Savannah is a unique city, a true one-of-a-kind.
Many of its streets and lanes have unique names. But where did those names come from?
A lot of people assume they already know the origins of some names. Lincoln Street, for example — tourists and newcomers often express surprise that it was named for a president who led the North against the South in the Civil War.
Well, it wasn’t. Author Tony Cope provides the real origin of the name and those of other local byways in his latest book, “It’s Not That Lincoln!”
The idea for the book came when Cope was writing an earlier book.
“I grew up on the corner of Gaston and Abercorn and wrote a book about those experiences,” he says. “Then I realized that I didn’t know who or what Gaston or Abercorn were.
“That’s a bit of a sad reflection on my curiosity and knowledge of my hometown, but I think that there are probably many locals in Savannah or wherever who have never considered the origins of the name of the street on which they live,” Cope says. “I think that was the catalyst that got me thinking about this book.”
A native of Savannah, Cope retired after 30 years in public education. He was a teacher, head baseball coach and administrator before founding and directing Oatland Island Wildlife Center.
In addition, Cope served three terms as president of the Savannah Symphony and served on many local and state boards. For his contributions to the community, he was included in the book “Movers and Shakers in Georgia.”
Cope is the author of three other books, “On the Swing Shift: Building Liberty Ships in Savannah,” “The House on Gaston: A Savannah Childhood” and “Stealing Stones.”
“The first book about building Liberty Ships in Savannah during World War II came about because I was chairman of the local committee to attempt to create the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum,” Cope says. “In attempting to find information to use for talks at civic clubs, I was contacted by a lady who had a series of photos of her mother christening one of those ships.
“I started thinking that nobody really remembered that huge shipyard that operated off of President Street,” he says. “I drove by the site twice a day going to and coming from Oatland and never gave it a thought, even though as a child, I knew what was going on there.”
“The House on Gaston” and “Stealing Stones” are memoirs.
“I had such great memories of growing up in that house and also wanted to pay tribute to my mother, who, after we moved, had to work so hard to keep the family together and raise five sons,” Cope says. “‘Stealing Stones’ was an attempt to record the early days and my 18 years as director of Oatland, the move to a different country and the differences we experienced moving from the Deep South in America to the Deep South of Ireland.”
Today, Cope and his wife, Ellen, live with five cats near the small town of Kinsale in County Cork, Ireland.
“Ellen and I were married in 1989,” he says. “She and I grew up a block apart on Gaston Street, but she had moved to Ireland and lived there for many years before returning to Savannah to care for her mother.
“She wanted to return and when I retired after 18 years at Oatland, we decided to move there. If you had asked me 10 years earlier if I would ever be living in Ireland, I would have thought that you had lost your mind. “I had no Irish ancestors, or so I thought,” Cope says. “I said that to an Irish friend one day and he replied, ‘You just haven’t looked hard enough.’”
Sure enough, when Cope did some research, he found family members in Ireland going back to the 1730s,
“But the family moved to Scotland and the Irish connection ended,” he says. “We’ve been here 23 years now and love it.”
In Ireland, Cope has written the scripts for and performed in three musical productions: “Moon River: A Reflection,” which is a tribute to Savannah’s Johnny Mercer, “The Rat Pack and Friends” and “Tin Pan Alley: From Ragtime to Show Time.” He also is the co-author of “A History of the Mashie-Niblicks Golfing Society.”
“I have always loved music — classical, jazz and especially the music of the Great American Songbook — songs by Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart and Johnny Mercer,” Cope says. “When we moved, I thought that I was never going to hear much of that again.
“I found, however, in Kinsale a piano player/producer, Billy Crosbie, who not only loved that music, but had been producing very successful shows featuring those composers. He and I played golf together and for two years, I kept saying, ‘You need to do a show on Mercer.’
“He kept saying, ‘But nobody here knows who he is.’ I replied, ‘They know his music, though.’”
Finally, Crosbie agreed.
“Since I was from Savannah and had met Mercer several times and even dated his niece for a while, (we decided) that I should co-write the script and even sing two songs,” Cope says. “‘Pardon my Southern Accent,’ a natural, and ‘I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande.’
“I did two more shows with the group co-writing and performing in ‘The Rat Pack and Friends’ and writing the script for ‘Tin Pan Alley: From Rag time to Show Time.’
“All of these shows were performed for runs during the annual Kinsale Arts Week and then moved on for longer runs at major theaters in Cork City, drawing rave reviews,” Cope says. “These shows always took about eight months in production, taking time from my books.”
Since then, Crosbie has moved in a different direction and the musicals have ended. But Cope has no regrets.
“It was an experience that I will always cherish,” he says. “It was something that I had always dreamed of doing, but never expected to have the opportunity.”
Writing a book about Savannah while living in Ireland might be tricky for anyone but Cope.
“A lot of research was done online, but I spent some time on my last trip to Savannah doing research at the Georgia Historical Society,” he says. “Luciana Spracher at the City Hall Archives has been a tremendous help on all of my books. I also now have a fairly extensive library of books on Savannah and Georgia history.”
There were some surprises throughout the project.
“I was surprised that several streets were not named for the people I thought,” Cope says. “Jones Street, for example.
“Two were named for women, which must have been unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was amazed, too, that a number of worthy early Georgians or people who contributed to the survival and progress of the colony and early days of the state did not have streets named for them.
“George Walton, for example,” Cope says. “(He was) one of the three Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence.”
The original plan for the colony of Georgia was designed in 1733 by Gen. James Oglethorpe. The Historic Landmark District is based on this plan.
Residents and tourists alike walk the streets of Savannah without any idea for whom the streets are named. While it’s obvious with Oglethorpe Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the origins of others aren’t so clear.
“I think the book fills a niche in the rich history of Savannah and should appeal both to tourists and residents alike,” Cope says.
Although he now lives in Ireland, Cope does come back for regular visits.
“I get back to Savannah about once a year, depending on when the next book is ready,” he says. “That gives me an opportunity to see family and many old friends.”
With “It’s Not That Lincoln!” in print, Cope will give two talk/book signings in Savannah. The first is at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 16 at E. Shaver Bookseller, and the second at 6 p.m. Sept. 19 at Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum.
For several years, Cope has been working on a biography of his great-grandfather, Philip Dickinson Daffin.
“He was quite a character — a Confederate soldier for the four years of the war, a cotton factor and chairman of the Cotton Exchange, and chairman of the Park and Tree Commission for almost 30 years,” Cope says. “The latter was a role he took very seriously to the point of using his cane on those who damaged shrubs and trees in Savannah.
“He was responsible for the palmettos on Victory Drive, and Daffin Park is named for him. I hope to have that book ready by this time next year.”
Will there be any further books or musicals after that one?
“I’m not sure that there is anything left in my life to tell,” Cope says. “I feel extremely fortunate to have been involved in the things I have and experienced things that I never thought that I would have. As I said in my book, ‘Stealing Stones,’ my life has been one of total serendipity.”
IF YOU GO
What: Talks and book signings for author Tony Cope’s book, “It’s Not That Lincoln!”
When/Where: 3:30 p.m. Sept. 16 at E. Shaver Bookseller, 326 Bull St.; 6 p.m. Sept. 19 at Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum, 41 MLK Jr. Blvd.