If you visit Savannah, Georgia you will meet the Waving Girl. That is, unless you are there strictly on business and never go down to the historical waterfront. If you take the wonderful bus tour or the river cruise, you will see her statue and hear some version of the Waving Girl’s story. There are, I learned, some variations in the story.
Florence Martus (1868-1943) was the name of the lady who, for whatever reason, took it upon herself to greet all ships entering and leaving the Port of Savannah between 1887 and 1931. She lived on a tiny island named Elba on the Savannah River with her father, ordinance sergeant of Fort Pulaski, before moving to another small island named Cockspur. She waved a white handkerchief (really a tablecloth or scarf) by day and a lantern by night to every ship that passed. All versions seem to agree on these details except that some say she grew up on Elba, then moved Cockspur, some the other way around.
But why did she take on this self-appointed job? Why did she stand out in all kinds of weather, day or night, to wave her white cloth or lantern?
One version says she was just lonesome living on a little island with her father and her dog. She probably had very few, if any, friends, no social life. She must have been fascinated by the ships sailing to all corners of the globe. Once she realized that sailors would respond with a wave, three blasts of a whistle, or some recognition it must have become a game to her. Maybe she felt she was giving the sailors a break in their tedious long trips. She could brighten their day.
Another version, unsubstantiated, suggests that she fell in love with a particular sailor who might have come ashore and had crab soup and cornbread with her and her father. Some storytellers even tell of gifts sailors brought to Florence, the most unusual being a llama from New Zealand. If you do the math you will realize that this dedication of Florence to waving at every ship started when she was twenty-one. As a romanticist myself, it seems quite reasonable that some certain sailor won Florence’s heart, maybe promised to return. So she would have watched for him day after day.
Whatever story is true, one has to wonder how she could be alert to every ship’s coming and going. She waved to every ship, her commemorative plaque by her statue at the waterfront reads. The answer seems to be her faithful collie standing by her side. The dog barked when any ship came in sight, it is believed, and then she would hurry out to wave her signal in greeting. Since she did this for forty-four years, we have to believe there was a succession of collies, each with its own special place in the lady’s affection.
Sometime during the forty-four year era Florence moved to Cockspur Island to live with her brother, keeper of the Cockspur Island Light, the smallest lighthouse in Georgia. According to a cross reference that light ceased being an active beacon in 1909, but Florence kept on waving.
No matter how the stories conflict in detail, the statue of The Waving Girl and her dog, sculpted by Felix De Weldon, stands on the plaza of Savannah’s riverfront to remind everyone of this lady who displayed faithfulness, perseverance and dedication. De Weldon was also the sculptor of the Iwa Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. The statue is larger than life size so it can well be seen by all who pass on foot, by bus, or by ship. The lady’s skirts, her hair and her cloth seem furled in a strong breeze. Her faithful dog stands by her side looking alert and fully engaged.
The statue was dedicated in 1958. It is said that even today sailors blow their ship’s whistle when they pass the Waving Girl. Alan Jackson and other singers croon their versions of Florence’s story.
Some tourists see the statue as an interesting photo shot and probably move on to other interests. Others never forget the Waving Girl and the mysteries of her story.
Florence Martus would be amazed, I think, to see how her simple, day by day routine affected so many.