An Upstate Girl Scout troop's adventure to Savannah: Visiting Juliette Gordon Low’s birthplace
Greenville mom Kate Churches recently accompanied her daughter's Girl Scout troop to Savannah and kindly shared their experiences with our readers.
For many South Carolina Girl Scout troops, the pilgrimage to the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah is a rite of passage. Considering troops from all over the nation visit this historic home of the Girl Scout founder, and Savannah is practically in our backyard, this site is too close to home to skip the tradition.
In addition to the Low House, we had two Coastal nature experiences, uniquely offered to Girl Scouts. Tybee Island Marine Center has a program for Girl Scouts, and the troop’s accommodations were on the picturesque setting of a Girl Scout property, Camp Low on marshy Rose Dhu Island.
Last May, funded with proceeds from their hard-earned cookie sales, my daughters’ troop of seven girls, embarked on this adventure with their leader, Sarah Covington-Kolb. I was the lucky mom who scored the chaperone spot.
“I love a good historical house tour and thought that our tour guide was one of the best I've ever had in terms of… trying to get the girls to think about the times that (Low) lived in and how she responded to that,” Covington-Kolb said.
Also, Covington-Kolb expected the girls would benefit from the Low’s “self-determined and unique” persona. She hoped the girls would view Low as an example of how our girls can “choose their own way in life, which may be different from the ‘normal’ or expected life.”
In addition to history, Covington-Kolb was attracted to the fact that the house is in Savannah, a beautiful city to visit with a variety of activities.
The girls were presented with the budget from cookie sales and some excursion choices. They set their own itinerary, chose their menu for the weekend, and agreed on a set of rules for the weekend. They prepared all the meals (with just enough adult help to learn some new kitchen skills) and handled all the clean-up. Coming from a household of six people, a weekend of not having to cook, clean or wash dishes was a vacation by itself. I’d take another trip with this crowd anytime!
Arriving in Savannah
A morning departure from Greenville with a picnic lunch on the road put us in Savannah that afternoon. The troop immediately settled into Camp Low’s highly-sought-after Juliette’s House, a two-bedroom cottage with full kitchen and air-conditioning. Most of the girls were able to fit in one room with two couch surfers in the living room. (Originally, a hotel was booked until another troop leader shared this tip.)
Located in the marshes outside Savannah on Rose Dhu Island, the camp had trees drenched in massive amounts of Spanish moss. (In the surrounding neighborhood, moss even covered the power lines.) It struck me as surprising how different this setting was from the dense palmetto scrub forests I’d seen just north of the island in South Carolina. A nature trail led to a boardwalk over a creek. My middle daughter and I enjoyed a walk by ourselves, and she was thrilled by the tiny fish in the shallow water.
“Look at those bugs!” my mountain girl cried, bending over the rail, examining the mud. I told her to look closely, and she discovered the “bugs” were actually tiny crabs. After our rave review of the trail, the rest of the group checked it out later in the weekend.
To beat the heat, we explored the city of Savannah after dinner. We walked a few blocks through some town squares where musicians played for change, found a gift shop and meandered to the riverfront by way of an ice cream dessert.
Our first full day was spent at the beach at Tybee Island. The kids played until the program time at the Marine Center. An educator showed the girls how to work together to catch fish in a wide net. Because they’d collected several specimens the day before, she said they likely wouldn’t keep any creatures unless they found something really unusual. The girls’ little fish made it back in the ocean.
They went on a walk along the beach and learned about how seaweed is important to baby turtles who eat it and hide from predators in it.
After the beach learning session, the troop went inside the facility to see tanks of other native ocean creatures brought in from the shore. A few Pacific coast fish in one aquarium illustrated the difference in coloration and habitat from coast to coast.
After the marine center, the troop ate pizza on Tybee Island, the one meal they’d budgeted to eat out. We spent the evening back at the cottage playing games and preparing for our visit to the house.
Experiencing the Low birthplace
The Low birthplace asks leaders to review some Girl Scout history with their troops prior to visiting. They also planned a troop ceremony to commemorate their visit upon their arrival, which included some serious words about what they love about being Girl Scouts, plus a silly dancing finale.
Upon arrival at the house, it was suddenly obvious to me that the reason we had tie-dyed shirts before our visit. All the troops come in matching shirts. A Midwestern group had ordered shirts in advance to wear them during their tour. Another group had crafted matching shirts. Our crew looked bold and beautiful wearing spiraled tie-dye, in greens and blues reminiscent of the Girl Scout uniform colors. (A local artist helped us make the shirts, and I added “Girl Scouts” in yellow block letters on the back.)
