Monday, March 31, 2014

Savannah, GA (2014)

"Skylark, have you seen a valley green with spring

Where my heart can go a journeying

Over the shadows and the rain
To a blossom covered lane?"

These are lyrics from “Skylark”, composed by Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael, sung by k.d.lang in the opening scenes of “Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil” (Dir. Clint Eastwood). Ever since being captivated by scenes of Savannah, GA in the movie, Savannah had been on our bucket list. Now we had the time and opportunity to tour this historic city.
Parking at Camp Lake Jasper, a recently created RV park near Hardeeville, South Carolina, put us in an ideal spot to not only visit nearby Savannah’s historic district and riverfront, but set us within easy striking distance to other locations including Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (now open with the end of the recent government shutdown), historic Fort Jackson, Hunting Island State Park, and another historic town, Beaufort, SC.

towering moss-covered Live Oak trees on the SNWR auto tour
Eager to get some local birding under our belt on our first full day, we headed to Savannah NWR (SNWR) some 17 miles up the road. The 29,000 acre refuge is part of the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex which includes six smaller refuges totaling nearly 60,000 acres. Established in 1927, SNWR has thirty-six miles of dikes open to hiking and bicycle traffic. The four-mile Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive gave us access to freshwater marshes, creeks and bottomland hardwoods. The impoundment dikes are some of the remnants from old rice levees which formed the basis for the current impoundment dikes. Bird species present were pretty representative of freshwater marshes: egrets, herons and ducks. Given that the refuge we would spend the winter was 27,000 acres in size, we surmised that a lot of the habitat we were witnessing at SNWR might be similar to central Florida.
Given our lengthy list of places we wished to see in Savannah, the next day we were off to the “Hostess City of the South”. Right off the bat we found the city’s visitor center located on Martin Luther King Jr Blvd to be most helpful. Interactive displays, two gift shops, restrooms, numerous brochures, maps and guidebooks to satisfy most needs, plus, very helpful volunteers at the information desk, got us off on the right foot. The visitor center’s location was also where various tours of the city started and ended. Parking anywhere near the riverfront or historic district was at a premium but the parking lot (free parking on Sunday) at the visitor center was inexpensive and well situated close to both the historic district and riverfront. However, be prepared to do a lot of walking if you want to absorb most of what the city’ has to offer. After observing several motorized and horse drawn tours, we found that being on foot allowed us much more time to explore at our own slower pace. The tours, while helpful, tended to skim over quite a bit due to tight scheduling restraints. It took a bit more planning on our part but was well worth the effort.
We also downloaded an app for the iPad and iPhone that covered many of the historic buildings and all 22 park squares along. A built-in map helped optimize our walking routes. But while helpful in planning, the app proved to be buggy and crashed a lot. Checking the iTunes app store we see a new and revised version is now available: Savannah Map and Walks, Full Version ($4.99).
We had read and heard much about the differences and similarities between Charleston, NC and Savannah. Both are supposed to be similar, each with their historic districts, booming tourism, and Southern charms. Having just arrived we already began to note similar but subtle differences. But first, a little background history.
In 1733, by way of a signed treaty negotiated by James Oglethorpe with Yamacraw Indian Chief Tomochichi (Creek lands), Savannah was established as the first (hence oldest) city in Georgia. Under British parliamentary rule, Savannah was designated as the capital of the Provence of Georgia (1751) and later, in 1776, when Georgia attained statehood, Savannah became the first state capital. Historians believe that the site of the state capital may have changed as many as 17 times due to significant historical events such as the Revolutionary War and Civil War. Records supporting all 17 changes are a bit sketchy, however, most historians agree that before the state capital was moved to its current location in Atlanta (1879), there were three other notable locations following the move from Savannah. Augusta (1786), Louisville (1798), and Milledgeville (1807).

old state capital building, Savannah
General consensus is that Savannah was so named for the Savannah River. And the name of the river may have been derived from earlier native Americans, the Shawnee who were displaced by other Native peoples. The Shawnee were known locally as Shawano, Savano, Savana and Savannah. Another theory for the city’s name was that it was derived from a reference to the miles of extensive grasslands that surrounds the river by adopting the English term savannah (Spanish sabana), meaning a kind of tropical grassland.
The founder of the colony of Georgia was James Edward Oglethorpe, a British general, Member of Parliament, and philanthropist. He was very much a visionary of social equity and civic virtue which included promotion of equitable land allocation, prohibition of slavery and secular administration. The “Oglethorpe Plan” included a particular layout for Savannah based on a grid pattern that blended open spaces and residential blocks known as “wards” where each ward became a microcosm of an entire city. Cities within cities. Many of the principals found in his plan are as relevant today as are the democratic principles articulated in the dawn of the American Revolution.

