Dollars for Daisy: How Girl Scouts Helped Save Their Founder’s Birthplace
Savannah’s first National Historic Landmark, the primarily Federal-style home (pictured above, before restoration) was built in 1821 by politician, lawyer, and judge James Wayne and his wife. When James was appointed to the United States Supreme Court, he sold the house to William Gordon, a wealthy cotton merchant and husband to Wayne’s niece, Sarah Anderson Stites.
“It’s clear that Girl Scouts really understood that the birthplace was to belong to them, and being a part of the fundraising efforts was important and exciting.”Kathryn White, lead interpreter of the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace.
Gordon died in 1842 and Sarah and the children moved north, leaving the house to be managed by Gordon’s estate—rough years for the structure. Sarah returned to the house in the 1850s, and her son William Washington Gordon II and his wife Eleanor Kinzie Gordon moved in to help with expenses. Their daughter, Juliette—who became known as Daisy—was born in 1860.
According to a 1955 fundraising brochure for restoration of the home:
"An impulsive, tenderhearted little girl…she grew up there with her brothers, sisters, cousins, and many friends. Even after her marriage, coming home always meant returning to the big house on the corner of Bull and Oglethorpe Streets with her trunk full of presents and her heart full of excitement and happiness.”
Daisy also had her wedding reception in the home when she married wealthy ne’er-do-well William Mackay Low. After the drinker, gambler, and womanizer died from a seizure, leaving his fortune to his mistress rather than his wife (although through the courts, Daisy was able to secure an income), Daisy never remarried. Instead, she indulged an adventurous spirit and traveled the world; a chance meeting with British general Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts in the British Empire, inspired what became her life’s work and legacy.
When Daisy died in 1927, her brother George Arthur Gordon and his family lived in their childhood home. During their years there, they screened in the piazza, converted the stable into commercial rental space, and replaced the formal garden with a playground for the school Gordon’s daughter operated. In 1942, the house was converted into apartments for military workers in Savannah (the Gordons also occupied one).
Fortunately, the architect who oversaw that conversion did the work in such a way that the structure could be reconverted to a single family home, and he preserved decorative details. Still, by the early 1950s, the house was in rough shape and at risk of being demolished.
“Girl Scouts of the USA advanced $65,000 from their capital fund to buy the home in 1953,” says Kathryn White, lead interpreter of the birthplace. “Various Gordon family members owned shares in the site that they had inherited and subsequently traded among themselves. Eleanor, Juliette’s niece, consolidated the shares in order to negotiate the sale.”
A national fundraising goal of $500,000 was set for purchase, restoration, upkeep, and running of the birthplace.
“The number was considered to be the amount that could be raised if every council contributed the equivalent of one dollar per adult member,” says White. “National was very careful to frame the campaign in terms that a troop of limited means would not be made to feel that their contribution was less important—thus the emphasis on the equivalent of one dollar per adult member.”
And the girls kicked into gear. Troops collected nickels and dimes in models of the birthplace they built. They had bake sales, community fairs, and fundraising dinners. Scouts in Tuskeegee, Alabama put on a pageant, “Scenes from the Life of Juliette Low.” In Flint, Michigan, Girl Scouts staged a fashion show with their mothers as models wearing clothes by other women volunteers. In December 1954, New England troops sent contributions to the birthplace in red Christmas stockings; the idea was adopted nationally the next year.
“The fundraising efforts were a combination of a sophisticated national campaign administered by a special committee, and a grassroots effort by girls and their volunteer leaders all over the country and the world,” says White. Donations came in from Girl Scouts on Foreign Soil in England, Austria, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Japan. The 1995 National Convention in San Francisco included a Daisy Scroll of Honor inscribed with names of council with 100 percent participation.
“It’s clear that Girl Scouts really understood that the birthplace was to belong to them, and being a part of the fundraising efforts was important and exciting,” says White.
And so, a dime and a dollar at a time, Girl Scouts saved Daisy’s house. In May 1955, when the first $100,000 in contributions had been raised, restoration began, starting with removal of the partition walls creating apartments. Over the years, some of the original family furniture was donated, while the organization purchased much of it from the Gordons.
The official dedication and opening of the house as a museum and program center was October 19, 1956. The ceremony included Girl Scouts in Grecian costume enacting “The Blessing of the House,” music by an all-Girl Scout band, and a speech by Savannah’s mayor.
The birthplace has attracted millions of visitors over the years, and as its 200th birthday approaches, restoration continues.
“We have been raising funds for years for our next big project: a garden renovation that will give visiting Girl Scouts a much needed open and accessible outdoor gathering space,” says White. “As with all our restoration and renovation projects, Girl Scouts have supported this project with contributions. As part of this project, a ramp will be built to the courtyard entrance to the house. This ramp, along with our elevator installed in 2004 and ramped front entrance, will make the house fully accessible, something very important to us as Girl Scouts.”
Sophia Dembling is the author of 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go.