Last week my daughter graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design. (Summa Cum Laude in scriptwriting, I know you want to ask.)
When she opted for SCAD, I knew we wouldn’t get to see her very often, as the SCAD campus is some 600 miles away.
But I’m glad we made the effort to visit this beautiful city. My husband and I became regulars at a Hampton Inn near SCAD, and only partly because of their free waffles.
Over time we walked around the historic district enough times that we no longer need a map.
As we drove over the Savannah River and into South Carolina and back to Maryland, it was easy to review what I’d learned these past years. Most are connected to Girl Scouts, which began in Savannah in 1912.
1. I was already familiar with the bridge when the Girl Scouts of Georgia lobbied (unsuccessfully) in 2017 to have it named for founder Juliette Gordon Low.
2. My daughter had the coolest college job ever, as a docent at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace. I learned a lot from her about how to bring former residents “alive” in a house museum. After all, tours are just another form of script.
3. I was lucky to have a peek behind the curtain to see Birthplace operations, including the renovated library.
4. I learned more about museum strategies to humanize artifacts. Instead of just showing a uniform, add details about who wore it and what she did while wearing it.
5. I had a fancy dinner in the Birthplace dining room with two of JGL’s great-nieces. They were just as warm and friendly as you’d expect.
6. I learned that shrimp and grits are nature’s most perfect food.
8. I participated in a GSUSA Task Force on the future of the Birthplace.
9. I didn’t spend nearly enough time at the Girl Scout First Headquarters museum. I don’t remember how many rounds of phone tag the director and I had, but we seldom connected.
10. I learned that if you stand on a street corner and yell “It’s Girl Scouts of the USA” every time a tour guide says that JGL founded the “Girl Scouts of America,” tourists think you’re just a weird Girl Scout vigilante and ignore you.
I deliberately decided not to visit the Andrew Low House or Laurel Grove cemetery. I’m saving them as the reason to return in the future.
These four years in Savannah were unforgettable. And yes, I got the patch. All of them!
Both the Little House and Rockwood were generous, but
unanticipated, gifts reluctantly accepted by the national Girl Scout
headquarters (GSUSA). National’s reticence related to the costs associated with
these surprise bequests.
Imagine that I give all readers a new car. (Emphasis on imagine.) The prize sounds like a windfall at first, but your excitement dims when you realize that you must suddenly come up with cash to pay taxes on the gift, registration fees, insurance, and even gasoline.
After accepting Rockwood, GSUSA vowed to never again accept
such a gift without an accompanying endowment.
Indeed, when the Girl Scouts had the opportunity to purchase the Andrew Low Housein 1943, Daisy’s marital home in Savannah, they declined for this very reason—the total cost would be much higher than just the purchase price.
Nine years later, the Savannah Council called again. An
historic property was about to come on the market. The council could not afford
it, so representatives contacted the national headquarters. This time the
property in question was a Regency mansion on the corner of Bull and Oglethorpe
Streets; the Gordon family home and Daisy’s birthplace.
Both the house and the neighborhood had deteriorated over
time, and some Gordon descendants wanted to raze the house and sell the land.
Savannah’s commercial district was expanding, and the Gordon corner lot would
be attractive to business developers.
Daisy’s niece Eleanor Wayne Macpherson was appalled at the
idea of tearing down the house. It held wonderful memories from her childhood.
Losing it, she lamented, “would be a tragedy, because, over and above its
historic value, it is associated with everything I hold dear.”
Macpherson launched a three-pronged strategy to save the
Persuading the Family
The house was owned and managed by an informal trust set up among
Daisy and her siblings. The six children had received equal ownership shares
upon the death of their parents. These shares were subsequently further divided
and sold or swapped among descendants.
Macpherson knew that the trustee, her nephew, favored
demolition, so she began quietly acquiring house shares from distant relatives
so that she would gain a majority and be able to block moves toward demolition.
GSUSA: “No Thanks”
Macpherson approached national Executive Director Dorothy
Stratton about purchasing the home. The reply was a swift “No.”
Macpherson was not completely surprised by this refusal. In
fact, she had already contacted Anne Hyde Choate about the situation. Choate,
Daisy’s goddaughter who had succeeded Low as national president in 1920, agreed
on the need to preserve the house.
Choate advised Macpherson to not condemn national leaders
for their veto, as “One cannot blame those overburdened people for wanting to
avoid more responsibility.”
