When local attorney Noble Boykin bought a rather stately manse in Savannah’s Ardsley Park, it did not take long for his good friend Shelley Smith to come up with some fun, artistic ways to showcase it. Perhaps one of the most creative thinkers in Savannah — and the subject of one of my first columns in September 2021 — Smith first organized an epic Halloween costume party for a hundred of their closest friends, and then began a series of Friday night salons and fundraisers featuring local artists, tarot card readers, opera singers and musicians of all genres.
The home’s previous owners had a fascinating family history — more on that later — and over drinks one evening, Smith and I brainstormed an art-themed fundraiser to highlight the stories and memorabilia she was discovering. We then called upon the good nature, contacts and expertise of artist and Location Gallery curator Peter Roberts, and thus was born Location on Location: Location Gallery’s 7th Anniversary event entitled “Senses of Place.”
“Senses of Place” incorporates both "Soiree Savannah Style," a sold-out private dinner for 24 prepared by Smith — a fabulous chef and former restaurateur — on Feb. 23, and a silent art auction featuring a public reception this Friday, Feb. 24 at the elegant home overlooking Lattimore Park. Participating artists include Carmen Aguirre, Stacie Jean Albano, Joy Dunigan, Jessie Fream, David Laughlin, Beth Logan, Chris Moss, Bellamy Murphy, Jennifer Nolan, Michelle Perez, Dana Richardson, Jose Ray, Peter E. Roberts, Shelley Smith, June Stratton, Lisa D. Watson and Heather L. Young.
As always when organizing a show, Roberts gave the artists latitude to be creative. Utilizing the themes of Golden Years, Era, Hour, or Age, he suggested, ”The Golden Hour is appreciated by photographers and painters alike for the magic sunlight created in that slice of day. The Golden Age/Era relates to the period in which the home was built. Golden Years are fond remembrances, usually wiped of unpleasant memories.”
Savannahian Margie Livingston tells me the 6,526 square foot mansion of incredible rooms, gardens and vistas was originally built in 1913 for the Emersons. After their divorce, her grandparents bought the property (“My father was born in the front bedroom in January 1916”) and her grandmother lived there until 1972. Two owners later, Sam and Pat Zemurray acquired the home in the early 1990’s.
A distinguished writer, Pat Zemurray (1947-2021) was involved in countless community organizations. To name a few, she was a member of the Junior League of Savannah; interim director of The Davenport House; member of the Board of Curators for The Georgia Historical Society; chair of the Andrew Low House Committee; member of the Board of Trustees for The Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences; and chairman of The Telfair Ball in 1987.
Pat’s writing can still be enjoyed through her entertaining narrative of the city’s culinary history in Savannah Style, A Cookbook by the Junior League of Savannah, Inc., originally published in 1980. The cookbook serves as inspiration for Smith’s “Soiree” and dinner party. In her own inimitable style, Smith will “mildly update” some of the original recipes, while preserving the Savannah flavor of the evening by, for example, serving a sherry with dessert. “How southern!” she laughs. It should be a wonderful culinary experience.
Like his wife, Pat’s husband Sam Zemurray, III who died in 2018, was a philanthropist and community volunteer. Amongst other organizations, he supported The Bethesda Home for Boys, the Effingham County Board of Education — to which he bequeathed Honey Ridge Plantation and cattle to provide students with farming opportunities — The New Ebenezer Land Trust, and The Georgia Conservancy. Sam had been raised by his grandfather in New Orleans after his father, Samuel Jr., went missing in action as a pilot in World War II.
It is his grandfather’s intriguing biography that originally inspired us to create this event…
Samuel Zemurray (1877-1961) nicknamed “Sam the Banana Man,” made his fortune in the banana trade. He was born to a poor Jewish family in the Russian Empire, today Moldova, and emigrated to America at age 14. After landing in New York, he settled in Selma, Alabama where his uncle owned a general store, and where he first encountered bananas.
At the time, that fruit was considered a new and exotic delicacy and the industry was growing quickly. Zemurray went to the port of Mobile to enter the trade, eventually specializing in buying cheap bananas in danger of overripening, quickly transporting and selling them in the surrounding region by rail. Starting with only $150, he had amassed $100,000 by age 21.
In 1903, Zemurray signed a distribution contract with United Fruit, the dominant banana trade company. Two years later, he moved to New Orleans and acquired Cuyamel Fruit Company and a steamship company to import bananas from Central American farmers. By 1910, he was acquiring acreage in Honduras to cultivate his own banana plantations, eventually devising a plan to overthrow Honduran president Miguel Davila to prevent agents of bankers J.P. Morgan from collecting taxes to repay government debt owed to the United Kingdom and to the United States.
Fearing enforcement of these taxes would ruin his thriving business, Zemurray recruited mercenaries to sail to Honduras aboard a former United States Navy vessel. There they began a war to install exiled Honduran former president Manuel Bonilla. The coup was successful, and Bonilla rewarded Zemurray with very favorable tax and land concessions.
By 1913, Zemurray had bought back the portion of his company held by United Fruit, expanded further by buying 20 ships outfitted with refrigerated holds, and began cultivation of other crops such as coconuts, pineapples, palm oil, cattle, lumber and sugarcane. In 1929, he sold Cuyamel to United Fruit for $31.5 million and retired.
Sam the Banana Man returned to the business after the Great Depression, buying a controlling share of United Fruit and voting out the board of directors. In a final fascinating chapter, which helped further define the term “Banana Republic,” he played a role in the CIA-orchestrated coup that replaced Guatemalan President Col. Jacobo Arbenz with a military junta led by Col. Carlos Castilo Armas.
At the “Soiree,” Smith pays tribute to this history by including a dessert based on a trifle from Savannah Style:
“I am adding bananas to pull together the theme. I may even serve a banana sorbet ‘palate cleanser,’ which I’ll infuse with some herbs and liqueur.”
And, of course, it seems fitting to have Location Gallery’s proceeds benefit the Savannah Farmers’ Market – purveyors of fruits and vegetables to Savannah’s food deserts through their Farm Truck 912 program.
Location on Location’s 7th Anniversary Show’s auction started on February 14 with the first in-person viewing at the Soirée Savannah Style. The public is invited to the reception and auction closing of “Senses of Place” at 1 Lattimore Place this Friday, February 24 between 6 and 9 p.m. Reception attendance is limited: reserve your free admission through Eventbrite at Location Gallery’s Facebook event. Unable to attend? Link to the auction (closing on Friday) at locationgallery.net and all artwork moves to Location Gallery at 251 Bull Street next week and hangs through March 10.