Saturday, September 15, 2007

What Made Fairhope Fairhope?

September 15, 2007

Marietta Johnson in 1938

There is an ongoing parlor game in Fairhope about "what makes Fairhope Fairhope." I know I used the name a lot of times in that brief sentence, but I did it because I had to. Fairhope is nothing if not self-obsessed, particularly the new people who've moved in to what they consider a magical little town that seems to have appeared just to provide them with a sense of wonder.

But the elements that came together to create what may appear to be a thriving little Disneyland town are really quite different. Fairhope was once a reformist enclave which has now been all but swallowed up by a modernity gone very wrong. Its last shreds of idealism, the Single Tax Colony and the School of Organic Education, are hanging by slim threads indeed.

The importance of the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education to the development of Fairhope as a colony of artists, intellectuals and reformers cannot be measured. In its early days, at least half the families of Fairhope had children in the school, which added to the village’s cachet of individuality and self-actualization.

Organic Education is education designed for the whole organism – body, mind, and spirit. Behind the theory is the knowledge that children love to learn and therefore school should be a pleasure to them. This is an extreme departure from traditional education; though begun as a demonstration school in Fairhope one hundred years ago, it is as extraodinary today as it was when the school was founded.

Marietta Johnson, a teacher in the normal school system in Minnesota, discovered Fairhope through fellow Minnesotans who were interested in Single Tax. She was newly married to a farmer and carpenter who was described as “a tall, handsome Swede” by those who remembered him some fifty years later.

Franklin and Marietta Johnson made their first trip to Fairhope in December of 1903, leaving St. Paul in the middle of a snowstorm and arriving in the kind of beautiful weather so often found in Fairhope in early winter. Ardent devotees of the Single Tax theory, they were enchanted with the town and hoped to buy and work a farm nearby. However, destiny had other plans for the couple.

The Fairhope of the early 1900’s was decidedly different from the city it is today. With a population hovering between 300 and 400, the town had been founded to demonstrate the validity of Henry George’s theory. Still a small enclave – only reached by boat – Fairhope had no paved roads, no automobiles yet, and a struggling but idealistic economy. In spite of its out-of-the-way location, little Fairhope was acquiring a reputation as an excellent resort area for intellectuals from the Northeast, the Midwest, and California.

Fairhope’s citizens were interested in new ideas from all quarters. At the dawn of the 20th Century, they believed great things were about to happen, and they also believed Fairhope to be the ideal location to demonstrate the efficacy of new ideas. Many of the Utopians who founded Fairhope, including E.B. Gaston himself, had children of school age and were interested in new ideas about education.

Marietta Johnson, trained as an elementary school teacher, had long been studying the new disciplines of Early Childhood Development and Child Psychology. She dreamed of a school that would be geared to the stages of development of the child rather than the old approach of forcing the child to fit the school system. In those days it was revolutionary to assume that children are radically different from adults – and it was even more unthinkable to imagine that their natural curiosity results in a natural joy in learning. The more she talked to people in Fairhope, the more inspired she became that she was on the right track in starting a school to benefit the revolutionary attitude of Fairhope.

She was obsessed with education, and her enthusiasm led her to believe that everyone who heard her theory would understand and agree. She was convinced that a demonstration school in Fairhope would reform the whole school system in America and the world.

Mrs. Johnson reinvented herself once she moved to Fairhope permanently – and she was 42 years old at the time. With zeal for her educational philosophy, she became a spellbinding lecturer, an accomplished fund-raiser, and a trainer of teachers who flocked to Fairhope to the school from all over the country. Mrs. Johnson and E.B. Gaston became friends and colleagues in proselytizing for both Fairhope and the school, and he and his wife enrolled all four of their children there.

Mrs. Johnson’s approach to education was as profound as it was simple. She knew that children learn as they play, and she felt that play was one of the most important ways a child could learn. While offering the traditional academic curriculum along with its program of activities in the fresh air, music, art, and handwork, the school did not hold one study as more important than another. The Organic School did not grade its children or have periodic tests or examinations. There were no dress codes. The artistic and crafts courses were required. Liberal use was made of Fairhope’s natural resources in the education of the children. Field trips to the gullies, the beach and activities outside on the beautiful 10-acre campus (now the home of Faulkner Community College) were part of the learning experience.

Children acted out the Greek myths on their hikes to the gullies. They came barefooted to school and climbed trees at recess. They sat outdoors for classes. In other words, they loved going to school. It was basic to Mrs. Johnson’s theory that this atmosphere offers an ideal situation for learning.

Today you meet many people from “old” Fairhope who will regale you with information they learned at the Organic School. The school – founded on the theory that hands-on projects are the best way to learn any skill – peopled Fairhope with generations who could build houses, throw pots, dance, paint pictures, write stories. Among their number are also doctors, lawyers, educators, military men, as well as entrepreneurs in the business world and practitioners of the arts.

In the 1920’s, the Marietta Johnson School was a magnet for the community. Its existence changed the history of Fairhope. In the process, one child at a time, the Marietta Johnson School has been at the heart of what makes Fairhope and its people unique. Those who supported the school, and the children who attended it, had (and still have) sincerity, innocence, and an eagerness for learning – their whole lives long. It’s the Fairhope attitude, and, more to the point, it’s the attitude of Organic Education.


Skye said...

I found your blog through one of your favorite (and mine) movies, Passion Fish. I cannot believe there is a town like Fairhope in the conservative south and the even more conservative Alabama. Wish I had gone to school there. I am a retired teacher and agree that our public schools smother the creativity that is inborn in our children. With little training and without even knowing it, I tried to instill a lifelong love of learning in my students that I myself have.

Finding Fair Hope said...

If you're interested in what Fairhope was like (it isn't any more, by the way) check out my website and if you're still interested, of course, go to and buy my book.

There have always been good teachers at all schools, by the way. But at other schools they must keep the good stuff they're doing under the radar of their administrators. At Marietta Johnson's school, they are encouraged to do more of it.