Category: Archives

Of rabbits and presidents

Joel Chandler Harris wrote editorials for The Atlanta Constitution for almost a quarter of a century, through seven presidential elections, and one thing is clear from his columns: He despised partisan rancor. With a bitterly contested presidential election upon us, we’d like to look back at his opinions of several presidents.

Harris promoted the New South, the creed popularized by his newspaper colleague, Henry Grady. They meant slightly different things by it. For both, the New South meant looking forward and not being imprisoned by the past and the resentments of the Civil War. But Grady, though no defender of slavery, did espouse a version of white supremacy. Harris, according to his most recent biographer, Walter M. Brash (Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus and the “Cornfield Journalist”), believed that the emancipated were equal to whites and deserved to be treated that way.

Harris’s attitude toward the opposing presidents of the Civil War is telling. He did not care for the Confederacy’s Jefferson Davis because he couldn’t quit fighting the war and exhibited what Harris called a “restless petulance.” Abraham Lincoln was another matter.

As a teenager growing up on a middle Georgia plantation during Sherman’s March to the Sea, young Joe Harris did not think highly of the commander in chief who ordered the invasion. “During the Civil War, he despised Lincoln,” Brasch writes. But two decades later, writing for The Constitution, Harris had come to regard the assassinated president as “one of the greatest men in history.”

It’s worth noting that we have found three portraits of Lincoln in the Wren’s Nest archives this year. They do not appear to have been used as dart boards.

In 1900, Harris wrote a four-part fictional series in The Saturday Evening Post about a Confederate plot to kidnap Lincoln. The plot fails because the Confederate spies charged with nabbing the president fall under the spell of his wit and humanity and refuse to carry it out. 

Among the readers who enjoyed the story was Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote Harris a letter shortly after becoming president in 1901, thanking him for his efforts in “the blotting out of sectional antagonism.” Roosevelt was the only president Harris knew personally. When Teddy visited Atlanta in 1905, he sent word that he wanted to meet Harris because he and his family admired the Uncle Remus stories so much. The president later sent a stuffed owl to the Wren’s Nest so it could watch over the Harris family (its glassy eyes still look over the family room). He also invited the author to visit him in the White House, which Harris, who generally avoided
such social occasions, did in 1907. 

After Harris died the following year, Roosevelt came to Atlanta and gave a speech to help raise money to turn his house into a museum. His successors in office, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, also endorsed the drive and allowed their names to be used as honorary board members.

Harris would have appreciated the fact that Taft was a Republican and Wilson a Democrat. In fund-raising, as in life, nonpartisanship has its advantages.

Social Media in the 20th Century

Back in June, The Wren’s Nest launched the first phase of an interactive version of the Harris family tree. The second phase came at the end of July/early August and with it, my discovery of just how awesome Joel Chandler Harris’s daughter-in-law, Julia Collier Harris, was. The third phase of the Harris family tree interactive is now available and includes labels for 22 of the family’s members.

This was nearly double the number of labels from the previous two phases. In addition to the generous help of Harris’s descendants (Linda Harris and Annette Shakespeare), I quickly found myself up to my eyeballs in obituaries and wedding announcements – courtesy of memberships to Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com – trying to find out everything I could about each person. I also discovered something about 20th-century newspapers that I didn’t know was a trend:

“Social Items” and “Personals.”

Now, when I hear the term “personals,” I think about personal ads. The advertisements that were like a cross between Craiglist postings and online dating profiles. Basically, a place in the newspaper in which you either try to sell something or try to find a partner.

It also makes me think about the song, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”

But that’s not what these Personals and Social Items contained. Instead, I found announcements like these:

“Mr. and Mrs. Frank Rowsey, who have been residing at the Biltmore hotel, have returned to their home, The Brier [sic.] Patch, on Old Plantation road, for residence.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Joel Chandler Harris III will move to Montgomery, Ala., October 1, where they will make their future home.”

“Miss Burdeene Blechele, of Canton, O., and Misses Gretchen and Brownie Miller, of Lexington, KY, are visiting Misses Lillian and Mildred Harris.”

And there were plenty more examples over the course of many decades (you may notice these examples are from 1943, 1928, and 1900), mostly alerting readers to people’s movements or travels.

It seemed oddly familiar to me and for a little while I couldn’t figure out why. And then it hit me:

These are basically like modern day social media status updates. But in print media.

Evidently, people used to share when they were going on a trip, moving to a new city, or newly engaged in the newspaper the way we share the same news now on our Facebook or Twitter feeds.

I suspect that in sharing this “revelation,” my millennial age is showing. In retrospect, it almost feels silly that I didn’t know this existed or even considered how this type of information was shared before online social media or widespread phone use. But I guess I assumed it was done in a more intimate way; through personal letters or phone calls to specific people. Not as public announcements that anyone reading the newspaper could read.

I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Brer Rabbit spills the beans

America must have been going through a dietary iron crisis during the late 1940s. In “Brer Rabbit’s Modern Recipes for Modern Living,” the Brer Rabbit Molasses cookbook we found in our archives earlier this year, the text repeatedly talks about ways to sneak iron into children’s diets with something sweet. 