Bonaventure Cemetery and "Gracie"
As long as we were already in Savannah and had the better part of the day to explore, we started off with a short drive to Bonaventure Cemetery. Though not the city’s oldest cemetery, its haunting beauty (essentially Southern Gothic) has roused the imaginations of authors, poets, artists, photographers and filmmakers for several decades. One of the draws that brought us to the cemetery was to search for the “Bird Girl” statue featured on the cover of John Berendt’s book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”.

Johnny Mercer grave site
Unfortunately, we discovered that due to increased notoriety as a result of both the book and movie, the statue had since been moved to the Telfair Museum of Art. However, there was still plenty to admire. Several statues and grave sites including Johnny Mercer’s iconic grave, poet Conrad Aiken’s final resting place, and “Gracie”, a statue to commemorate a six-year old girl who died of pneumonia but is said to haunt the grave site.

Old Fort Jackson and a few of the interpretive guides
Old Fort Jackson was next. Nothing to do with Andrew Jackson, the fort was named after James Jackson, a former Georgia governor. Georgia’s oldest standing brick fort is situated along the Savannah River. Restoration (still ongoing) had brought the fort back to as it appeared some 150 years ago. It’s operated by the Coastal Heritage Society, a non-profit organization. Several interactive programs and tours are available.

lunch with Ray and Sue at the Blue Moon Brewery, Savannah, GA
As it sometimes happens, we bump into fellow RVer friends from time to time. Ray and Sue Morse who were traveling to Florida this year to a work camping gig were also in the area. We made plans to meet them at the Savannah visitor center for our first walking tour of historic Savannah and the riverfront. This gave us our first inkling of just how impressive historic Savannah truly was…and of course zone in on some local eateries. We also strolled through the City Market District lined with eateries, artisan shops, and an outdoor walking mall where outdoor concerts are common. On the day we happened into the district, a rock/jazz band was in full swing. Billy Greer, lead bass guitar with the rock group Kansas, had just sat in and was singing one of his compositions, "Dust in the Wind".

Our first impressions was that Savannah had effectively managed to preserve and elaborate on Oglethorpe’s plan with the result that the city has been able to keep a sense of open space, combined with a unique southern architecture and cultural charm. And that one visit was simply not going to be enough.
Admittedly, a large part of our fascination with Savannah was sparked by seeing the movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”. Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation was based on John Berendt’s non-fiction characterization of a murder committed by Jim Williams, a Savannah art dealer. The book deals with Williams subsequently being tried four times for the same murder, and includes a wide range of real life eccentric personalities from Savannah. The film, shot on location, centered in and around The Mercer House.

Mercer-Williams House
The house was originally built by an ancestor of Savannah native, lyricist, songwriter and singer, Johnny Mercer. Many may not know the name Johnny Mercer but are probably very familiar with several of his biggest hits (often collaborating with the likes of Henri Mancini and Hoagy Carmichael). Songs include “Moon River”, “Fools Rush In”, “Autumn Leaves”, “Something’s Gotta Give”, “Summer Wind”, “Days of Wine and Roses”, “I Wanna Be Around”, “The Shadow of Your Smile”, “Charade” (title song for the Hitchcock Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn thriller), “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”, “On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe”, and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”.
Built by Hugh Weedon Mercer, Johnny Mercer’s great-grandfather, neither he nor Johnny actually lived in the house. Construction was halted during the Civil War and following the war, Hugh Mercer lacked the funds to complete construction. The house’s new owner, John Wilder completed construction in 1868 and was its first resident. For a while in the twentieth century, the house was the site of the Savannah Shriners Alee Temple. It lay vacant for a decade when in 1969, Jim Williams, one of Savannah’s earliest and most dedicated private restorationists, bought and restored the house which is now more popularly known as the Mercer-Williams House. It is located on Bull Street at the southwest corner of Monterey Square. The square was so named to commemorate the capture of the city of Monterey, Mexico in 1846 by American forces. But the monument built in the square does not honor General Taylor who lead the American forces in that conflict but rather, Compte Casmir Pulaski, a Polish nobleman who came sacrificed his life during the Siege of Savannah in 1779. This was a continuing pattern with most of the district’s squares. The reason for why a square was named generally had little to do with who or what was actually commemorated in a square. very confusing at times.
James Arthur Williams (in the movie portrayed by Kevin Spacey who bore a striking resemblance to Williams), was an antiques dealer and historic preservationist who played an active role in the preservation (and in some cases the resurrection of) Savannah’s historic district. Over a period of 35 years Williams restored more than 50 homes in the Savannah and Low Country region of Georgia and South Carolina. While Williams was revered for his restoration work, his self-made millionaire status was reviled. His lavish and eccentric Christmas parties, along with his lack of a long line of historical descendants, or “respectability”, plus his disdain for those who flaunted theirs, did not sit well in some corners of “Old Savannah”.  In other words, his not coming from “old money” was frequently called into question.  Whenever he was asked if he in fact had come from old money, Williams replied that no he hadn’t, and that “Yes, I am "nouveau riche," but then, it's the "riche" that counts, now isn't it?”

