When Sanford moved to a new house in 1907, she was troubled by children in her new neighborhood stealing apples from her orchard. Characteristically, she took the matter in hand and bought apple saplings which she sold for pennies to the children, giving them to those who couldn’t afford her low price in return for work in her garden. As she said: “There are plenty of people to love God’s children, so I look after the devil’s.” It was actions like this that made her neighbors vociferous in her defense.
Sanford never married. As a young woman in Connecticut, she broke an engagement because, although the couple went through a period of religious doubt together, they came out on different sides, he an atheist, she a firm but unconventional believer. While at Swarthmore, Sanford had an affair with the president of the college. His marriage and position gave them no option but to curtail their relations, and Sanford’s subsequent heartbreak played a part in her leaving the college.
Throughout her time at the University of Minnesota, Sanford took in students as lodgers. The female students contributed housecleaning toward their board, while male students paid more in rent. Sanford was concerned that the students, especially the women, did not have enough opportunities for recreation and so she encouraged parties and dancing in her house. One of the most unusual sides of Maria Sanford was her financial investments. In the late 1880s she persuaded many of her friends and acquaintances to invest money with some college students who were hoping to profit in the land boom. The bubble burst and an estimated $30,000 was lost. Despite the recommendation of friends such as Governor Pillsbury that she declare bankruptcy, Sanford attempted to pay the money back. Her success can only be measured by the fact that at her death no claims were presented to her executors.
Much of her unconventional behavior can be explained by this debt. She cut her own wood and swept out railway cars for grain for her hens. Her financial problems also shed light on her battle with the university over salary, her refusal to take a sleeper coach when travelling, and her continuation of her profitable lecture career until she died.
After incurring this debt, Sanford involved herself in other speculations, partly to try and pay back the money owing and partly because she enjoyed them. At the age of 74, she purchased
35 acres in Largo, Florida, sight unseen, and was determined to make her fortune growing celery—then a luxury crop. She travelled by train with her spade, a great-nephew, and some celery seed, only to find that the land was covered with palmetto scrub and pine. They lived in a tent for two months while attempting to clear the land, and it was another four months before she abandoned the project and came home to Minnesota.
That same year, the first dormitory for women at the university was built and named after her. This was a great honor and rightly bestowed on one who had d o n e so much for women at the university both by example and in practice.
Sanford was strong-willed and single- minded. All her actions, except her financial dealings, revolved around her fundamental belief in education. Unique in her own time, her theories and practices of education are still uncommon today. Education, she felt, was essential at every stage and in every walk of life. Intellectual progress should be closely linked with moral progress. Too often education was limited to the brief period of childhood, and it was here that her lecturing, civic involvement and extension-school teaching demonstrated various means to keep the adult mind alive.
Maria Sanford thought that formal education was too restricted by methodology and disciplines, with too little emphasis on developing natural gifts, training imagination, and teaching original thought. “Our ideas of education are too narrow and exclusive; we are the devotees of books; we can conceive of no education without them,” she wrote. It was this belief in the necessity of a broader interpretation of education influencing all of life, combined with her natural talents, that gave her power as a teacher.