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Sunday Favorites: The Antebellum Doll


Last week, I took readers on a tour of the Tole Fogarty home, the oldest home in Bradenton that two years ago faced the threat of demolition. Thanks to the commitment of a retired veterinarian who cherishes and values historic homes, the house underwent a full restoration and is currently available for purchase.

This week, we will delve into a similar narrative that unfolded across the Manatee River in Ellenton. In the mid-2010s, the Patten House, a wood-frame, two-story Victorian-style design, constructed in 1895 faced the imminent threat of demolition. It was infested with termites, had significant water damage, and needed extensive renovations. This time, it wasn’t a veterinarian, but a doll that helped save the home’s fate.

Patten House circa 1978.
Patten House circa 1978.

Constructed by Dudley Patten, son of General George Patten, the Patten House is historically significant. (George Patten acquired the Gamble Plantation and relocated his family from Savannah following the Civil War).

Initially a single-story wooden structure, the Patten house underwent expansion, adding a second story, a wrap-around porch, and an early indoor toilet. Over 99 years, the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy undertook the care of the building's interior, making it accessible to the public. Exterior maintenance fell under the responsibility of the State of Florida. Unfortunately, the Patten House closed in 2014, leaving historians seeking innovative solutions to save the historic home.

Lela Rast Hertsaw, a historic preservationist, speaker, and author originally from Memphis, Tenn., caught wind of the distressing situation surrounding the Patten home and felt compelled to lend a hand. Hertsaw, who had previously served as a tour guide at the Patten house located in the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, learned about the imminent threat to the house and, in response, expressed her sentiments during a speech to the Manatee County Historical Society in 2017, saying, "I remember thinking, that’s such a shame because every house has a story to tell."

Indoor kitchen at Patten House circa 1978.
Indoor kitchen at Patten House circa 1978.

Hertsaw took it upon herself to raise awareness about the home's story but grappled with determining the most effective approach. Then, inspiration struck when she saw her daughter’s Jenny Lind doll sitting on the shelf. Originating from the 1900s, the Jenny Lind doll, named after Swedish opera singer Johanna Marina "Jenny" Lind, was widely popular during its time. Being produced in Europe, it was plausible for such dolls to have found their way to Florida in the early 1900s, adorning the homes of affluent families.

“That’s it!” Hertsaw thought. “The doll could have seen many significant historical happenings at the Patton House.”

Hertsaw wrote the book "The Adventures of Abigail Rose: Ida Patten’s Antebellum Doll" to share it with both school-aged children and adults. The narrative precedes the home's construction when Ida Patten, the niece of George Patten, visits her uncle at the Gamble Mansion and receives a special doll for her birthday, all the way from Germany. Ida grows fond of the doll and decides to include her in a picnic. However, their tea party takes an unexpected turn when inclement weather rolls in. Amid the worsening conditions, chaos ensues, and Fanny is hastily ushered indoors during the rain, inadvertently leaving Abigail outside.

Original Jenny Lind doll.
Original Jenny Lind doll.

As it turns out, the storm was a powerful hurricane, leaving Abigail covered in mud and debris. Despite a thorough search for Abigail, she remains lost for 50 years, from 1850-1904.

In the time that Abigail is lost, she sees the plantation change hands several times. She is privy to unlawful activity by Captain Archibald McNeil who engages in blockade running during the Civil War. At the end of the war, a “special visitor” shows up, this being fugitive Judah P. Benjamin. She also witnesses his escape.

While the first half of the book is historical fiction, the back half is filled with study questions, a glossary, recipes, and an index with information about the characters.

Given the abundance of books covering American History or World History, the unique approach of narrating Florida's history in a manner accessible to children through the perspective of a doll garnered widespread appeal.

During 2017, Hertsaw engaged in conversations with the School District of Manatee County, which expressed interest in utilizing her book as supplementary reading for 4th-grade students, as mentioned in her speech. 

Despite Hertsaw's commendable efforts in garnering support and raising awareness, the Patten House remained under a condemned status, appearing on Florida's 2021 "Top 11 to Save" list published by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.

Encouragingly, a positive shift occurred in 2023 when the State of Florida intervened and successfully restored the Patten House to its former glory.

This exploration into the preservation tales of the Tole Fogarty home and the Patten House reflects the resilience of historical structures and the creative endeavors taken to safeguard their stories. Lela Rast Hertsaw's initiative, fueled by a doll's tale, and the subsequent restoration of the Patten House in 2023, exemplify the collective efforts to ensure that these architectural treasures endure.

Having purchased “The Adventures of Abigail Rose” recently, I'm thrilled to impart the local history to my two elementary-age sons in a manner tailored to their understanding. The hope is for more literary works to follow suit, effectively bridging the past with the present and creating a meaningful connection for generations to come.

Patten House in Ellenton, Gamble Plantation Historic Park, Jenny Lind doll, Adventures of Abigail Rose


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