stowe.
By 1871, after mismanagement of funding, the Mandarin School left students without a teacher for a year. Everything was in place for class to resume in the fall of 1872 when one night the building mysteriously caught fire. With it, Stowe’s petite pump organ shrieked in agony till it was no more. Ironically, it was locked inside a closet for safekeeping after proving an inconvenience hauling to and fro. Not without some controversy surrounding whether the fire was accidental or on purpose, Stowe would say it was caused by wandering loafers who had lost control of their fire while seeking refuge in the building on a cold winter’s night. Others think it was done in spite of the famous authoress’s philanthropy work.
Saddened at the loss of the beloved community building, Stowe wrote to friends across the county pleading for funds to rebuild it. Her ambitions were penned on paper of a mighty Phoenix rising from the ashes — and the heroine’s work was a success. Stowe raised the necessary resources and construction began in the following spring on the site of the former Freedmen’s Bureau. By the end of 1872, villagers had a new building.
While in Mandarin, the Stowes brought about a certain flair that wafted through the air with all kinds of excitement. Harriet was like the sweet-smelling orange blossom opening up in the winter months, perfuming the community with life that so many Mandarinites looked forward to. She organized picnics and parties in the village, commonly utilizing the newly built schoolhouse as their venue. Charade merrymakings, theatrical productions, and square dancing with music led by a local fiddler emanated from this community hall. Mandarin marveled at her gracious exertions.
Still in awe of the amiable author’s feat, residents today can look to the momentous structure, known as the Mandarin Community Club, as “a direct link to the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the educational, religious and cultural life of early Mandarin.” (Wood) It is singularly significant to our area’s history and, at last it was done. Mandarin has found itself a gathering place of fellowship now for nearly 150 years — and what a neat little place it has become.
Look for Part 2 in the January issue of Mandarin NewsLine, featuring the Mandarin Community Club as it evolved into the 20th century and beyond.
[Information for this article was taken from “Palmetto Leaves” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage” by Wayne Wood, “Mandarin on the St. Johns” by Mary B. Graff, and an interview with Emily Lisska (Mandarin Community Club board of directors).]
Brett Nolan is a volunteer with the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society. Visit www.mandarinmusem.net for more information about Mandarin’s history and museum schedules.
Photo sourced from the Florida State Archives
Mandarin School circa 1878