Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A New Day Dawning

June 21

I just got to thinking...what if this were 100 years ago? This house wouldn't be built yet -- it went up in 1916 -- Marietta Johnson's school was not yet a reality -- it was to begin in the fall of 1907 -- the unpaved streets were full of chickens, goats and other livestock -- and there weren't many trees, since the area had been timbered out in recent years.

A scraggly little town, built on the dream of a few who had relocated from Iowa just 12 years before, Fairhope palpitated with possibilities. But it was probably a warm morning, the first day of summer, 1906, no hope of turning on the air conditioning later in the day, and no idea of where the fair hopes of the original colonists would take the town in its first century.

As I write, the sun has come up and there is a little puff of a pink cloud turning orange against the blue sky. It could have been that kind of dawn a hundred years ago, with sound effects of the cackle of the occasional chicken and bleat of a goat. I can hear an owl myself -- maybe his ancestor was here.

Marietta Johnson was a frequent visitor at this time. She and her husband, a farmer, had bought a pecan farm in Mississippi, and they discovered Fairhope through Socialist friends in St. Paul. They had begun visiting Fairhope in the winter of 1896, and she had become fast friends with Lydia Comings, who urged her to move here and start the school she dreamed of. Mrs. Johnson studied the writings of Rousseau, Frederich Froebel, and the work of her contemporaries, John Dewey, C. Hanford Henderson and Nathan Oppenheim. These latter names are those leaders who were creating the study of early childhood development, and advocated redesigning the school to suit the nature and needs of the child rather than trying to force the child to conform to an arbitrary mold defined by a group of adults. Mrs. Johnson, a lifelong teacher, saw the simple elegance of this notion and advocated nothing less than a retrenching of the whole educational system to make it operate this way. She thought she could achieve this by starting a school based upon that principle. It would be a year more of talking (and she was superb at that) to make her dream of such a school a reality.

The town had a library with books donated by the former bohemian Marie Howland. Mrs. Howland was now a settled old lady in her sixties, having sown her wild oats in the 19th Century among the free thinkers, social reformers, and feminists in New York and in France in a commune that purported to be the wave of the future, with one large house encompassing many families but no kitchen. She left reformist colony in Mexico disenchanted with its Puritan strain which scowled on her tendency to bathe nude in the sea for the revolutionary Single Tax enclave in Fairhope.

There was already a Fairhope Courier, then published weekly and sent around the world to proselytize for the Utopian colony, and Marie Howland had a regular column in it. Her feminist leanings would make her quite at home in Fairhope, where women always had the vote (on local issues) and, according to Paul Gaston in his little book Women of Fair Hope, she stands out in Fairhope history "for her advocacy of cooperative living, kitchenless homes, and scientific child-rearing as means of liberating women from household drudgery and male exploitation." She was to become a great friend to Marietta Johnson.

A hundred years ago there would be no cars driving by. What was at one time the Gaston Motor Company at that time was a livery and harness shop. It is now a trendy restaurant. There have been so many transmutations of the "uptown" area that it is pointless to make note of them now. There was a bluff park, a municipal pier, a grassy knoll just to the east of the bluff, always called "Knoll Park," it stands hardly changed.

There is a genuine log cabin on the other side of Bay View Street (once more felicitously "Bay View Avenue") from me that was built in 1900. That would have been there, among the stumps, stubble and trees of 100 years ago. It is for sale, and will surely be torn down.

As it was 100 years ago, a new day is dawning. There is good news from the Marietta Johnson School, new board members eager to take on the task of helping turn the school back to what it once was. One is the local potter who graduated from our school and will be very helpful in helping restructure our Arts and Crafts department. Another is a City Councilman. Another is a relative newcomer whose wife is a Fairho, and who has taught woodshop and stagecraft and is one of the general all around artisans the like of which used to help out at the school all the time.

I wake up full of ideas, plans, and half-finished grant proposals. I am going to spend the afternoon taking care of things at the Marietta Johnson Museum -- which always affords the opportunity for a little personal research, and is welcome respite in a beloved old Fairhope building that feels like home. Good things will come of all this.

1 comment:

John Sweden said...

I was just thinking if I ever had to go back in time I think the era between 1900 and 1950 would have been one of the most interesting to live through as an adult. The whole concept of things being new was that that they really were new. Their invention must have been seen as both frightening and almost magical and mystical signs of human progress. It seems that all invention, since then, has been nothing but derivatives, expansions and improvements of those original creations of modernity. Maybe that’s why finding Fairhope is quixotic, almost nostalgic as it was not just the people but the time that made the people. Nice work keep it coming.