Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Savannah History

In 1733 the king of England sent a Mr. Oglethorpe to America to found a new colony, one that would be a refuge and opportunity for the poor and unfortunate. Oglethorpe found a spot on the Savannah River that looked promising thanks to a bluff rising above the miles of lowlands all around.

We must remind ourselves here not to measure such terms as "bluff" and "high ground" by Oregon terms.

So that's what they did, with a few twists that were unique to this colony. First, they decided that no one was to monopolize the area and get rich at the expense of everyone else, so no one was allowed to own more than 500 acres of land, and Oglethorpe himself was never paid for all the work he did getting the settlement going.

Also, slavery was outlawed, but this was sort of ignored as the years went by.

Then, they laid out a plan for the town, beginning with 23 "squares" and working out from there. The result is a historic area that is amazingly beautiful. Every few blocks in any direction the street splits left and right, and up ahead is a small park a bit smaller than a city block. Brick paths cross it, park benches sit around it [think Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump; we saw where that scene was filmed], a statue or monument is in the center of each square, and live oaks dripping with moss stand all around and are interspersed with grass and magnolia trees just starting to bloom and rhododendrons.

We've been eating our lunches in the squares and watching squirrels and people--kids in school uniforms, business people in suits, moms with kids in strollers. Today I was fascinated by a cluster of black grandmas with rattly grocery bags by one park bench. Such an animated conversation in the most astonishingly satisfying Southern accent you ever heard, and every time a black grandma came through the square, she stopped and joined the conversation. Then along came a tall, successful-looking black guy in a business suit, talking on a Blackberry and looking like he had places to go and the means to get there. I wondered, how does this work--do the grandmas embarrass him in the same way that I don't always want to be associated with every Mennonite I meet in town, if you get my drift, especially if they talk too loud and stuff. Well, the going-places guy stopped and kissed the one grandma with the dreadful red-dyed hair on the cheek, and he smiled and had a nice chat with her, and I thought Awwwwwww.

Oh yeah, history. Ok, well, cotton became king and down along the riverfront where Oglethorpe first landed they built a mile of 5-story brick buildings, one against another, that became the Wall Street of the South, only it was all about cotton. The "factors" did the buying and selling on the top three floors. The cotton was ginned on the second floor then dropped down to the bottom level, which opened out onto the riverfront, and there it was baled and trundled out to the ships.

Many of these buildings are still there, and the quantity of cotton that must have moved through there is hard to imagine.

However, the land got cottoned out, and the Civil War came, and some years after that the boll weevil, and now the buildings are law offices and tourist attractions--candy shops and t-shirt vendors and other pursuits far removed from the glory days of cotton.

I think there's a lesson there, if we're on the lookout for lessons.

In the 1970s someone had a vision for the restoration of the historic district. In fact I think it was the main character of Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, a book I'll have to read now that I've been where it all happened. This guy restored some 50 buildings himself and worked at getting the city to develop the whole area with some uniformity. It was a brilliant move.

Today, you can stay at the Hilton and make daily forays by foot to old churches and old houses and cool little shops and wonderful little restaurants, more than you could take in in a month. If you get tired of walking you can hop on a bus for free.

Speaking of the Hilton, I'm starting to feel like Eloise, but that is another subject for another day.


  1. Please keep the history lessons coming. They are so much better than history books.
    The squares sound wonderful, it's been my dream to go south some spring to see the Flowering bushes.


  2. Don't you love the squares - and the history. We learn more every time we visit. Savannah is as different from Eugene as Night is from Day. I especially loved the side street where the street and the curb go out AROUND the tree instead of the tree being cut down.
    I have "Midnight" if you would like to borrow it.

  3. I love the story of the black grandmas and the up-and-coming young black male. Their loudness, excitement, emotion are all typical of southern blacks and to a lesser degree of whites. I have seen northern white[s] mark this conduct as evidence of an unstable mind...SIGH.


  4. I love Savannah...the South...

    I haven't been here, but have heard raves about this place. Talk about a southern menu.