They recommend putting molasses on cereal at breakfast, in cookies at lunch, on toast at snack time, and over ice cream for dessert. To wash it all down, there’s the Brer Rabbit Milk Shake, demonstrated in this quaint scene in which two rabbits dressed like waiters at the Ritz pour milk and molasses into Miss Wholesome’s glass.

Talk about the sweet life.

Brer Rabbit is a brand of molasses that started in New Orleans in 1907, while Joel Chandler Harris was alive and writing Brer Rabbit stories. More than a century later, the label is still around and is now marketed by B&G Foods, a conglomerate based in New Jersey. The recipe booklet came out around 1950. We suspect that its preoccupation with dietary iron is a hangover from World War II, when meat was rationed and families really did have to worry about making up for missing nutrients.

We’ve run two recipes from the booklet this year: Brer Rabbit Molasses Ginger Cookies (in April) and Brer Rabbit Barbecue Sauce (in July). Before we leave this culinary artifact behind, we thought we’d offer another recipe from its pages, for Brer Rabbit Boston Baked Beans — because even though Labor Day has passed, the picnic season lingers for weeks in the South.

Many thanks to our recipe tester, Pam Auchmutey. She passes along a tasting note: Despite the molasses, these beans are less sweet than your typical pot-luck baked beans, which often include maple syrup. Molasses is sweet but complex. It makes the beans rather interesting.

Brer Rabbit Boston Baked Beans

Ingredients:

2 cups dry navy beans (1 16-ounce package)

4 slices of bacon (uncooked)

½ cup molasses (more for extra sweetness)

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 ½ teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon pepper (or more to taste)

1 small onion, chopped (optional)

1 ½ cups water from simmered beans

Directions:

   Wash bean and soak overnight in cold water to cover.

   Bring to boil in same water (to preserve minerals and vitamins), adding extra water if needed. Simmer for 50 minutes or until beans are tender.

   Drain beans, reserving cooking water.

   Place beans in a large crockpot. Season with mustard, salt and pepper.

   Add molasses and stir. Tuck bacon among beans.

   Cook on high until mixture bubbles (about 1 hour). Turn to low and cook 3 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally. If needed, add water from simmered beans to moisten.

   When fully cooked, beans will take on a brown hue. Turn crockpot to warm to serve.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Friends in high places

You never know what you’ll find leafing through scrapbooks at the Wren’s Nest.

Last week, when I was doing some cleanup work in our archives, I opened the oldest scrapbook we have and just happened to turn to a letter dated Aug. 4, 1908, barely a month after Joel Chandler Harris died. In the weeks after his passing, admirers near and far hatched the idea of turning his home into a shrine — such was his standing in American literature at the time. This letter, from Cleveland, Ohio, had to do with that campaign.

“Answering yours of the 22nd. with reference to the effort to raise a fund of $50,000 for the Uncle Remus Memorial Association, in memory of Mr. Joel Chandler Harris, you may count upon me for One Thousand Dollars,” the man writes. 

That modest-sounding pledge would be worth about $28,000 today. 

The gentleman goes on to decline an offer to serve as vice president of the association because of his many obligations. And then you see his signature and realize that, yes, he had quite a few obligations:

John D. Rockefeller

I did not know that the legendary oil tycoon and philanthropist — the richest man in America for most of the late 1800s and early 1900s — was a Wren’s Nest benefactor. I knew that Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, was a supporter who gave $5,000 toward buying the house from the Harris family. (Carnegie visited Harris at the Wren’s Nest and signed a copy of his memoir that we still have.) I also knew that Theodore Roosevelt, a Harris friend who visited him in Atlanta and hosted him at the White House, had helped raise money for the Wren’s Nest. Other supporters in the early years included presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.

But Rockefeller? That was a new one. If he had just given us some Standard Oil stock …

A Rabbit of Many Looks

The Brer Rabbit Gallery is now available for viewing!

In a previous blog post, we did a deep dive on the original illustrators for Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus books, including Frederick S. Church, James H. Moser, and Arthur Burdett (A. B.) Frost.

We shared these illustrators’ stories and work in an effort to inspire our audiences as they participated in a Brer Rabbit Drawing Challenge this past May. You can see all the beautiful and fun results of that inspiration in this gallery on our website.

But Brer Rabbit has had many looks between Frost’s original vested, dapper sketch and our contest submission of a futuristic Brer Rabbit Bounty Hunter. And now you can explore a few of those iterations in our new Brer Rabbit Gallery.

In this virtual art gallery, you can explore and learn more about the various illustrations, sculptures, and other depictions of the famous rabbit from different artists that we’ve found in our collection. Now you can see how the trickster has changed across cultures and throughout time while still remaining the same beloved, cunning rabbit.

This is by no means an exhaustive collection of every artists’ depiction of the character, but we hope that this gives you a peek into how ubiquitous and yet unique Brer Rabbit really is.

We hope you enjoy your virtual gallery tour! And please, feel free to share more fun, interesting, or even weird depictions of the Brer Critters you might come across via our social media accounts:

Facebook: /wrensnest
Instagram: @wrensnestatl
Twitter: @TheWrensNest

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