A spectacular North Florida February reminds us of the glories of “wintering” in Jacksonville. As Jacksonville residents, warm wintery days often take center stage when analyzing area history. This current February leaves little doubt why Jacksonville at one time was one of nation’s great winter tourist destinations. While weather records indicate occasional North Florida freezes, these chilly episodes are typically brief and unremarkable.
The area’s most famous 19th century resident, Harriet Beecher Stowe, opined on the subject in her 1973 book Palmetto Leaves: “ It is really amusing to see how people [tourist] accustomed to the tight freezes…hail and snow…will take on when the thermometer goes down…They are perfectly outraged. …The first day of our arrival…we put away all our furs…but we keep an abundance of warm shawls, and above all, wear the usual flannels until the late spring. …The great charm, after all, of this life, is its outdoorness [sic]. To be able to spend your winter out of doors, even though some days be cold; to be able to sit with the windows open; to hear birds daily; to eat fruit from the trees, and pick flowers from the hedges, all winter long, is about the whole of the story.”
Stowe lived in Mandarin for 15 winters with her theologian husband Calvin Stowe and her spinster twin daughters. From her quirky house on a 30 acre orange grove, she wrote the book Palmetto Leaves, an account of day to day life in the Mandarin Village and her life along the St. Johns River. At the time, she was already a worldwide celebrity for her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Mandarin and Palmetto Leaves are splendid repositories of North Florida’s black history. Mrs. Stowe repeatedly said she came south after the war to do something for the freedmen’s children. And she did that in the form of the Mandarin School, still standing today, although somewhat altered, as the Mandarin Community Club. In more recent months, the Mandarin Museum and Historical Society saved the only known unaltered remaining one room African-American School in Duval County, the Sisters of St. Joseph African-American School, now located at Mandarin’s Walter Jones Historical Park.
A delightful portrait of Mandarin area history still physically remains in addition to the schools: The majestic patriarch oaks; the 1911 Post Office and Store; a series of important restored structures at the Walter Jones Park including a farmhouse and a barn; an historic cemetery; and numerous residences are among the historic structures and fabric of today’s community.
With roots as a World War I Liberty League, the Mandarin Community Club still hosts a Mandarin Art Festival on Easter weekend from its historic grounds. The upcoming festival marks 48 years. On that day alone, you can see the club where school was once held for black and white children and doubled for Sunday worship services directed by Professor and Mrs. Stowe. You can also see a Stowe portrait by renowned Mandarin artist Ann Manry Kenyon. On Easter weekend, the Mandarin Museum and Historical Society will open the adjoining Mandarin Store and Post Office for visitors. The group also runs the Walter Jones Park, a St. Johns River park bursting with area history.
It’s all an important part of North Florida’s remarkable story and, in particular, embraces a momentous piece of the area’s black history, not only in the month of February, but also all year long.