YOU PROBABLY know the names of most of our 44 presidents, even if you can't tell me exactly what Franklin Pierce or Millard Fillmore did in office.
The same is undoubtedly less true of Georgia’s 82 governors. But at least you could tell me several had counties named after them.
But for Savannah mayors, our recognition doesn’t seem to stretch any farther back than living memory.
This month, the municipal government celebrates its 225th anniversary. And that’s a good excuse for a civics history lesson on City Hall.
- Luciana Spracher in the municipal archives in City Hall
“It’s just a really good time for us to stop and reflect on where we started and how far we’ve come,” says Luciana Spracher, the city’s research librarian and archivist.
All this year, Spracher has been marking the anniversary with lectures and exhibits. Her big day will be the 23rd, when in 1789 the Georgia legislature approved the city’s charter.
We elected our first mayor, John Houstoun (pronounced HOUSE-ton), the following March.
“Prior to his service as mayor, he just had such a huge role in the American Revolutionary War,” Luciana says.
Houstoun’s first task as mayor was hiring the city’s first employee, called a “scavenger” back then, to rid the streets of trash and dead animals. We’d call that a “sanitation worker” today.
- Savannah's first mayor, John Houstoun
That first City Council also dealt with issues like fire protection, expanding the city limits and alcohol ordinances.
“Some things just don’t change,” Spracher says.
But Houstoun declined to serve a second one-year term as mayor. Perhaps after creating a new country and settling a boundary dispute with South Carolina as a governor, he thought scavenger hiring a bit beneath him.
As for some of our other well regarded mayors, I could write a short history based on the knowledge in Spracher’s head. Indeed, your city historian practically wrote a book about Herman Myers.
The book actually dealt with the 1906 construction of City Hall, commissioned by Myers. He was our first Jewish mayor and modernized our infrastructure.
Mayor Thomas Gamble was a man after Spracher’s heart, a great historian. He established City Junior College, now Armstrong State University, in 1935.
And I’ll have to direct you to my podcast at savannahpodcast.com to learn more about several others, including Malcolm Maclean and John Rousakis.
I just think it’s amazing that we have a municipal archivist to keep all this memory. Spracher’s office, an entire wing of City Hall’s first floor, is a treasure chest of history.
“We go back to those records constantly,” she says. “We can see where a program started and how it has evolved over time as we’re making plans for programs today.”
That’s one of Spracher’s services – providing information to city staff. But she also provides information to the public.
Like when she verified the records of the fallen soldiers memorialized on the WWII monument on River Street – not a light task given its seriousness and permanence.
“Being involved with such an important project in the community and then the long-term impact where our research is helping families learn more about their fathers and their grandfathers has been rewarding,” Spracher says.
She actually came to Savannah to study historic preservation and wound up spending a lot of time in research libraries. She became the city’s full-time archivist in 2005.
“It’s very common in the archivist profession to come to it through the back door,” Spracher says. “Maybe you didn’t ever intend to be an archivist but you’re a historian, researcher or librarian and you just get introduced to archives and sucked in.”
I hope more people get sucked into our municipal history. The records show good people can make this city better.
They just have to get involved.