Tom and Scott
While posting some of our photos and details of our stay in the Savannah area on Facebook, Tom was contacted by Scott Caldie, a high classmate who as it turned out, lived less than 15 minutes away! Scott stopped out at our RV site for a visit where we planned on a time at a later date to have dinner at his home. Who says social media is useless!
As blog and Facebook readers will recall, Tom had to send his binoculars in for repair and that Nikon had deemed that a new replacement pair was in order. His replacement binoculars finally caught up with us at the RV park so what better way to test them out but with a trip to Hunting Island State Park?

wall mural inside Magnolia Bakery Cafe
lower photo: one of many homes restored by Jim Williams
On the way to the state park we had to pass through Beaufort, SC, a seacoast town situated on Port Royal Island which presented us with another opportunity to walk through an historic district. Comprised mainly of Civil War antebellum architecture, Beaufort’s small size made for a relatively short walk when compared to Savannah.
And it didn’t hurt that we first fortified ourselves with a full breakfast at the Magnolia Bakery Cafe.

Some movie aficionados might identify Beaufort with where “The Big Chill” was filmed. The house used in “The Big Chill” was difficult to see from the street view having become overgrown with a lot more vegetation than appeared in the movie. However, the neighborhood surrounding the house allowed us to slip back to a time reminiscent of Southern heritage and history. Native Son Pat Conroy drew inspirational settings for some of his novels in Beaufort. And other films shot on location in Beaufort include “The Prince of Tides”, “The Great Santini", “Something To Talk About” and “Forest Gump".

beach, lighthouse spiral staircase, and boardwalk at Hunting Island SP
Hunting Island State Park was located 16 miles east of Beaufort. Built in the 1930’s by the CCC, it had an extensive pristine beach, several hiking trails, seashore habitat for the endangered Loggerhead Turtle, a modest campground, and a lighthouse (the only lighthouse in SC open to the public). A marsh boardwalk lead to a viewing platform and a small hammock. Several of the Vietnam scenes from “Forest Gump" were filmed near the boardwalk. No hollywood crews on the day we visited - just Ospreys, egrets, and herons were deployed in the marsh. And the new bins worked just fine.

waterfront walk and more architecture, Beaufort, SC
Passing through Beaufort again, we concentrated on walking the quaint downtown. Realizing we would be getting back to the RV well after dark, our stomaches dictated that we opt for an evening meal in Beaufort. A very relaxing and pleasant end to another day in SC dining on the back porch of Q On The Bay.

Following a day’s rest at the RV, we again made our way back to Savannah. For as much walking as we accomplished with Ray and Sue, we had barely scratched the surface in our effort to visit all 22 squares. With a better idea of what to expect and with a little help from our iPhone app, we were able to quickly walk through several more neighborhoods. One of our routes took us through the Colonial Park Cemetery. Established in about 1750, it was the original burial ground for the Christ Church Parish. Enlarged in 1789, it became a burial ground for people of all denominations. More than 700 victims of the deadly Yellow Fever epidemic of 1820 are buried in the cemetery along with many numbers of men who died during Savannah’s tragic fascination with dueling. Strangely, for a Southern cemetery, there are no Civil War or Confederate soldiers buried at Colonial Park. By the time the Civil War began, the cemetery had been closed to any further burials.

Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church
the Victorian Gothic Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist
First Baptist Church
On this visit we included more historic buildings and churches. The Victorian Gothic Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Georgia and and the 13th Colony’s first church, was off Chippewa Square. Christ Church, just off Johnson Square, is a Greek revival building where John Wesley, founder of Methodism, once served. Under his direction, this was where the first Sunday School in North America was held and in 1737, where he published a Collection of Psalms and Hymns, the first hymnal in America. Franklin Square is the site of the First African Baptist Church. The church was used by runaway slaves and in the 1960’s, served as a base for the Civil Rights Movement.
Off Troup Square is where the Unitarian Universalist Church stands. The Reverend John Pirpont Jr. was called as minister in 1852. Legend has it that James Pierpont, John’s brother and organist/choir director, wrote the song that we know as “Jingle Bells”.
On one corner of Write Square is the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low who, as any Girl Scout should know, was the founder of Girl Scouts. Purchased by the Girl Scouts in 1953, the house is now a living memorial to “Daisy” as Juliette was affectional called by her family (it was currently under restoration when we saw it).
Of course there was the Mercer-Williams House which offered tours but we never seemed to be able to coincide our schedule to take a tour. However, there was a very nice gift shop in rear part of the house where the attached carriage house is located. The gift shop is open most of the time and had a very nice replica of the “Bird Girl” for sale (too big for our home on wheels).
A few more days at the RV park washing the RV and truck. But there was still time for one more trip to visit Savannah and the riverfront plus spend an evening for dinner at Scott Caldie’s.

Tom and Scott, Carol and Joyce
Scott has, as he put it, finally figured out how to retire. Following a few failed attempts, he finally called it quits for good, sold his home in Philadelphia and settled into a home in Bluffton, SC. Not long after arriving in Bluffton, he met Joyce Calabrese, a delightful widow who shared many of Scott’s passions (golf anyone?). She and Scott really hit it off and are now sharing a home in Bluffton. Both are wonderful cooks and spoiled us rotten with some good, down home Midwestern grilling. We’re hoping to see both at Tom’s 50th high school reunion in Appleton in 2015.
Having now walked extensively in both cities, we’re had come to some conclusions about each city. Charleston, with a smaller population somehow felt bigger. It felt like there were more winding streets in the downtown area. But Savannah, with its twenty-two open space squares and urban design, was a more comfortable “walking” city.

Savannah's waterfront
While both cities have a large and prosperous seaport, Charleston, felt a lot more modern whereas Savannah felt somewhat more isolated. Or perhaps a better word might be insulated. And this insulation was not by accident. Savannah has balked at large companies establishing roots which might compete directly with the duality of living in the past and moving into the future. Charleston has more openly welcomed large corporate influences.

Forsyth Park Fountain
Both cities claim to embrace and revere the past. Savannah wears its history like a heart on a sleeve - it embraces both the highlights and the warts. It proudly defines itself by reveling in a continuation of its past whereas Charleston, while proud of its heritage, has taken its past and put it under glass. Just don’t look too closely.

many homes had stairs parallel to the walk making for more space
Interestingly, Savannah residents seem to have more of a connection to the “circle of life” due to the close proximity of downtown and its cemeteries. For example, Bonaventure Cemetery, by virtue of its walkability and vitality (vitality in a cemetery?) draw thousands of visitors. So too the Colonial Cemetery on the edge of the historic district. The closest equivalent in Charleston is a story about how the Confederacy exhumed and relocated the remains of John C. Calhoun during the Civil War to prevent the Union Army from desecrating the body.  (The remains were returned to Charleston after the war.)  An interesting story, but it lacked the daily presence of the Savannah cemeteries.
In the end, we favored Savannah. We’d recommend both cities but if you only had time for one, we say pick Savannah. You’ll come to experience daily life far easier than what felt like make-believe in Charleston.

fountain commemorating German immigrants, Orleans Square
Forsyth Park, Savannah
October was now starting to wind down and we had to start paying closer attention to the calendar. Our November 1st start date volunteering at Lake Woodruff WLR was getting closer. But, we still had a few days left to explore and one more stop along the way: Fort Clinch State Park, Florida.

Revolutionary War hero, Sgt. William Jasper, Madison Square
James Oglethorpe statue,
Revolutionary War Haitian Monument Statue, Franklin Square
Tom helping Johnny Mercer with some lyrics
amphitheater, Forsyth Park
Owens-Thompson House, Oglethorpe Sqaure
the Waving Girl statute, Savannah waterfront
Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah on Troup Square
First African Baptist Church
Congregation Mickve Isreal
lighthouse and views from at Hunting Island SP
that's Carol in the red circle who didn't care to climb to the top
above pics of scenes at Hunting Island SP
above pics from Old Fort Jackson
for all you Marines
Carolina Wren feeling at home on the back of our RV
very good micro brew
Billy Greer singing "Dust in the Wind" (lead bass for the band Kansas) outdoors in Savannah
fans of the movie will recognize this - where The Lady Chablis lived
wonder if it had seat belts?


  1. Great pics .. lots of history. I skipped Savannah this trip & did Charleston instead. Both are great!

    1. After spending a week in each place, we ended up liking Savannah better...maybe because it still has that old low country, southern charm. We loved walking through all the "squares" - each has it's own charm, I guess.