Some of the most interesting and influential people of our time have called Savannah home. Georgia’s first city, a coastal town, known for its scenic antebellum beauty attracts travelers from all over the map.
Many deserve recognition for helping Savannah reach greatness. But so often those deserving of praise are forgotten as time goes by.
GPB Savannah remembers some of these lesser known individuals in our second round of Forgotten Women.
Susan Arden Joly, is a cheerful woman with blonde hair and a big smile. She was standing near the coast of Tybee Island outside the Fresh Air Home, a summer getaway for children in need. "Here we’re standing in the heart of the campus and looking straight ahead you have a walkway directly to the beach. So that the children never leave our premises before accessing the beach. founded by Nina Anderson Pape," she said.
Joly is a long time member of the the Froebel Circle, a group started in 1897 by Pape give less privileged children in Savannah, an escape from their homes lives. Many had never seen the beach located just thirty minutes away.
Fresh Air Home Founded by Pape
Photo Courtesy: Susan Arden Joly
“She was still in her 20’s and she realized there was a need to get many of the children who were in impoverished neighborhoods in the city," Joly added. "And again in 1897, Savannah was still coal mining a lot and it was very dirty they were very malnourished, so the idea was to get them out of the dirty unhealthy city that Savannah use to be and bring them down to the beach to catch the Fresh Air and have wholesome food and have very healthy activities as well for the spirit as well as the body."
Pape’s background was very different than the children she was helping. She was born into a prominent Savannah family in 1869.
For several years her grandfather was the city’s mayor. She lived a privileged life, but her fortune didn’t last.
Paul Pressly is the Director of the Ossabaw Island Education Alliance,
“Her father deserted the family. And he ran to New Orleans and he died...Her grandfather was quite wealthy. Her mother had some wealth and it was invested in bonds in the Central of Georgia Railroad...her wealth was in that and in 1893 the Central of Georgia railway went bankrupt so she lost it. She had just enough to get by."
For work, Pape became a 1st grade school teacher at Massie Elementary. It was during her time there that she and 8 other Savannah women, started the Fresh Air Home.
Gary Strickland now in his 50’s, is grateful that she did. He still remembers the summer on Tybee that changed his life. He recently went back to the Fresh Air Home for the first time in over 40 years. He became emotional when thinking about his experience.
"And I could tell you the exact spot on the floor in the main room the activity room...where I remember sitting in the lap of one of the counselors...as she was, as we baptist tend to say, lovin’ on me and as she was just showing me unconditional love and making me feel so much better."
Strickland said he had a decent home life. But his time at the Fresh Air Home gave him a sense of security that he had never felt before. He even remembers the small details from his time there like making rings from palm leaves.
"You may think what’s the big deal teaching a kid to make a ring out of grass or a leaf," Strickland asked. "It’s a huge deal. Those are the things that help shape us and can help shape us for the better.' I know it did for me."
That could have been the end of Pape's legacy, but she was just getting started.
Paul Pressly explained more.
"She was instrumental in introducing the kindergarten movement to Savannah. This was in the 1890’s there was no such thing as a kindergarten. And the board of education thought anybody who advocated a kindergarten had to be a little bit cooky. Why would you want to educate five year olds?"
The kindergarten movement was gaining speed nationwide. But not in Georgia. Unable to make strides at Massie and reprimanded by her superiors for trying, Pape and a colleague started, the Pape School. The private institution now known as The Savannah Country Day school. The first in Georgia to have a kindergarten.
There she began employing teaching techniques that were unheard of at the time.
Pressly said, "She said learning is not about memorization. Learning is about learning how to think. And of course everybody knows that today. But in 1912 people didn’t know that...She said for teaching math I’m going to take these children out into Forsyth Park and lets look at these geometric forms the bushes that are shaped geometrically."
A stark contrast to the theory that education was simply reciting facts.
Pape’s cousin, Juliette Gordon Low is well known in Savannah for forming the Girl Scouts.
But most don’t realize, said Susan Arden Joly, that Pape played an instrumental role too.
"Nina got the girls together who became the first girl scout troop. So she was really the co-founder with her cousin and helped write the first girl scout handbook…
She seems to have dedicated her life to doing good for others. Particularly for young people. Either the children here or the children at her school or the children in the girls scouts...Make you mark a good and she did but it was a lasting mark."
All three of the organizations are still thriving today.