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Old Sheldon Church

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About half-an-hour north of Beaufort, there’s a place in the woods which has become one of the low country’s favorite secrets. The ruins of the Old Sheldon Church are found down a tiny road, in a forest of towering oaks draped in Spanish moss.

Old Sheldon Church

The Prince William’s Parish Church was originally built around 1750, but was burnt down by the British during the Revolution. It was rebuilt in in 1826, and once again met a violent death during the Civil War, finding itself in the path of pillaging General Sherman. Since then, the church been left to ruin.

But what ruins they are! Huge bricked walls with intact archways have somehow defied gravity, while a number of columns sprout from the ground as though in competition with the oaks. Scattered around the site are graves, some which are too worn to read, and other that have sunk into the ground. Within the church sits the tombstone of William Bull, who was of great assistance to Oglethorpe in the layout and development of Savannah, and after whom Bull Street is named.

Old Sheldon Church is a popular place for wedding portraits, for reasons which are immediately apparent. If you’re anywhere in the area, make sure to stop by and take in one of the region’s most beautiful scenes.

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January 25, 2011 at 2:34 pm Comments (7)

Ebenezer – Home of the Salzburg Lutherans

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A weathered memorial stone in Savannah’s Emmet Park pays tribute to a group of Lutherans from Salzburg, Austria, who immigrated to Georgia in the 18th century to escape the persecution of their Catholic homeland. Under General Oglethrope, Georgia had become known for its religious tolerance, and welcomed the the Lutherans with open arms. Along the banks of a river to the north of Savannah, they settled a town which they would name Ebenezer.

Salzburger Ghost Town

We knew nothing about Ebenezer other than the text on the memorial, but took a detour there, since we happened to be driving by. Ebenezer is difficult to find, barely on the map, and we were skeptical about finding anything of interest. As we turned onto Ebenezer Road, a “Dead End” sign greeted us, which wasn’t encouraging.

But after parking at a church and stepping out of the car, we realized there’s life here, after all, and were swept into the arms of Ebenezer’s unofficial welcoming committee. An older man greeted us enthusiastically and introduced us to his town, which has become a sort of historical heritage site. There’s a museum dedicated to the Salzburg Lutherans, the Jerusalem Salzburg Church built in 1769, and an original log cabin filled with colonial artifacts of German and Austrian design.

Ebenezer Swan Salzburger

Ebenezer doesn’t exist anymore, as an actual, incorporated town. But in its early days, the Lutheran community had been immensely successful. The town even served briefly as the capital of Georgia, and was the home of a state governor. But the Revolutionary War devastated Ebenezer, and it never recovered. In 1855, it was abandoned for good and the few remaining residents brought into the nearby city of Rincon.

The history of the place is fascinating, and we loved stepping inside the original log cabin and the church, both of which are remarkably well-preserved. We spent an hour talking to our guide, his son, and another man who’s lived in the area his whole life.

Our visit to Ebenezer was a lot more successful than we had feared. During the trip back to Savannah, I reflected on how diverse my country truly is, despite its relative youth. I mean, we had just visited an abandoned town in the middle of the Georgian backwoods, founded by persecuted Austrians. It’s these kind of weird cultural conglomerations which really make the USA special.

Georgia Salzburger Society – Website
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January 24, 2011 at 7:04 pm Comments (6)

Troup Square

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Built in 1851, Troup is one of Savannah’s smaller squares. It was named after George Troup, a former governor known his strident support of slavery and anti-Indian policies. It might be because of these unappealing views, that the square’s central monument is not a statue of Troup, but a strange, archaic globe.

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Troup Square may lay claim to Savannah’s most curious monument, with its Armillary Sphere. This was a model used to track celestial orbits, invented by the Greeks and made obsolete by the invention of the telescope. The sphere an odd choice for the middle of a square in Savannah, which wasn’t founded until well after the instrument was out of use. (You know where else you can find an Armillary Sphere? Portugal’s flag. Don’t ask me why.)

