Malabar Farm’s “Peculiar Treasure”

If you had arrived at Malabar Farm in the 1950s and pulled up in front of the Big House, the first thing you would have noticed—after the frantic greeting committee of ecstatic dogs—was a statue next to the light post. This cast iron sculpture presented the figure of a cheery young man reaching out to hold the reins of your horses while you dismount from your carriage.

The boy was painted black, his iron clothes were rough and patched, and he stood on top of a cotton bale. This common American hitching post motif dated back to before the Civil War when such a figure in the flesh—known as “the faithful groomsman”—might actually have stood in front of a Southern plantation house to greet a horse-drawn visitor.

A generation later, by the 1970s when Malabar Farm had become the property of Ohio’s State Park system, the faithful groomsman had become recognized as a politically incorrect and offensive icon in America. At that time the administration of the Farm sought to ameliorate the disrespectful nature of the statue by painting their groomsman a Caucasian flesh-color…which served to render the sculpture not less offensive but rather more obviously and weirdly incorrect. Then the statue disappeared.

There is no question but that the slave boy image is a degrading symbol of a time when racial injustice was an institutionalized reality in our country. Yet to dismiss it entirely is to disempower the purposes of history by denying us the opportunity to authentically measure how far we have come from those more hurtful times.

The faithful groomsman at the Big House is not without its painful baggage, but that should not keep us from examining the old relic—because behind it is a very interesting story.

The House

When Louis Bromfield came back to the US from Europe in 1938, his primary preoccupation was building a home for his family. It happened that at the time he had a good friend—another famous author—who was also doing the same thing: building a house in America. Her name was Edna Ferber, and as Louis was raising his roof in Richland County she was building an 18-room mansion in Connecticut.

Both of their houses sat up on a hill looking down over their domain, and during the process of construction through the months of 1939 they both excitedly compared notes when they met in New York City, and made jokes about becoming ‘Lord of the Manor’—ruling a small kingdom—or, in a more American version of that role, as being Master of the Plantation.

Louis even called his home the Big House, which was a common old term used in 19th century America by enslaved Africans when referring to the large central household on the grounds where the plantation-owners lived.

The Other Novelist

Edna Ferber was an author whose writing career paralleled Bromfield’s in many ways. She won the Pulitzer Prize two years before him and, like him, a number of her novels were made into popular movies. They both wrote their fiction so that it could appear serially in magazines like Cosmopolitan and Saturday Evening Post before being released and sold in bookstores. Their novels and short stories attracted largely the same readers.

It was quite natural that they would become best friends in New York in the 1920s, and in the 30s they often met up in Europe. Edna went to southern France for the summer of 1927 at the invitation of Bromfield, and she rented a house near his. They spent the season each working on their new novels in the morning hours and frolicking in the Basque sun during the afternoons.

In the ensuing years both Bromfield and Ferber enjoyed a tremendous burst of fame and prosperity as their literary fortunes rose, and as each got busier shuttling between Europe, New York and Hollywood there was no time for leisurely months together. So in 1940 they coordinated their travels in order to meet and spend a few days in New Orleans.

The Southern Theme

Bromfield went South to do some research for his next novel. His new book seemed to be a radical departure from his usual brand of storytelling, and there was a reason for that.

Following his blockbuster success in 1939 when 20th Century Fox took his best-selling novel The Rains Came and translated it into an Academy Award mainstream movie, Bromfield’s Hollywood partnership changed the way he approached his storytelling craft. His fiction crossed a subtle boundary into a new territory: instead of writing ‘literature’ that was happily adapted to movies, he began writing movies that took the form of novels.

Bromfield wrote a novel about New Orleans during the Civil War not because he had a personal passion for the Old South but because producers at Columbia Pictures wanted a ‘Southern movie’ to ride on the current and popularity of MGM’s Gone With the Wind.

Even from before the moment Bromfield set pen to paper on his ‘Southern novel’ it was already sold to Hollywood and cast by Columbia Pictures. The title, Wild is the River, was chosen by a committee who thought it sounded like a powerful movie.

