"...with twenty-two luscious green squares it is like strolling through the rooms of an elegant open air mansion."
John Berendt (Author, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil)
Savannah started when a group of English settlers accompanied James Oglethorpe to the colony that would be called "Georgia" at the behest of King George, who hoped the pioneers would develop meaningful crops and provide the British Empire with less foreign dependence on goods. The settlers were all poor folks who sought a better life in the new world, where they had been promised fifty acres, two mules and other assorted treasures to sweeten the pot of what was described to them as the "paradise of the new world."
In the new "paradise" they found alligators, yellow fever, hostile Natives, and other delights not mentioned in the advertising campaign that lured them there, which had been one of the largest ever waged at the time. It was important to King George that this colony provide a buffer between the other colonies and the Spanish interlopers in the South. Also, it would have been real tidy if the New World controlled by the Brits could have eliminated their dependence on foreign imports such as rice, silk, cotton, and tobacco. King George’s new colony would be a testing ground for these crops.
Oglethorpe laid out the city of Savannah to support the early settlers’ challenge of fighting off attackers and also to secure their destiny in developing viable crops in the New World. The twenty-four (ten) acre park "Squares" that define Savannah were the experimental gardens and the central meeting places for the families whose homes surrounded each square. These central gardens provided more protection for animals, families and plants alike and eventually gave Savannah her most distinguishing characteristic and unique charm and secured Oglethorpe‘s place in history as the founder of a grand city.
Of course, some of the crops did well and many of the decendants fared even better. At the turn of the nineteenth century, just a few decades after soundly winning the infamous revolt against the Empire that sent their ancestors to Georgia to begin with, the United States was free from British rule and Savannah ruled the cotton market.
When cotton was king, Savannah, a bit too naughty to be the queen, was her supreme royal highness’ favorite supporter, the shipping market. Many fortunes were amassed quickly during the period that Savannah spent commanding the cotton market down from the central offices and warehouses on River Street, managing the cost and movement of cotton across the ocean. Grand homes and estates filled with treasures from around the world sprung up in Savannah’s downtown neighborhoods located around those very squares that humbly served as community center to the ancestors.
Some 14 million dollars in cotton was shipped out from Savannah in the early 1800’s before the yellow fever epidemic quarantined Savannah’s port and the bottom dropped out of the market. The civil war waged its ravages on the entire South, and even though the city of Savannah was spared Sherman’s broad annihilation, it’s as if her spirit was sapped, having gone from rags to riches and back again in less than a few decades.
She foundered from then on, a "beautiful lady with a dirty face," as she’d come to be called. Descendants of the wealthy families couldn’t maintain the glory and grandeur of the ancestral homes. Moss covered the overgrown squares, mold filled the grand old buildings, many abandoned long ago, when the needed repairs became overwhelming and upkeep too costly. It was getting downright creepy and scarey there for a while.
In fact, it got so bad at one point that city leader’s considered razing most of downtown Savannah and rebuilding it with modern structures. They managed to do away with three of the 24 original squares, paving the way for smoother traffic patterns, before the storm troopers in pill-box hats a.k.a. overgrown Girl Scouts turned Savannah Historical Society, stepped in front of the dozers in the 1950’s and abruptly put a halt to the destruction of all that weeping history. They suggested, instead, revitalization and restoration and started by buying the Isaiah Davenport House. With the help of National Endowments and Historical Preservation grants, they prevailed and today, we have the city of Savannah to enjoy with great thanks to all the people who settled, endured, developed, propped themselves up and finally held their heads high once again.