Library Ladies- Abbie M. Brooks

Library Ladies- Abbie M. Brooks 1

Abbie M. Brooks

In St. Augustine’s long and storied past, there are many remarkable women recognized as influential members of the community. Emily Lloyd Wilson, for example, was the St. Augustine Historical Society’s first librarian and historian as well as an important community figure for the Republican Party after the Nineteenth Amendment’s passage. Ms. Wilson was also instrumental in compiling some of the Historical Society Library’s key resources on Spanish Colonial Florida. Before Emily Lloyd Wilson, however, there was Abbie M. Brooks. Unlike Emily Wilson, Abbie Brooks’ story is much more mysterious. There is little biographical information available about her, aside from what is mentioned in her surviving diaries and genealogical records. What we do know is that Brooks was born in Cooperstown, Pennsylvania in 1830, and much like Ms. Wilson, was a winter resident of St. Augustine who was greatly interested in the city’s Spanish colonial history.

Most knowledge of Abbie M. Brooks’ personal life comes from her diaries. She lived throughout the South during and in the wake of the Civil War, moving between Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia through the 1860s, before settling in Atlanta around 1870. At some point in time, she was married and had a daughter, though Brooks’ parents did not approve of the marriage, and there is no mention of who the child’s father was. Brooks’ daughter was given up for adoption shortly after birth, and Abbie’s diaries hardly mention her. As Brooks was the mother of an illegitimate child during the 19th century, this makes a great deal of sense considering societal norms during this time. Another social sin for Abbie was failing to remarry or return home to her parents after her husband passed away in 1867. Surprisingly, she was not living with him at the time of his death, and it greatly affected her financially. Rather than return home penniless and disgraced, Abbie made the decision to go to Florida in search of better fortune. Her goal once there was to publish travel literature. From 1870 until her death in 1914, Brooks would spend her winters in St. Augustine. In 1875, she left Florida for Cuba to do research, and by 1880, she published her first book, Petals Plucked from Sunny Climes. This work was published under the pen name Sylvia Sunshine.

After getting her book published, Abbie Brooks to travel to Seville in Spain during the 1890s to access archival documents regarding Spanish Florida, making her the first American woman to do so. Her visits yielded an incredible volume of research, and she compiled five volumes of information transcribed and translated from original documents. Much of this information came from the Archives of the Indies, covering Floridian history from approximately 1500 to 1810. The volumes Brooks compiled were eventually sold to the Library of Congress in 1901, though copies also exist in the archival collections of several universities. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Abbie kept busy with actively publishing articles concerning St. Augustine and Florida for various newspapers up and down the Atlantic coast as a freelance author. In 1904, Abbie returned to the Spanish Archives in Seville, working to transcribe and translate more documents from Florida’s Spanish colonial past. This second round of research culminated in the 1906 publication of her second book, The Unwritten History of St. Augustine. Though dated, both of her works are considered influential pieces of St. Augustine historiography that were incredibly important.

Ms. Brooks’ interests in history also brought her into contact with Dr. George Carver and Dr. DeWitt Webb, members of the St. Augustine Historical Society. She often provided Dr. Carver with Spanish artifacts that were put on display in the Oldest House and kept in the Society’s collections. At one point, she even purchased and lived in the property at 271 Charlotte Street, which later became the St. Augustine Historical Society Library, which now is used as an exhibit space and administrative building. Despite her invaluable important work, Abbie Brooks never truly was free of poverty, her books never really generating enough revenue for her live comfortably. By the time she passed away, Abbie was living in a single room in the home of Charles and Isabella Hopkins on 50 Water Street. She died in 1914 following a long period of illness, and due to her lack of support, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Woodlawn Cemetery. In 2000, however, family members were able to locate her grave, where they established a marker and celebrated the life of an influential individual who worked to fill in the story of St. Augustine.

 

Sources Consulted

** All items found in Abbie M. Brooks Bio File

The East Florida Gazette Vol. 18 No. 1 February 1999.

The East Florida Gazette Vol. 10 No. 1 July 1987.

“The Untold Story of Sylvia Sunshine” by Gene Burnett, in Florida Trend April 1987.

“The Abbie Brooks Saga- Family Members Mark Grave of Ancestor They Never Knew” in the St. Augustine Record, November 12, 2000.

“The Mystery of Abbie Brooks” in the St. Augustine Record, November 21, 1999.

 

Written by Robert Covert