Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe - R. B. MacArthur

As a Friend of the Freedman

At the close of the war, Captain Frederick Stowe resigned his commission in the Army and went back to college to finish his medical course. But he soon found this too great a strain mentally, for the wound he had received at Gettysburg never healed entirely and from time to time the pain in his head almost drove him insane. In that condition, constant application to his studies was an impossibility, and he came home much discouraged and depressed. His mother was in despair. What could she do with him?

Then she heard of a movement among some Connecticut people, who were planning to take up an old cotton plantation in Florida and raise cotton by free labor. This appealed to Mrs. Stowe, for she saw not only an opportunity to help Fred in such a move, but also a mission for herself among the freed blacks, and the finding of missions to perform was her aim in life. So she bought a cotton plantation on the beautiful St, Johns River, Florida, and set Fred to developing it, but of course the venture was a failure, for neither mother nor son knew the first thing about cotton raising, and it cost them more to grow the crop than they got for all they picked, mainly because mildew and army worms attacked the cotton plants, causing great havoc everywhere. Mrs. Stowe lost about ten thousand dollars in the experiment, but apparently had no regrets, for she felt that many negroes had been saved by her efforts, and human souls were worth more than money to her.

Before they had made up their minds what to do next, Captain Stowe went on a fishing excursion and discovered Mandarin Cove just across the St. Johns River, with a beautiful orange grove that the owner was anxious to sell. Fred was greatly pleased with the idea of possessing an orange grove instead of a cotton plantation, and Mrs. Stowe promptly bought it for him.

Mandarin Cove now became the winter home of the Stowe family, but they returned to their northern home for the summers until the Professor's failing health made it impossible for him to travel back and forth any longer. Mrs. Stowe was immensely interested in missionary work among the negroes of Florida, for vast numbers of freed slaves had taken up their abode in this state where the mild climate suited them better than the colder regions of the country, and already unscrupulous people were beginning to exploit them. They were in a receptive mood and if good influences were not brought to bear upon them at once, bad influences would naturally triumph. So Mrs. Stowe conceived the idea of organizing a chain of churches up and down St. Johns River, and even wrote to influential leaders of the Episcopal Church in regard to her plan, feeling that this particular branch of the Protestant church would reach the negroes best, because originally it was established to reach the poor working people of England before education was accessible for this class.

She wrote to her brother, Charles Beecher, urging him to come to Florida, buy the orange grove next to hers, and establish an Episcopal church for the colored people in that region. Mrs. Stowe had become a member of this church in 1864, but her brother preferred to remain a Congregational preacher, and though he did eventually go to Florida to live, it was not to Mandarin Cove. He settled at Newport, Florida, where he accomplished a great work among the blacks, but for years the only preacher Mandarin Cove had was Professor Stowe, who lived there just during the winter months. The little church and schoolhouse where he preached was built with Mrs. Stowe's own money, and she taught a Sunday School class of colored children. Unfortunately, this little structure burned down one windy night, and Mrs. Stowe was grief-stricken at the loss; but nothing daunted, she began to plan for a new building just as soon as sufficient funds could be raised for that purpose. However, it was not until 1884 that she succeeded in establishing an Episcopal church at Mandarin.

Mandarin Cove became very dear to the Stowes through the many years they, wintered there. Not a nook along the beautiful river, not a spot in the dense pine woods which surrounded them that they did not explore. They had a rude, two-wheeled cart, drawn by a mule called Fly, which Mrs. Stowe said looked like an animated hair trunk, and with this equipage they traveled about the country Making friends and enjoying the bracing air, and not caring a particle how queer they must have looked at times.

Not far from the Stowes' modest little house there was a tiny Roman Catholic church, in charge of an Italian priest, Father Batazzi, and a nunnery where lived three French sisters of the faith. They were all very poor, and Mrs. Stowe and her Rabbi, as she always called her Professor, made it a practice to visit them every two or three weeks with baskets of oranges and other delicacies. Creed made no difference to these simple-hearted folk.

Some enterprising steamboat company in Jacksonville organized excursions to Mandarin Cove for the purpose of carrying curious people to visit Mrs. Stowe's orange grove, but without her knowledge or consent, and without any remuneration for the trouble the Stowes were put to when such parties overran their property. The Professor and his wife took it as a joke, and treated all such visitors very courteously and hospitably as long as they conducted themselves properly, but the hot-tempered Professor could not bear to see souvenir-hunters hack up his orange trees; and on one occasion he rebuked a man who ruthlessly broke off a fruit-laden branch without asking permission of anyone.

The trespasser exclaimed in astonishment, "Why, I thought this was Mrs. Stowe's place!"

"I would have you understand, sir, that I am the proprietor and protector both of Mrs. Stowe and this place!" the irate Professor replied.

He was very proud of his wife's fame, but it galled him considerably to be so completely overshadowed by her greatness, for after all, he had some claims to fame himself, being so learned a scholar, and the author of a book on the Bible which brought him ten thousand dollars or more. Once when he was introduced to a woman, she remarked, "I am very glad to meet you, Professor Stowe, but I must admit, I would rather have met Mrs. Stowe."

"So had I, madam," he grimly retorted.

As the Professor grew in years, and his hair turned white as snow, his health gradually failed until at length he found it impossible to make the long journeys back and forth between his old New England home and the Mandarin Cove cottage, and because all the friends and relatives whom they loved the most lived in the North, they decided at length to return to Florida no more. The frosts had destroyed their orange grove, and so when the property was sold it brought them next to nothing, in spite of the vast sums of money they had spent in improving it. Here was another business venture which had failed because neither master nor mistress knew how to handle their income practically.

Now the Hartford house which Mrs. Stowe had built with so much pleasure also proved to be too great a burden on her, and already the industrial district of the city had nearly hemmed them in, so that place, too, was disposed of, and a smaller, more practical establishment purchased in town, where the family resided until after both the Professor and his beloved wife had gone on to the Home-land across the River Jordan.