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Going Crazy in Portsmouth

Sarah Jane Farmer


She founded the oldest Bah’I school in America. It thrives today in Eliot, Maine on the Piscataqua River. Was Sarah Farmer mentally ill or a religious visionary in exultation?



It sounds, at first, like the plot from a Woody Allen film. In 1916 members of the Green Acre religious community in Eliot, Maine released their Baha’i founder from a psychiatric ward in downtown Portsmouth. The patient, an elderly Sarah Jane Farmer, had been subjected to drug and early electroshock therapy under Dr. Edward Cowles, a specialist in nervous and mental disorders. Cowles had been "curing" Farmer for six years. She had lived, possibly imprisoned, at times, in a small cell in the basement of a brick office on Middle Street. According to legend, Dr. Cowles gave chase, pursuing the Baha’i liberators automobile as they took Farmer back to her home in Eliot, Maine.

Sarah Jane FarmerNothing about the life of Sarah Farmer makes easy sense. Her father Moses Farmer was a Transcendentalist and an inventor. He was reportedly the first man to wire a house to use electric lights. Earlier, in 1847, Farmer had exhibited the first electric passenger railway car in Dover, NH. He is credited with a series of key electrical devices, including early work on the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell and the first telephone-operated security alarm. Farmer did not patent many of his early inventions because, due to his religious belief, he felt they were ideas whispered to him by God for the use of all mankind.

Sarah's mother Hannah Shapleigh was a very early feminist, an abolitionist and philanthropist who created a shelter for unwed mothers. When Sarah narrowly recovered from a serious childhood illness, Hannah vowed that her daughter would dedicate her life to God, which she dutifully did. The question, for this intelligent child of free-thinking parents, was -- exactly which god to serve.

In 1890, Sarah Jane Farmer signed on with four others to open a restful summer resort on a knoll high above the Piscataqua River in Eliot, Maine. The enormously popular poet John Greenleaf Whittier was first to sign the guest book of the Eliot Inn. It was Whittier who suggested the name Green Acre to Sarah, the name the Baha’i school still bears today.

In 1892, the same year that her father died, Sarah had a vision. What if members of all world religions could get together in one place and talk openly? Two summers later, the Green Acre Conference was born. According to Eliot historian Rosanne Adams, the hotel hosted representatives from at least 17 different faiths -- Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindi, Shinto, Zoroastrians, philosophers, religious academics, artists and others arrived. Guests wearing long beards, turbans, robes and fezzes roamed the Piscataqua estate and the little Yankee town of Eliot. In 1894 visitors to the summer multi-cultural conference raised the first known "peace flag" dedicated to world harmony. Known as "The Monsalvat School for the Study of Comparative Religions" Green Acre even published its own weekly newspaper.

At the turn of the century Sarah became interested in the relatively young Baha’i faith that espoused world peace, the equality of women and the oneness of all major religions. Despite chronic ill-health, advancing age and a lack of funds, she traveled to Palestine in 1900 to meet 'Abdu'l-Baha, son of the great Baha’i prophet Baha'u'llah. Sarah accepted the faith and the following summer Green Acre began its evolution toward a Baha’i center -- a decision not popular with all involved. By 1905 Japanese negotiators at the Treaty of Portsmouth visited the renowned religious school and were photographed with founder Sarah Jane Farmer.

"It was always an open forum," says Rosanne Adams, a co-author of a history of Green Acre. "But the Baha’i took more interest in her (Farmer). She had a Baha’i lawyer, for example. The Baha’i belief in the oneness of God and the unity of all people were very much her ideals too."

Here the story, already strange to Western ears, takes another turn. According to Diane Iverson, a co-author of "Green Acre on the Piscataqua", Sarah had a serious accident in 1907. She fell in a crowd of people entering a trolley in Boston. She was pushed to the ground and her spine was crushed, leaving her temporarily an invalid.


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