Bromfield’s ‘Southern novel’ made its first appearance in Cosmopolitan in 1941.  It was the first novel in his career that was written after he had already sold it to Hollywood.
 
As is evident from the magazine illustration, the story was intended to ride on the flood of interest created by the recent overwhelming success of Gone With the Wind.
Before Bromfield’s Southern romance was even written, Columbia Pictures announced that they were casting the movie.
 
Though the film was never made, the book did quite well on its own selling 773,414 copies in this Harper edition.  On top of that there were Cosmopolitan sales, overseas editions, reprint house editions, and eventually paperback sales.

The New Orleans Incident

In March of 1940 Louis met Edna Ferber in New Orleans, and for a few days they steeped themselves in Southern culture and lore. They took a drive toward Baton Rouge to see a classic plantation that Louis used as one of the settings in his novel, and together they posed on the lawn for a photo that Louis signed Rhett Bromfield and Edna signed Scarlett O’Ferber.

Poking about the old French Quarter they each came away with souvenirs for their new houses: Louis bought two salvaged antique marble mantelpieces for the Big House. Edna had shipped to her Connecticut mansion an antique piece of Americana kitsch: an original cast iron Faithful Groomsman hitching post statue.

The key to this story comes from the hours they spent driving to the Oak Alley plantation when, passing the time during the trip, Bromfield laid out for Ms. Ferber an idea he had for a short story. So excited about his concept, he explained in detail all the nuances and literary elements of the story that he thought made it a masterpiece.

Some months later that summer Louis picked up a copy of Cosmopolitan to read Edna’s latest story and discovered that she had written the very tale he had expounded to her.

It was ten years before he spoke to her again.

In March 1940, Louis Bromfield and Edna Ferber posed in front of Oak Alley, the classic Southern plantation house outside New Orleans.

Ten Years Later

The 1940s were very fast paced and successful years for Bromfield with best-selling books and lucrative movie deals, but a decade later all that slowed to a standstill. The American public of readers and movie-goers developed new tastes for fiction, and the lime light was moving away from Louis. When his focus shifted to agriculture at Malabar Farm, the profitable life of popular fiction ebbed away.

It is never easy to go back in time, but Louis missed the heady creative days of the 20s and 30s, so in 1951 he decided to mend fences and he wrote to Edna Ferber. They met in New York and had dinner at the 21 Club, as in the old days, but they were neither of them the same young writers they once were, and their friendship remained sadly out of reach in the past.

There was one piece of the past that still connected them, however, and one day it arrived on a truck at the front step of the Big House as a gift from Edna: the small iron boy standing on a cotton bale reaching as if to touch a world that was already gone.

Bromfield’s Faithful Groomsman statue at the Big House was in place for roughly 25 years.  This photo was taken from the front door around 1954.

From One Who Was There

Louis referred to the statue his “peculiar treasure” which was a sort of double-entendre joke: slavery in the South came to be commonly referred to euphemistically before and after the Civil War as the Peculiar Institution; and the title of Edna Ferber’s 1939 autobiography was A Peculiar Treasure.


Edna Ferber (1885-1968) built her Connecticut home Treasure Hill at the same time Bromfield was constructing the Big House in 1938-9.
 
She lived there until 1949 and afterward shipped one of her lawn ornaments to Malabar Farm…the one that brought back memories of good times with Louis Bromfield.
 
The title of her autobiography is taken from Exodus 19:5.

American society developed many ways for sidestepping the horror of slavery…one of them was by referring to it obliquely as the ‘Peculiar Institution.’
 
The motif of the happy slave boy as a hitching post was common in the US for 100 years starting in the 1850s.
 
Though the icon has a powerfully racist connotation, in confronting the image it becomes a powerful tool to measure how far we have grown as a society, and individually, toward embracing our American mandate of finding unity and diversity.

A postcard portrait of the Big House from the 1960s.

After spending nearly three decades in rehab, the Faithful Groomsman was reinstated in 2017 to his sidewalk post at the Big House; having undergone biological metamorphosis on the visible color spectrum to match a State-sanctioned politically ambiguous paint chip.


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