Sarah Jane Farmer, the daughter of electrical genius Moses Farmer and the humanitarian Hannah Shapleigh Farmer, became a pioneer in the movement for peace. She founded a conference center in Eliot, Maine where progressive subjects were discussed, and the arts thrived. This eventually evolved into Green Acre, A Bahá’í Center of Learning. Sarah was also the first known person to fly a peace flag and the only woman to witness the signing of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty.
Sarah grew up in a household of love, compassion, faith, freedom, and awareness. She and her parents knew reformers such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Beecher Stowe, both of whom came to their home to visit. They also knew Harriet Tubman, Julia Ward Howe, and other progressive leaders. With the combination of a belief in Transcendentalism and abolitionism and their understanding of the needs of the time, the urge to help those in need was strong, and they were courageous in expressing it. Their home was a station on the Underground Railroad.
Sarah had her beginnings in Dover, New Hampshire, but her mother was from Eliot, Maine. The family moved to Eliot in 1881 after living in Salem, Massachusetts and Newport, Rhode Island, where Moses held prestigious positions.
They moved to the Eliot countryside because of health concerns and built a home called “Bittersweet-in-the-Fields,” as they felt bitter to be leaving the busy intellectual life of Newport but sweet to be in a tranquil and beautiful spot. Later the name was simply shortened to “Bittersweet.” Moses continued his scientific and electrical work; Hannah created “Rosemary,” a home for underprivileged women and their children.
Always interested in books and reading, Sarah revived the Eliot Library Association in 1887, which had been founded five years earlier but had become inactive. She served as secretary of the Association and organized evenings of reading and discussion on the classics of American and British literature. She spoke in churches and other places to raise funds for the public library. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier was a family friend, and she persuaded him to donate an entire collection of books.
During two summers Sarah organized special events, called fêtes, which included music, a bazaar for items that would be sold to benefit the library, a café, and foreign costumes. She had the artist Arthur Wesley Dow draw and design the invitations, which would be printed and then hand painted. She was creating a cultural element in the town of Eliot that hadn’t been present before. Today, in a room of Eliot’s William Fogg Library that is dedicated to Sarah, a beautiful portrait of Sarah and her dog, Barry, hangs over a mantle, a reminder of those early days of her service to the community.
In 1889 four men—Martin P. Tobey, George Hammond, Dr. John L. M. Willis, and Francis Keefe—formed the Eliot Hotel Company to begin planning the building of a resort hotel in Eliot. On March 1, 1890 Sarah signed an agreement with them to become the fifth partner in the venture. Originally the Inn they built was called the Eliot Hotel, but an early brochure calls it Green-Acre. Sarah adopted Greenacre-on-the-Piscataqua* as the official name for the Inn, but it was later shortened to the Green Acre Inn. Today it is called the Sarah Farmer Inn.
In 1892, Sarah had had a vision of Green Acre as a place where various philosophies and religions could find expression. Since the other partners felt frustrated that the Inn was not bringing enough visitors to pay for itself, they decided to allow Sarah to experiment with her ideas for a “school” for comparative religion. This decision was to have major consequences for Green Acre’s future.
In March 1893, Moses and Sarah went to Chicago to exhibit of some of his inventions at the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Unfortunately, while there, Moses became ill with pneumonia and then died, the same month the Exposition opened. Sarah, deep in grief, returned to Eliot and had his body buried in the family plot at Bittersweet, next to Hannah.
A few months later, a Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago from September 11 to September 27 as part of the Columbian Exposition. This was the first formal gathering of people representing various Eastern and Western spiritual traditions from around the world. Knowing she might meet some interesting people to invite to the Green Acre Conferences, Sarah returned to Chicago just after the closing of the Parliament.
Sarah met with its organizer, Charles Bonney, and invited Vivekananda, a Hindu from Calcutta, and Dharmapala, a Buddhist from Ceylon [now Sri Lanka], to speak at Green Acre on a universal platform for the comparative study of religious systems.
That following summer, in 1894, under a tent banked by fragrant pines, Sarah dedicated Green Acre to the ideals of peace and religious unity. Then she had the first known peace flag in the world raised and explained: “In looking for an emblem we wanted something that would be a call to everybody and fit everybody—and we felt that the Message that had been brought to the world by prophet after prophet was the message of Peace. So we have put on a large banner over our heads—PEACE.”
* The river that flows between Portsmouth, NH and Eliot, ME