Grace Arents on the grounds of Bloemendaal Farm, her country estate and youth retreat, which became Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. (Photo courtesy Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden)
What a curious thing the real, secret history of a man’s or woman’s life is! — it is never written or told. There are secret vices, or wishes, or schemes, or crimes, which are never whispered or put into words; and there are hidden virtues and hopes and plans and goodness which cannot be told.” – From the commonplace book of Grace Arents, June 22, 1868, apparently a quote from Charles Wyllys Elliott's Wind and Whirlwind: A Novel. New York: Putnam, 1868
The stories I write for the publication go into the world and I have no idea where they might end up or who will take notice. But in May 2009, Wendy DeGroat, who'd just moved to Lakeside then but had been in Richmond since 1984, came across my feature “The Invisible Philanthropist.”
The lede, as we say, went something like this: “Grace Evelyn Arents is so elusive that, beyond the year 1848, the exact date of her birth remains unknown. She never posed for a formal portrait, and only a few modest photographs of her survive. Yet the wealth and influence she wielded more than 80 years ago left her fingerprints on the cornerstones of Richmond communities. The contributions Arents made provided the foundations for Oregon Hill's St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and its tuition-free school; the William Byrd Community House and the Grace Arents School, now Open High. She sponsored the construction of the Lewis Ginter Community Building for Ginter Park and developed Bloemendaal Farm as a rural retreat for sickly youth. The farm became Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, which this spring celebrates its 25th anniversary.”
During a presentation on Monday at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, DeGroat, a librarian, researcher, teacher and poet, said, “I read that and was hooked.” That she lived within two miles of Bloemendaal with her wife provided another compelling reason for DeGroat to find out more about the deliberately mysterious Grace.
Segue to 2015, and DeGroat is composing a group of 20 to 30 “documentary poems” under the title "What Doesn’t Burn." The title is imbued with meanings: DeGroat like researchers before her, is left with scant material about Arents who, like her wealthy uncle Lewis Ginter and others of their time, ordered the destruction of her personal papers. What somehow didn’t burn were a commonplace book and two travel journals. In constructing the poems, to give herself Arents’ voice, DeGroat charted the frequency and choice of words and broke them into their proper categories, whether noun, verb and so forth. To frame the poems, she created letters that Grace could have written to her younger sister, Minnie, in New York City.
But, DeGroat points out, what also doesn’t burn is what one gives away, whether energy or material. It is a particular poignant observation, giving that the William Byrd Community House, a direct portion of Arents’ legacy – which withstood economic depressions and many variations of the monetary climate – closed this year.
She’s found in Arents not a schoolteacher spinster, as she’s perceived, but an independent woman who at age 49, through inheritance of the Ginter fortune, became a person of means, too. Arents chose to exercise her will by making her part of the world a better place and doing so in a way that didn’t attract undue attention to herself. Arents’ humble nature seems to have come through either example or genetics of her Uncle Lewis. The tobacco magnate who bankrolled the construction of the Jefferson Hotel ordered that his name not be seen anywhere in the building. This kind modesty isn’t exemplified by latter-day tycoons.
Ginter also shared his business and life with John Pope, whom he met during his stock exchange days in New York. Pope was 20 years younger than Ginter, who went so far as to make Pope his ward and even adopt him. Arents spent many years with Richmonder Mary Garland Smith, who probably went by — as quite a Richmond woman thing to do — the name Garland. After Arents’ passing and by her bequest, Smith continued living at Bloemendaal. She was born on July 20, 1871, and died on her birthday in 1968. DeGroat adopts Garland’s voice, attending Arents' funeral, in a moving manner. The exact nature of Arents and Smith's relationship remains a matter of conjecture.
DeGroat developed her poetical approach to this project during the past few years, and through the guidance and advice of teachers and mentors. She cited several, including Janet Woody, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden librarian, the poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar and writer Preston Browning, who co-directs the Ashfield, Massachusetts, writers retreat of Wellspring House. There, in a restored 1890s carriage house, DeGroat began her journey into telling the story of the life and times of Grace Arents. Several of these poems will likely appear this summer on the online journal Common-place.
One of the poems DeGroat shared is an evocation of how Arents took matters in hand when the building of St. Andrew’s Church in Oregon Hill became snarled in financial and design disputes. But it got built — because "Miss Grace" put herself to the task.