Rally the Troops
Choate encouraged Macpherson to persevere. Specifically, it
was time to rally the membership behind this cause.
Somehow we must get into our Nat. Hdqrs’ mind the idea that one of their chief functions is to encourage local or other Girl Scout groups to take responsibility and carry out their own good ideas, — in fact, to treat their experienced members as grownup people!
–Anne Hyde Choate
She encouraged Macpherson to contact Louise Dawe, an influential Girl Scout in Richmond, Virginia, and the women began assembling an informal panel of volunteers to save the Birthplace.
The Board Bends
When the national Board of Directors met in October 1952,
Choate formally proposed creating a committee to study the implications of
purchasing the Gordon home. Board members agreed they should not to dismiss the
issue outright. The motion passed, and an “Ad Hoc Committee to Consider
Purchase of the Birthplace” was created from Choate’s list of proposed
committee members. She reported to Dawe that the motion had passed “definitely
against” the advice and wishes of top GSUSA officials.
The Ad Hoc Committee visited Savannah in February to inspect
the Birthplace and offered their preliminary impressions to the Board in March.
At that point, the Board expanded the committee, creating subcommittees to
focus on finance as well as restoration, operations, maintenance, and program.
The latter subcommittee was to include representatives from Savannah.
The national Board also instructed headquarters to pay $500 for an option to purchase the house for $65,000. This would prevent the building from being razed or sold to another buyer until after the October Board meeting, when the Dawe report would be presented.
The Committee worked at a frantic pace throughout the summer
of 1953 to assess the financial implications of purchasing and restoring the
Gordon home. They looked at a range of expenses and consider what programming
could be offered at the house.
Not Just Another Expense
Volunteers spent the summer trying to convert key leaders to
National President Olivia Layton sent Dawe a list of other
properties that had recently been offered to and refused by GSUSA, trying to
establish that a precedent existed for such matters. Dawe, for her part,
insisted that none of these cases were relevant because “none of them belonged
to the Girl Scout history nor offered a reason for the girls’ participation in
the project.” Furthermore, she cited bankers and real estate experts who
believed the property would be “not alone a sentimental or emotional [purchase]
… [but] a very good investment.”
Dawe went on to compare the Girl Scouts to the United
Nations as both sought “to build the defenses of peace in the minds and hearts
of children.” Just as the UN complex has a small chapel dedicated to the
founder, she thought the Gordon house could provide a similar focal point for
Girl Scouts. “It might offer that sense of the beginning of an idea and the
continuity of its great purpose.” Office locations might change, but the house
would remain a fixed anchor.
Layton took note of Dawe’s lofty ideals, but plainly stated that finding a new national headquarters building and developing Camp Macy should take precedence over buying an old home in Savannah. Dawe acknowledged these priorities, but
“With the house, it is now or never. … Is that also true of headquarters, and of Macy?”
The Committee’s findings were assembled into an extensive
report, which Dawe presented at the October meeting of the national Board of
Directors. In a nail-biting vote, the board approved the purchase, 32–24.
The Ad Hoc Committee to Consider the Purchase was dissolved
and a new “Special Committee on the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace” created. This
new group included members of the initial committee, as well as individuals
representing Savannah, and Girl Scout Region VI, among others.
Macpherson was also a part of this original committee.
Although I have seen no provision requiring a Gordon family member to be on
such an advisory group, typically someone has. That is true for the latest
incarnation, as well.
As the Birthplace continues to evolve, let us remember that volunteers can have a lasting impact on key decisions determining the direction of our movement.
My daughter recently mentioned that visitors on her tours at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace are often surprised when Erin says, “She was about my size.”
That comparison surprised me, too. Erin and I are only 5 feet tall, and even then we really have to stretch on our tippy toes. “Hold on,” I replied. “I think I’ve seen her height.”
Less than a minute later, I texted her a copy of Low’s 1919 passport application, which states her height at 5 feet, 4.5 inches.
“OK,” Erin conceded. “But that’s still pretty small.”
“You’re not going to comment on my just happening to have JGL’s passport application sitting around?”
“No, mom.” She replied. “I’ve learned to expect that.”
I had found the passport records earlier on Ancestry.com. It is fun to see Daisy’s handwritten comments, description of her own appearance, and to read the reasons given for her travel abroad. The passport photos are great, as well.
The documents have been bound into hardback volumes, and some text is not fully visible.