Troup Square

Another strange feature of Troup Square is its doggy drinking fountain, moved here from its original location in Forsyth Park. It doesn’t even bother with spouts for humans, and is the reason some residents refer to this area as “Dog Bone Square”.

Troup Square isn’t done confusing you, yet. Another oddity is that this is the birthplace of Jingle Bells. You know that song that goes, “Dashing through pleasantly mild winters, in a picturesque Victorian district, round the squares we go, drinking from plastic cups all the way.” The Unitarian Universalist Church, on the square’s west side, is where James Pierpoint, the brother of the church’s reverend, wrote the famous song. Why he was inspired to write a song about sleighing and wintry fun, as he gazed out onto Troup Square is anyone’s guess.

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January 22, 2011 at 1:20 pm Comments (7)

Franklin Square

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The only square on Montgomery Street to survive into the present day is Franklin Square. Like the lost squares of Liberty and Elbert, Franklin Square had been a victim of urbanization, but was fortunately restored in the 1980s.

Franklin SQ Monument

The most western of Savannah’s squares, Franklin is also one of its oddest. The tourist hub of City Market is nearby, meaning grease-hungry gawkers hunting for Paula Deen are a constant presence, as are panhandlers. Franklin is definitively not among Savannah’s most enchanting squares, but it does boast a touching memorial to the Haitian Volunteer Army. The Haitians played an invaluable role in the US Revolution, particularly during the Siege of Savannah. Soon after our freedom was won, they returned home and staged a revolution of their own, resulting in Haiti becoming the first independent republic in Latin America, and the first black-led nation in the world.

At the western end of the square is the First African Baptist Church, which we took an excellent tour of. Back in the days of slavery, the church’s priest would regularly be brought into Franklin Square and whipped. His crime? “Educating” other slaves with his sermons. I’m sure Benjamin Franklin, an abolitionist and all around humanitarian, would have loved that.

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January 18, 2011 at 7:42 pm Comments (5)

Whitefield Square

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On Habersham and Wayne, Whitefield was one of the final squares to be laid out in Savannah, in 1851. With a distinctive gazebo in its center and gingerbread houses surrounding it, this small square feels like a throw-back to Victorian times.

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The square was named after George Whitefield, a British priest who came to the colonies and was largely responsible for a religious movement that has become known as the First Great Awakening. The “Awakening” left a permanent imprint on American religion, by eschewing quiet contemplation and somber services in favor of loud, bombastic preaching, and by putting a heavy emphasis on personal guilt and the need for redemption. When you see present-day televangelists screaming and crying and carrying on about the devil inside all of us… well, you can thank Mr. Whitefield for that.

Whitefield also put great worth in the importance of public deeds, and did his part by establishing the Bethesda Orphanage just outside Savannah. Still in use today, this was the very first orphanage in all North America.

Whitefield Square is fun to explore, as long as you don’t mind the occasional pan-handler. The gazebo in the center could be a nice place to spend some time, but it’s currently the exclusive domain of vagabonds. Still, Whitefield is not without its charms. The Congregational Church, for example, is a handsome building. Found on the western side of the sqaure, it was consecrated in the late 19th century.

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January 17, 2011 at 3:24 pm Comments (10)

First African Baptist Church

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Found on Franklin Square, the First African Baptist Church is the oldest black church in North America. Founded by slaves in 1775, it has a history nearly as old as Savannah itself.

First African Baptist Church

From the outside, the church isn’t terribly impressive, but that changes once you step indoors. The interior is beautiful, with curved pews pointing towards the pulpit and a pair of upper balconies for busy days. The church was built by the charity and volunteer efforts of slaves who, as you might imagine, didn’t have much extra money or free time. But over the course of four years, they got the job done, coming straight from their regular labor to work through the night on the construction of this church.

Our tour was fascinating, and our guide seemed to have a never-ending series of anecdotes, which demonstrated that the First African Baptist Church was much more than it seemed.

For example, the church was built with a secret floor underneath its real floor, and operated as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Never discovered by authorities, the crawlspace hid hundreds of runaway slaves and a tunnel led them from the church to the Savannah River. To mask their true purpose, the floor’s breathing holes were bored in the shape of the Kongo Cosmogram: an African spiritual symbol often used by American slaves.