Tours vary a bit as to which part of the home may be first on your agenda. Before entering the house, we had time to explore the walled formal garden. Planting beds were laid out in a geometric pattern with crunchy pea gravel between plots. The girls chose a spot for their ceremony among the ironwork sculptures. With solemn words, they gave each other pins to commemorate their visit. (The Girl Scouts USA says any scout who visits can call the house her own.) After sharing in their own heartfelt words each of them liked about being a scout, the ceremony ended with a silly dance.
Following the garden, we were led to the gift shop, and then we heard a few words about house rules before entering the house.
Finally, we climbed the steps into the Antebellum mansion, whose original construction dates back to about 1820. The three-story façade is pinkish stucco in a Georgian architectural style. (That’s Georgian as in King George of England; the name of this style of architecture is unrelated to the fact that the house happens to be located within the State of Georgia.) Although only seven rooms in the manse are open to the public, that was still plenty.
The foyer greets visitors with a large portrait of Low in her Girl Scout uniform. The tour guide engaged the girls about their interests – as musicians, athletes or artists. She encouraged them to think of themselves as developing skills rather than “trying” to do new things, reframing the weaker-sounding word trying (which implies failure) with the more empowering term.
Beyond the foyer, we entered two adjoining living areas, separated by pocket doors. Our guide explained one area was for adults’ socializing and the next room was a children’s play area. A young Juliette would have performed plays for her family, using the children’s room as stage, while the adult audience gathered in the parlor. Our girls performed at least two shows for the mothers, so they definitely shared that interest!
The Low family’s prosperity as cotton brokers was evident and the grandeur of the home. Intricately-detailed neoclassical moldings adorned the downstairs rooms like frills of icing on a cake – fluted Ionic columns, rosettes and Greek key motifs. Although not all the furniture is original, the Low family provided comparable pieces so each room offers a complete sense of the time period. It was almost as if the house were still occupied, and we were visiting a home rather than a museum.
As if founding the Girl Scouts wasn’t impressive enough, Low was also a skilled self-taught artist whose portrait and sculpture work are displayed in the home.
One of the stories that impressed me illustrated Low’s philanthropy, selling her own pearls when the organization needed money. I felt like that was an important mindset to highlight in our modern culture of materialism and consumption.
In a formal dining room, a copy of one of Low’s painting hangs on the wall, as her original work is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection. In this room, we learned about Low’s personal misfortune of a childless, unhappy marriage. Covington-Kolb was struck by this part of Low’s story.
“Her life had some disappointment, and in response, she channeled her energy into something creative and empowering for girls,” Covington-Kolb noted.
Passing an antique telephone, we climbed the curved staircase to view two upstairs bedrooms. Each room featured thick-posted canopy beds carved in traditional pineapple motifs.
The tour continued in a room formerly named the “gentleman’s library.” Girl Scouts USA converted this room to an area for personal expression called Girls Writing the World: A Library Reimagined. The room integrated historic pieces with modern elements. An antique chandelier lit the room, one wall was filled with a massive glass-doored antique bookcase filled with old volumes. Then, the adjacent wall featured a new sculptural piece of antique books displayed a sign with room’s theme. Another three-dimensional art piece in the room was a tree silhouette on the wall that “grew” outward with bleached, paper-colored branches and paper leaves.
The interactive display had old-fashioned stereoscopes and modern videos and headphones. One of my daughters watched a clip about freedom workers like Malala Yousafzai. Visitors could make words and phrases in wooden letter tiles. Others added their favorite books to a running list of titles compiled by previous visitors.
The last part of the main house we enjoyed was the side balcony overlooking the garden. From there, we exited to the courtyard and into the carriage house where an upstairs room is now a craft studio.
Adults and girls alike participated in an introspective art experience – a collage self-portrait. After viewing and discussing examples of self-portraits by famous women artists, the educator turned us loose. She offered a bounty of craft supplies, even some “junk drawer” items, and every imaginable type of materials leftover from previous craft projects.
From this hodge-podge emerged self-expression, even among those who don’t consider themselves artists. Although it’s certainly not my finest art piece, the exercise was thought-provoking. The activity resonated with my daughters too. In telling me about their pictures, I saw this was a successful self-exploration tool for them.
Our girls walked through history, splashed into science, and looked inside their hearts. But best of all, we had a fun girl party in beautiful Savannah.