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 …