, The seventeen foot bronze statue of Florence Martus stands imposingly in Morrell Park, overlooking the Savannah River. Florence has been called the symbol of hospitality because of the ships and crews she welcomed into the Port City.
But she was far more than that—she was a shining example of a shy, intelligent young girl and then a young women, who from her home on a tiny island here, made quite a splash world-wide to legions of sea-going men.
Born in 1868, she lived with her family in a cottage near Ft. Pulaski, where her father, originally from Germany, was an Army sergeant. Later, however, after her parents had died, Florence moved in with her brother, George Washington Martus, who was the lighthousekeeper for Cockspur Lighthouse, still standing today off-shore from Ft. Pulaski.
As a teenager living on the isolated island, Florence found this period of her life rather boring and came up with the idea of greeting all incoming ships by waving a large handkerchief or towel during the day and a lantern at night. (Although the monument shows Florence with her collie dog standing loyally alongside her, the name of that collie still remains a mystery.)
At first, ships blew their whistles to acknowledge her, but then hundreds and hundreds of post cards from around the world began arriving from sailors who thanked her for her welcome greetings. The address?
“The Waving Girl – Savannah, GA.”
With a simple but constant gesture of waving to passing ships, she became known internationally. At one point, a local tourist from Savannah reported seeing Florence’s picture in the window of a German shop.
But she and her brother also performed acts of heroism. In 1898, they rescued a crew from a troubled ship caught in a hurricane. Only one sailor was lost. Their only ocean-going vessel was a dory with a motor. Florence would steer; George would tend to the motor.
It seems not much is known personally about Florence, and yet bits and
pieces surface here and there…her hair was red; she apparently was an excellent cook and an avid gardener and welcomed guests to their little
island home. Certain ships would bring them necessary supplies, but she and her brother attended church in Savannah by boat and would come into town for special supplies and to visit Savannah’s bookstore. Florence was an avid reader.
In 1931 when George Martus retired and they moved to the mainland, it was estimated that she had welcomed in over 50,000 ships.
A chance “find” of a 2009 article from the “Athens Banner Herald” revealed a stunning fact about Florence. Before becoming a famous World War II correspondent, Ernie Pyle was a roving reporter and met Florence about five years after she moved to the mainland. Pyle learned that she had kept a diary and logs of each ship that called…what kind it was…where it was from, but when she left the island, Florence burned both the diary and the logs.
“The daily record for 44 years,” commented Pyle, “from one of the most legendary figures of the Seven Seas, and kept in her own handwriting, was gone up in smoke in two minutes.” Pyle was flabbergasted at the loss of this history.
When she turned 70, the city decided to give her a birthday party.
And what a party it was! Three thousand people showed for the party held at Ft Pulaski. So did the Savannah Police Band, the Navy Band and the Marine Band from Parris Island. The Coast Guard cutter, “Tallapoosa,” saluted her. Speeches from local politicians referred to her as “a symbol to the world.” Telegrams arrived from throughout the world from sea captains whom she had welcomed over the years.
“This is the grandest day of my life,” Florence told the assembled crowd.
Florence died February 18, 1943. Her service was at the Goette Funeral Home, now the Kehoe House Bed and Breakfast on Columbia Square. Two days later, her nephew, the Reverend Thomas Brennan, conducted a service at St. John’s Church. She is buried in Savannah’s Laurel Grove Cemetery.
But honors did not stop with her death. In 1945, a Liberty Ship, built at the Savannah Shipyard was christened the S.S. Florence Martus. In 1999
one of the Savannah Belles Ferry was named for her.
In 1962, though, the most ambitious project was launched. The local Altrusa Club felt that if Florence Martus was the symbol of hospitality for the city, there should be a statue of her overlooking the river, still welcoming the incoming ships. But fund-raising became a chore, and finally banker, preservationist and philanthropist Mills B. Lane told the women he would help them, but he would choose the sculptor. That sculptor was Felix de Weldon, the most prominent sculptor of that era. How very appropriate that was since Florence was known internationally and de Weldon is the only sculptor to have a work on every continent, including Antarctica. But he is best known to us for his sculpture of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
There was only one flaw with his depiction of Florence. He had left her barefoot. Everyone who knew her said she was too much a lady to be seen barefoot. A pair of her shoes was actually located and sent to De Weldon, which he used.
It has been said that her memorial is the only one in a city park of a Georgia woman. The moral here might be that one can make a difference to the world, even from a small island in a not-so-large river.
“Sound your whistle, now Sir, Mr. Mate,” the captain said,
“to the ending of a faith that used to be.”
But he was wrong, for even though the little lady’s dead,
Still her faith will live with all who go to sea.
(A public poem to Florence published by Fox M. Grisette, a crewmember of a cargo ship in 1963.)
And now to another adventure...
Copyright - 2017