In 1867, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband Calvin, tiring of New England's cold climate, visited Florida for the first time. They were instantly smitten, bought a home complete with orange groves, and for the next 17 years were regular New England snowbirds.
Not content to merely enjoy the beautiful, warm Florida winters, Stowe did what writers do -- she wrote about the beautiful state and soon attracted so many visitors she regretted it.
Stowe, who spent most of her life in Connecticut, first learned of the beauties of Florida from her son Frederick. Wounded in the Civil War at Gettysburg, Frederick had turned into a drunk and, most likely, a heavy opioid user. Alarmed by his health, Stowe, at age 56, took him up on his suggestion that she buy land in Florida. Frederick had learned from soldier friends that after the war, with the collapse of plantations, many properties were available for a song. Stowe bought a large property on the St. John River in Mandarin, Florida and established Frederick as the manager of the groves.
Frederick failed miserably at the business; he had no background in farming. After trying to battle his addiction, he would soon head west and join the merchant marine. It's not clear when or how he died.
Harriet and husband Calvin, meanwhile, were thoroughly smitten with the Florida sunshine. She began writing columns for her brother Henry's New York newspaper, The Christian Union. The stories would pass as Florida real estate advertisements today. They told of: "Three Vermont brothers, exhausted by the long, hard winters there" who travelled to Florida and farmed their way to happiness.
"The St. John's is the grand water-highway through some of the most beautiful portions of Florida; and tourists, safely seated at ease on the decks of steamers, can penetrate into the mysteries and wonders of unbroken tropical forests."
She wrote glowingly of a land where flowers were to be had all winter long, the delights of sailing could be enjoyed in the dead of winter and trees were weighted down with oranges peaches and other fruit.
"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."
She threw in occasional warnings in her writings about the excessive heat of the "three formidable summer months, July, August, and September." That factor, she said, argued against a permanent relocation. Stowe herself retained her year-round residence at Hartford.
"Florida is peculiarly adapted to the needs of people who can afford two houses, and want a refuge from the drain that winter makes on the health. As people now have summer-houses at Nahant or Rye, so they might, at a small expense, have winter-houses in Florida, and come here and be at home.
"There are thousands of acres of good land, near to a market, near to a great river on which three or four steamboats are daily plying, that can be had for five dollars per acre and even less than that."
Property values, she trilled, were always increasing.
Meanwhile, Stowe's publishers were pressing her to write another novel. Her influential 1852 book Uncle Tom's Cabin had outsold all books but the Bible. The public was clamoring for more. Instead of a new novel, Stowe cobbled together a collection of her writings on Florida, with some fresh material, and sent the whole pile along to her publisher to be issued in book form as Palmetto Leaves.
Though students of Stowe consider it one of her lesser works, for Florida Palmetto Leaves marked a turning point. If Uncle Tom's Cabin started the Civil War, Palmetto Leaves touched off the great Florida land rush that continues today. Though she was not the first Northerner to grab up Florida property, she was the most outspoken about it. The Tampa Bay Times concluded that Stowe "created the Florida tourist industry as we know it."
In Florida, Stowe was noted for her eccentricities: wearing flowers in her hair and spending days on end walking and collecting them. She would lapse into long silences. But she stayed true to her activist roots, raising money for schools and churches in her adopted state and advocating for freed slaves.
Her Florida activities have been characterized in many ways, depending upon who is evaluating them. To southerners bitter over northern exploitation of the calamitous aftereffects of the Civil War she was just another carpetbagger. To historians who bristle at her patriarchal and sometimes insulting view of freed slaves, she was a meddling do-gooder. To progressives at the time she was an activist motivated by her desire to improve the country. And to the governor of Florida, who welcomed Stowe and other northerners to the Statehouse with a band and celebration, she represented cash and development.
In all, Beecher and her husband made the trip south for the winter 17 times. By the end, she and her home were a tourist attraction, a frequent stop for both her celebrity friends and her readers. A steamboat carrying tourists would blow its horn when it arrived in front of her house. If she was in a good mood, she would wave. Occasionally she entertained tourists who dropped in, sometimes even charging for the privilege of a tour of her property. Other encounters were less friendly. In one instance when tourists picked blossoms from an orange tree uninvited, Calvin ushered them off the property with a wave of his cane.
By 1885, declining health kept the Beechers from returning to Florida. Calvin died in 1886. Harriet, under the care of her remaining children, died in 1896.