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Early travel ads portrayed Florida as a paradise of endless plenty.

On days like today, when fog lies heavy on the horizon and Florida’s famous sunshine only intermittently penetrates the gloom, we’re reminded that there’s always a tension here between expectation and reality, between the myth that is Florida and daily evidence that even the fabled “Land of Flowers” has thorns.

Throughout the region’s history, writers have tried to give voice to that paradox, and perhaps none more ably than Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin (and the woman whom Abraham Lincoln called, “the little lady that started the Civil War”).

The Stowe Residence on Mandarin Road. It was demolished in 1916. photo credit: The Florida Memory Collection, State Archives of Florida.

Northern soldiers returning from that war carried with them glowing accounts of Jacksonville’s mild, clear winters. Florida was portrayed as an exotic place of natural wonders and powers that could rejuvenate frail health.

Seduced, perhaps, by such reports, as well as the desire to help their son recover from the wounds he’d received as a Union soldier, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband, Professor Calvin E. Stowe, purchased a 30-acre orange grove in Mandarin in 1868; they spent their winters there in a cottage under two great spreading oak trees.

Mrs. Stowe was greatly impressed by the region, but also refreshingly realistic. In a series of letters to her relatives in New England, she attempts to disabuse her readers of the notion that the region is perfect: “In New England Nature is an up-and-down smart, decisive, housemother that has her times and seasons and brings up her ends of life with a positive jerk” whereas Nature in Florida is an “indulgent old grandmother, who has no particular time for any thing and does every thing when she happens to feel like it.”

Mandarin Road, circa 1890. photo credit: The Florida Memory Collection, State Archives of Florida.

Eventually, Stowe compiled her letters, as well as a series of articles she’d written about the people and natural environment of Mandarin, into the travel memoir, Palmetto Leaves, which was published in 1873. It would become one of the earliest travel guides written about Florida, and is credited with encouraging the state’s first population boom in the 1880s.

Nearly 140 years later, Mrs. Stowe’s descriptions of life in Florida in the latter half of the 19th century–“a tumble-down, wild, panicky kind of life–this general happy-go-luckiness which Florida inculcates“–still resonate . . . especially on days like today, when the sun is discinclined to shine.

From the chapter, The Wrong Side of the Tapestry:

It is not to be denied that full half of the tourists and travelers that come to Florida return intensely disappointed, and even disguised. Why? Evidently because Florida, like a piece of embroidery, has two sides to it, –one side all tag-rag and thrums, without order or position; and the other side showing flowers and arabesques and brilliant coloring. Both these sides exist. Both are undeniable, undisputed facts not only in the case of Florida, but of every place and thing under the sun. There is a right side and a wrong side to everything.

Now, tourists and travelers generally come with their heads full of certain romantic ideas of waving palms, orange-groves, flowers, and fruit, all bursting forth in tropical abundance; and, in consequence, they go through Florida with disappointment at every step. If the banks of the St. John’s were covered with orange-groves, if they blossomed every month in the year, if they were always loaded with fruit, if pine-apples and bananas grew wild, if the flowers hung in festoons from tree to tree, if the ground were enameled with them all winter long, so that you saw nothing else, then they would begin to be satisfied.

But, in point of fact, they find, in approaching Florida, a dead sandy level, with patches behind them of rough coarse grass, and tall pine-trees, whose tops are so far in the air that they seem to cast no shade, and a little scrubby underbrush. The few houses to be seen along the railroad are the forlornest of huts. The cattle that stray about are thin and poverty-stricken, and look as if they were in the last tottering stages of starvation.Meanwhile, we caution everybody coming to Florida, Don’t hope for too much. Because you hear that roses and callas blossom in the open air all winter, and flowers abound in the woods, don’t expect to find an eternal summer. Prepare yourself to see a great deal that looks rough and desolate and coarse; prepare yourself for some chilly days and nights; and, whatever else you neglect to bring with you, bring the resolution, strong and solid, always to make the best of things.

The great charm, after all, of this life, is its outdoorness. To be able to spend your winter out of doors, even though some days be cold; to be able to sit with windows open; to hear birds daily; to eat fruit from trees, and pick flowers from hedges, all winter long, —is about the whole of the story. This you can do; and this is why Florida is life and health to the invalid.

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