In the aftermath of the War Between the States, John Spencer of Stillwater Plantation, Iberville Parish, Louisiana, established the Stillwater Fellowship to provide an education for poor but deserving young men. Such philanthropy was an uncharacteristic turn for a man so ambitious that he’d built the largest, most elaborate house on the river simply to spite an upstream rival, so of course it came with a catch: the Stillwater Fellow had to live within the bounds of Stillwater land. John’s charity had tightly circumscribed limits; he didn’t intend to go to expense educating his neighbor’s freedmen or local white trash.
The days of Reconstruction were a strange, hard time to found a scholarship for former slaves based on the revenues of a sugar plantation, but John Spencer was a strange, hard man. Even as his sons worked the fields and his daughters turned their dresses to eke one more season of wear out of them, he sent the first Stillwater Fellow up to Baton Rouge to St. Mary’s Institute, to receive as good an education as any white man, and feasted him economically at annual Stillwater Fellowship Balls. Ever taciturn, he didn’t choose to divulge the motivation for this charitable impulse even to his journal. Perhaps the harsh realities of the new postwar economy pressed in on him, as both weather and politics conspired to make producing sugar an increasingly dicey proposition. Perhaps the scholarship was an enlightened decision to buy the loyalty of the best and brightest of his freedmen now that he could no longer compel their servitude. Perhaps he stood on the back gallery of his war-worn house and looked over his cabins and his sugar house and his commissary and his cane fields, stretching as far as the eye could see, and considered that his entire empire was built on the scarred backs of his slaves and that one day soon he too would face his Master and be called to give an account of his stewardship.
Whatever its reason, the Stillwater Fellowship was effective. The share of revenue allotted to the Trust was only large enough for one Fellow at a time, but workers flocked to Stillwater, desperate for a chance for their sons to get a leg up out of poverty. The Stillwater Fellows, treated as partners in the running of the plantation, devised new business practices and implemented agricultural innovations to keep the business afloat even in days of hurricanes, drought, and debt. As other plantations fell into ruin, as the river gnawed away year by year at the half-mile of oak groves that stood before the house, the Spencers held onto Stillwater, battered but intact.
When American Cane leased the Stillwater sugarlands from Harold Spencer after the disastrous harvest of 1915, and financed the equipment to modernize production, the fortunes of the estate were at such a low that the suits at the sugar conglomerate thought nothing of guaranteeing a certain percentage of income from the land to the Stillwater Trust. The pool of available candidates was reduced, anyway: the new machinery meant that fewer laborers were needed, and many of those who still worked the fields moved into town. Most of the old slave cabins on the plantation were demolished so that more cane could be planted. The few remaining cottages were updated for the convenience of those employees who still lived on the estate. Of those employees, few likely lads still qualified for the Fellowship.
The Balls, of course, were held whether the Fellowship was bestowed or not. The Trust could not be diverted to purposes other than the Stillwater Fellowship, not even to the upkeep of Stillwater itself. Fellowship Balls took on a Gothic glamor, dancers in their grandmeres’ hoop skirts sweeping past decaying pilasters under the flicker of chandeliers still not wired for electricity. In those lean days, the family inhabited only a few of Stillwater’s 75 rooms, and great dramas were enacted over whether it was time to sell the house, or to have it knocked down before it fell in on itself. Yet Stillwater remained, and the Spencers remained with it.
Old John Spencer, having witnessed the devastation of a Civil War, could not have imagined the bounty bestowed by a World War. In 1942, American Cane wrangled a valuable contract from the government to supply wrapped sugar cubes for military rations. The boys returned from the front hungry, and with sweet memories of American Cane products, if nothing else, urged their wives and sweethearts to look for the signature pink and green package. When domestic sugar rationing ended, sales of sweetener soared, and with them the fortunes of Stillwater. The patched shell of the house was restored by Thomas Spencer to its antebellum splendor, and the grand front rooms were opened for tours. The Misses Spencer again took their places as the belles of the Stillwater Fellowship Balls.
World War II, though it strengthened the Fellowship financially, caused it to atrophy practically. The war drained the plantation’s supply of young men, and when the boys came back, they didn’t return to Stillwater. The G.I. Bill provided them with mortgages for their own homes and sent them to college independent of Spencer largesse. And so the Trust continued to grow. The scholarship, owing to its restrictive clauses, had gone unawarded since who knew when, but there were no such restraints on the annual dinner, so that what had begun as a sober evening of scholastic reflection had mutated into the premiere social event of Iberville Parish. Without any Fellows to spend down the money, the purpose of the Stillwater Fellowship Ball seemed to be nothing more than that the good times should roll, as extravagantly as possible.
As a result, when Richard Spencer named René Arceneaux the first Stillwater Fellow in more than six decades, there was general surprise -- not because anyone doubted René's obvious genius, or his residency on the property (who could miss the passel of noisy young Arceneauxs bursting out of the the small cottage behind the big house?) -- but because hardly anyone remembered that the Fellowship existed to be given instead of merely celebrated.
Learning Notes Week of Feb 20
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