Lithograph of Stowe in 1872. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 – 1896) was an internationally renowned author well before she ever set foot in Florida. Her 1851 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a sensation, stoking the fires of the abolition movement in the years before the Civil War. Her prolific output included several more bestsellers and other works including Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp and The Minister’s Wooing.

In 1867, hoping to help newly freed African Americans during Reconstruction, she established a winter residence in Northeast Florida. The move inspired some of her most significant later work and shaped public perceptions of Florida for decades.

Stowe in Florida

Harriet Beecher Stowe and her family at their Mandarin home around 1870. Image courtesy of Florida Memory.

Stowe’s connection to the First Coast began in 1866, when she purchased the former Laurel Grove plantation in Orange Park for her son Fred to farm. Fred Stowe had suffered a severe head injury while serving in the Union army during the war and subsequently suffered from alcohol and drug abuse. Stowe and her husband Calvin Ellis Stowe hoped farm life and the warm Florida climate would help their son’s rehabilitation.

Stowe also intended the property to be a base for elevating Florida’s new freedmen and women. Following the advice of Frederick Douglass, she determined that education would be the best way to help, and she planned to establish schools and churches up and down the St. Johns River. She told another son, Charles Stowe, “I long to be at this work and cannot think of it without my heart burning within me.”

The Laurel Grove project failed within a year, but Stowe was so enchanted by Florida that she decided to make it her permanent winter home. She bought a cottage and orange grove across the St. Johns River in Mandarin.

The former Mandarin School built 1873, now the Mandarin Community Club.)

The slow-paced lifestyle and subtropical scenery afforded ample time and inspiration for Stowe’s writing and social projects. In Mandarin she wrote Oldtown Folks, which she considered her best novel. In 1869 she bought property in Mandarin to establish a school that would educate black and white citizens alike, including children, freedmen and women, and anyone else who wanted to enroll. The Mandarin School also hosted church services and community meetings. It opened in 1870 only to burn down; in 1873 it reopened in a new building that remains today.

Church of Our Saviour. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

The Stowe family helped established another church in Mandarin, the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour. The congregation grew out of meetings and Sunday school classes led by Stowe’s husband Calvin, and hosted in the Stowe cottage. In 1883, the Stowes helped fund a dedicated building.

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