Her 1915 application gave her destinations as England, Italy, and Egypt, and she requested that the document be delivered to her parents’ home on Oglethorpe Street.
She renewed her passport in 1916, and her brother’s statement served in place of a birth certificate. The file also includes a letter noting that her landlord in London, Lady Coghlan, was upset to discover that Daisy had used parafin oil lamps and left at least one sink stopped up.
By 1918 Daisy had misplaced her passport and urgently needed a new one. She included a letter from Boy Scout founder Lord Baden-Powell explaining the reason for her travel.
In 1919 she explained that she needed to renew her passport for six months to attend an international scouting conference. She handwrote that her travels would include Switzerland, and another letter from Lord Baden-Powell confirmed the international meeting.
1919 2 3
1919 6 7
The last passport on file was for 1923. This trip included Egypt. She also indicates that her previous passport had been canceled.
Unfortunately, the photo for the 1923 document is almost illegible. Likely the product of poor quality microfiche.
I always enjoy looking at original documents, especially ones with personal details such as eye color, face shape, and height.
Now I have yet another reason to look up to Daisy Low.
I have had the good fortune to make two trips to the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah in the past month. In between, I decided to learn more about the history of the building. How did it become a Girl Scout National Center?
Girl Scouts of the USA, the national organization, purchased the home from the Gordon family in 1953. The Birthplace became the third national Girl Scout center, joining Camp Edith Macy in New York and Rockwood outside of Washington, DC. The Savannah home would become
a unique center for Girl Scouting in this country — a place where ideas for new troop activities can be tried out, where there will be records of the past and plans for the future of Girl Scouting where girls from all over the world may come together to find friendship and inspiration.
–Lilly Macintosh, chair of Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace Committee in 1954
The GSUSA Board of Directors advanced the purchase price ($500,000), intending to launch a national fundraising campaign to pay for the building and its renovation.
Girls were asked to contribute pennies equal to the cost of an ice cream cone.
However, the campaign did not go as smoothly as hoped. Only $88,450 had been raised by late 1954; $100,000 was needed before restoration could begin.
To date, contributions to the Juliette Gordon Low birthplace fund have been very slow. As a report will be made at the regional conference of Girl Scouts in October, it is asked that any adult or troop wishing to make a contribution to this fund do so as soon as possible.
Other indications of trouble were sprinkled throughout local news columns on Girl Scout activities, such as “the local quota of $105 for the Juliette Gordon Low birthplace restoration” and “each troop be contacted and made acquainted with the plan of contributing one dollar or more for restoration.”
If the Girl Scouts were to meet their target grand opening in 1956, they needed a new strategy. So they turned to a time-tested fundraiser: baked goods.
One year earlier, Helen Duprey Bullock, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, had begun adapting “classic” cake recipes for Dromedary Heritage Series cake mixes. Not only were the recipes based on family traditions from historic American homes, but a portion of the profits went to restore the related home. Dromedary was a division of the National Biscuit Company
The company’s first mix, First Lady Martha Washington’s “Great Cake,” was a flop (perhaps because it required 40 eggs), but her gingerbread recipe was a hit.
Soon Bullock created mixes for James Monroe’s white cake,Thomas Jefferson’s pound cake, Mary Todd Lincoln’s yellow cake, and Theodore Roosevelt’s devil’s food cake, among others.
For Juliette Gordon Low, she created an angel food cake mix. Thankfully, the required 13 egg whites came with the mix.
The result, according to advertisements, was
Angel Food light as a moonbeam, fluffy as a summer cloud, white and moist as a fresh snowfall. And with a delicate crust and flavor all its own.
Dromedary kicked off the deal with a $500 token payment. Going forward, the company would pay royalties of three-fourths of one cent per case of angel food cake mix. They anticipated selling six million cases per year and pledged an advertising campaign worth $1 million.
I haven’t found the total amount raised, but the cake mix strategy was evidently a recipe for success. The beautifully restored Birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low re-opened in 1956.
Hurricane Matthew is on track to slam into Savannah, Georgia, early tomorrow morning (October 8). Who knows what damage the “holiest” city in Girl Scouting will suffer.
I am extra anxious about the impending storm because my daughter is a sophomore at the Savannah College of Art and Design. In fact, her dorm is on the same street as the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, about two blocks west.
She evacuated Tuesday night and is home safe in Maryland, but we have no idea when she will return.