Kongo Cosmogram

Another secret in the church is found in its ceiling, which looks rather plain at first glance, like waffle squares. But theses squares represent the Nine-Patch Quilts, which served as beacons for indicating safe houses to slaves on the run, and so the ceiling is a clever tribute to the church’s hidden humanitarian purpose.

Also, on the ends of each pew, all of which are original and date back hundreds of years, the wavy lines of cursive Hebrew have been scratched into the wood. Our guide wasn’t able to translate any of the words, but he did tell us that a few Ethiopian tourists had visited recently and instantly recognized it. Apparently, it’s still used by Jewish communities in Africa.

Kongo Cosmograms, Underground Railroad Patchwork, Cursive Hebrew… now this is the kind of unexpected history which totally interests me! If you’re the same, make sure to visit the First African Baptist Church, either for the tour or for the Sunday service.

First African Baptist Church – Website
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January 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm Comments (7)

Greene Square

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Named after revolutionary hero Nathaniel Greene, whose monument and burial site is at Johnson Square, Greene Square was laid out in the 1790s and developed into the center of Savannah’s black population. With a number of beautiful homes encircling it, it’s one of the city’s more enchanting squares.

Bachelor House Savannah

The Second African Baptist Church on the northeast side of Greene Square was built in 1802. Though destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in 1925, it retains much of its original interior, such as its benches, chairs and pulpit. This is where General Sherman famously promised to provide each freed slave “40 acres and a mule” after the Civil War.

Pay attention for signs around Greene Square, which reveal the original street names. President Street was originally King Street, and Congress Street was once called Prince Street. (After the American Revolution, we didn’t have any desire to continue honoring the monarchy.) Other signs provide information about Greene Square’s homes. The house on 521 East York Street was built from the famous Savannah gray bricks of the Hermitage Plantation, and at 124 Houston, there’s an early 19th-century wood and stucco house built by Isaiah Davenport; one of the prominent architect’s few remaining structures in Savannah.

Greene Square itself has no monuments or fountains, but is rich in contrast. And its charming houses make it one of the must-see squares in Savannah.

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January 9, 2011 at 7:02 pm Comments (3)

Calhoun Square

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Calhoun Square was named after the South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun, who was our seventh Vice President, and served under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He was fiercely pro-slavery and was one of the leading proponents of Southern secession: views which apparently won him respect in Savannah, who named their newest square after him, one year after his death in 1850.

Spooky Church

Calhoun Square is the only square in Savannah with all its original buildings still intact, and is thus one of its most picturesque. The most important standing structure is the Massie School, which opened in 1865 as Georgia’s first public school. Today, it’s the home of the Massie Heritage Center, dedicated to the city’s history.

Calhoun Square is also notable for the Greek Revival houses which encircle it, including the empty mansion at 432 Abercorn, recognizable by the empty oval underneath its stairs, and its sense of foreboding. This is one of Savannah’s most haunted houses, with numerous tales surrounding it, and a favorite stop for the city’s many ghost tours.

432 Abercorn’s most famous story is of the father who forbade his daughter from playing out in Calhoun Square with the children from the Massie School. When she continued to disobey him, he tied her onto a chair in the top floor of the house, faced toward the window, so that she could see all the fun she was missing. She remained tied there until she died of heat exhaustion. Her ghost can still occasionally be seen, wistfully staring out the window, hoping to one day join her friends again in the square.

I’ve never seen her myself, although I look every time we pass by. Regardless of the story’s veracity, the house is legitimately creepy. And I still haven’t heard a good reason for why this historic property in one of Savannah’s most sought-after residential zones has been empty for so long.

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December 11, 2010 at 7:33 pm Comments (7)
Old Sheldon Church About half-an-hour north of Beaufort, there's a place in the woods which has become one of the low country's favorite secrets. The ruins of the Old Sheldon Church are found down a tiny road, in a forest of towering oaks draped in Spanish moss.
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