The Mandarin Museum will reopen Saturday after three years of renovations.The Mandarin Museum will reopen Saturday after three years of renovations.
The Mandarin Museum will reopen Saturday after three years of renovations.

Expanded Mandarin Museum will reopen Saturday

Published on August 3, 2023 at 12:16 pm

The aged, darkened rail of an historic Civil War-era Union steamship lay on the floor of the expanded Mandarin Museum, near a map showing where a Confederate mine sunk the Maple Leaf steamship 154 years ago.

Just outside that exhibit is another new display detailing the untold history of Black Mandarin, dating back to the days of slavery.

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The public will find all of this and more Saturday as the museum reopens after a three-year closure for renovation and expansion.

It will be “a very lively day in the park,” said the museum’s new executive director, Brittany Cohill.

“This spot is so important because so much history happened here that residents of Duval County just don’t know about,” said Cohill, a Jacksonville University history professor and past associate director of the Beaches Museum.

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“We are talking about Civil War-era history and even further back to the Seminole Wars and before, with Reconstruction-era history,” Cohill said. “We have original buildings from the 1870s that people can tour. Harriet Beecher Stowe lived right down the street. And even moving forward into the 20th century, what was small town life like?”

Mandarin Museum Executive Director Brittany Cohill stands in the facility’s new Maple Leaf exhibit hall. | Dan Scanlan, WJCT News 89.9

The Mandarin Museum and Historical Society operates the museum, which opened in 2004 at the main entrance to Walter Jones Historical Park, at 11964 Mandarin Road.

The museum is part of a farmstead begun in 1873 by U.S. Army Maj. William Webb. Mandarin postmaster Walter Jones bought the farm in the early 1900s, and his family lived there until 1992. The city bought the remaining 10 acres from the Jones family two years later and developed its first historical park.

The site also includes the 1898 St. Joseph’s Mission Schoolhouse, a late 1800s Losco Winery building, classic early 1900s sawmill, 1876 barn and a riverside walkway.

The museum building closed in 2020 for construction of a new exhibit wing, plus a larger archive and collections workroom. The museum matched a $92,063 grant from the Florida Cultural Facilities Program with funding from the local Rotary Club, plus donations and fundraising.

A diagram shows the new layout of the Mandarin Museum. | Mandarin Museum and Historical Society

The grand reopening is set from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, with new exhibits in the expanded space, including the exhibit focusing on the Maple Leaf steamship.

The ship had just dropped off Union Army men, horses and supplies in Palatka and was returning to Jacksonville on April 1, 1864, when Confederate Army mines sunk it off Mandarin Point. Four crewmen died when the ship sank, and the wreck remained relatively untouched until Jacksonville dentist Keith Holland’s St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions excavated a small part of it in 1989.

About 3,000 artifacts were found in the buried wreck, which was designated a National Historic Landmark. Some of those artifacts have been displayed in rotating exhibits in recent years at the Mandarin Museum, just a few miles from the ship’s resting place. Now new items have been added to the larger display in the separate wing, including a segment of the steamship’s bow.

One of the biggest pieces set for display at the Mandarin Museum is this portion of the Union steamship Maple Leaf, which was sunk by Confederate mines in 1864. | Dan Scanlan, WJCT News 89.9

“It’s quite large and it will be mounted over a floor-to-ceiling map showing the exact location where the ship went down,” Cohill said. “Another piece we have on loan from the state is a presentation sword that the 112th New York Regiment presented to 2nd Lt. William H. Potter in recognition for his service. It’s a beautiful sword, and it is inscribed with a note to William Potter.”

The new “Untold History of Black Mandarin” exhibit is now in the main hall, offering lots of information after a yearslong effort working with the Black community in Mandarin, Cohill said.

“We formed a committee and were able to conduct oral histories and gather photos and documents to really piece together the story that honors the heritage of historic Black Mandarin,” she said. “But it also tells the story in a way where people understand Mandarin’s Black community. It was on the forefront of history as far as land ownership following emancipation, as well as industry and building community. It is really important that story is told.”

The historic park already has a large preserved piece of Mandarin’s Black history: the last remaining one-room schoolhouse in Duval County, built in 1898 for Black children taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph. In 2015, the 600-square-foot building made a 3.2-mile trip from one end of Mandarin to the other to Walter Jones Historic Park.

A new exhibit, the “Untold History of Black Mandarin,” is displayed in the main museum exhibit hall. | Dan Scanlan, WJCT News 89.9

An art gallery will reopen in the museum’s largest room, where shows as well as public meetings had been held in the past. Many walls are covered with works from local artists featuring Mandarin scenes. But one glassed-in corner is dedicated to famous author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wintered in the community from 1867 until 1884 in a cottage across from the current Mandarin Community Club.

She and her husband, the Rev. Calvin Stowe, were among the founders of the nearby Church of Our Saviour. She also wrote numerous stories about Northeast Florida, assembled in her 1872 book, “Palmetto Leaves.” An original copy is displayed next to one of Stowe’s chairs and a special oil painting of magnolia blossoms.

“This was done as part of a quilt in the 1880s that the Women’s Guild at the Church of Our Saviour had constructed to raffle off to build their first church building,” Cohill said. “This painting was the centerpiece of that quilt. They did raffle it off.”

The family who won the raffle carefully removed the painted fabric from the quilt, then framed and preserved it until it was sold in the 1990s. It was donated to the historical society, joining a decorative part of her Mandarin home’s veranda preserved nearby, Cohill said.

A painting by Mandarin resident Harriett Beecher Stowe hangs in one corner of the Mandarin Museum’s new gallery, next to one of her chairs and a copy of her “Palmetto Leaves” book. | Dan Scanlan, WJCT News 89.9.

The extended archive room extends off the rear of the museum, giving staff more room to collect and organize artifacts “in a more precise manner,” Cohill said.

“We have also expanded our archives, which are open to the public by appointment,” she said. “That allows us to house even more artifacts that will eventually be on display for the public. And it allows us to build new collections as well that otherwise may not be built, and maybe that history could be lost.”

Other events on Saturday will include the museum’s monthly ceramic Mandarin Frog statue painting class at 10 a.m., a return of “Meet the Divers” with Holland, and Duval County master gardeners on site. The park’s historic buildings will be open with museum guides, with a ceremonial 2 p.m. ribbon cutting at 2 p.m. on the museum’s front porch.

The Mandarin Museum will then be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Wednesday through Saturday.

For more information, go to mandarinmuseum.org or call (904) 268-0784. To register for Mandarin Frog Painting, email info@mandarinmuseum.org.


author image Reporter, WJCT News 89.9 Dan Scanlan is a veteran journalist with almost 40 years of experience in radio, television, and print reporting. He has worked at various stations in the Northeast and Jacksonville. Prior to joining the WJCT News team, Dan spent 34 years at The Florida Times-Union as a police and current affairs reporter.
author image Reporter, WJCT News 89.9 Dan Scanlan is a veteran journalist with almost 40 years of experience in radio, television, and print reporting. He has worked at various stations in the Northeast and Jacksonville. Prior to joining the WJCT News team, Dan spent 34 years at The Florida Times-Union as a police and current affairs reporter.

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