But never fear, the Girl Scouts are ready for anything, including hurricanes.
Several years ago, the Girl Scout Council of the Florida Panhandle issued Hurricane Preparedness Council’s Own badges for Brownies and Juniors. While these badges are no longer available, they contained lessons that are still valid today and that can be applied to many disaster scenarios.
There is also a similar patch program developed by Nation’s Capital and FEMA.
They all teach the same basic lesson: have a plan and review it often. Don’t waste time wondering what you should do, BE PREPARED!
To all of my friends at the Birthplace and First Headquarters, stay safe! We will be thinking of you.
Hurricane Preparedness, Florida Panhandle
Do 5 activities including one starred:
1. Look at a map or globe of the earth. Look for the horizontal lines called latitudes and the vertical lines called longitudes. Any spot on the globe can be pinpointed by the intersection of latitudinal line and the longitudinal line that the town falls on or near. The intersection of these two lines is called coordinates is measured in degrees. Find your city on a hurricane tracking map. Know the coordinates of your city. Learn how to use a tracing map to follow the path of a storm by using the coordinates.
2. Learn the terminology of the storms. Know the difference between a tropical wave, a tropical depression, a tropical storm and a hurricane. Be able to explain “hurricane watch” and “hurricane warning”.
3. Hurricanes are grouped together according to the strength of the storm. A hurricane will fall into one of five groups called categories. Learn the difference between the categories of a hurricane. Find out what categories of hurricanes have affected your area and how each category affected your area in relation to the damage and long term effects felt.
4. Make a hurricane checklist for your family. Include how to decide whether to stay or evacuate. If you evacuate, show on a map what route you would take and where your destination would be. Also indicate what items you would take with you.
*5. Help you family prepare a hurricane preparation kit. Make a list of supplies that you have prepared. Where are these items stored? How do you prepare the house (windows, water supply, outside items) for the storm?
6. Once a storm reaches the strength where it is classified as a tropical storm, it is given a name. What is the history behind naming hurricanes? How are names decided on? Are any names not used anymore and why? Make a chart of hurricane names for 2 different years.
7. Discuss with your troop your personal experience with hurricanes or hurricane warnings. Discuss how you feel before, during and after the storm. Do you and your family feel that you made the best decision whether to stay or evacuate? How do you feel now when hurricane season begins?
8. Invite an emergency management official to visit or take a field trip to the office of a local government, military, or college campus hurricane preparedness department. Learn how information is received into the office and how it is dispersed to the public.
9. With your troop, plan games and activities to do during a hurricane. Discuss what kinds of activities are better that others and why. Share what activities you may have done during a hurricane. Have supplies ready in your hurricane preparedness kit for these activities.
10. Find out about the shelters in your area. Where are they located? How do you decide whether to stay in your house or go to a shelter? Are shelters designed for specific needs such as the handicapped, medical needs, or the elderly? If anyone in your group has ever gone to a shelter during a hurricane, ask them to share their experiences.
11. Find out how hospitals, nursing care facilities, and prisons prepare for hurricanes. What special preparations do zoos, animal shelters and aviaries have to take?
Earlier in 2015, SCAD students created a new exhibition and library space at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace: Girl Writing the World: A Library Reimagined. According to the Birthplace website,
From the 1913 Interpreter badge to today’s Netiquette badge, proficiencies in reading, writing and speaking have played fundamental roles in the growth of Girls Scouts — fostering curiosity, exploration and intellect, as well as in developing their full potential. Tracing the arc of female writers and speakers from the beginning of time to the present, and inspired by muses, goddesses and heroines, the framework for this installation focuses on the themes of Memory, Knowledge, Imagination, Poetry and Wisdom. As a room of their own, this library provides girls of all ages a space in which to see themselves reflected and to find their own voices. Nourishing the senses, it can inspire them to remember, know, imagine, rhyme and reason, and from it, to grow wise — writing the world and making it a better place.
Here’s a look at the process of setting up the exhibit:
I’m glad that she’ll be attending SCAD, a university that realizes the value of Girl Scouting.
I’m also glad that even though Erin will be far from home, Savannah is a warm (as in friendly) welcoming city.
We’ve already found our favorite Italian spot, Fra Li Gourmet, where Lisa is a gracious host and incredible chef. They even provide pasta for several SCAD eateries. At least I know Erin will eat well.