Savannah Fire Preserves Westside History: Forgotten Family Treasures Returned
SAVANNAH, GA (Monday, March 29, 2021) – While conducting training exercises at a blighted Cumming Street property slated for renovation or demolition last year, Savannah Fire Capt. Maria “Chela” Gutierrez, noticed a splash of color through a hole in the ceiling. It turned out to be a long-forgotten family treasure tied up in plastic trash bags.
The City of Savannah acquired abandoned properties in the 200 Block of Cumming Street through eminent domain as part of a blighted property acquisition initiative. The derelict buildings had been vacant for decades. One was on the verge of collapse and the other, despite traces of fire, had been inhabited by a series of squatters. Debris and broken furniture was strewn throughout the house. In December 2019, Savannah Firefighters were permitted to conduct training exercises at 220 Cumming Street before it was renovated for modest-wage, first-time homebuyers. Although the living space in the old home had been damaged by fire, but the attic was not affected. It was filled with stacks of yellowed papers and trash bags full of fabric remnants. Gutierrez decided to poke around. She found old homework papers, prayer cards, encyclopedias, a ceramic nick-knack and a tattered suitcase. Among piles of fabric remnants, she found a bag of neatly folded, hand stitched quilts.
“My grandmother quilted, and my mother did fabric art, so I had a feeling this was an important find,” Gutierrez said. “…They were beautiful. A timeline of old work clothes and linens.”
Gutierrez set out to discover who the quiltmaker was and find out why all those decades of work were left behind. Using the tattered funeral notice and the help of staff from the Municipal Archives and Human Services departments, Gutierrez discovered Emma Freeman Williams owned the Cumming Street house. Family members say she quilted by hand until she lost her sight. They remember bundling up in the blankets on cold nights and receiving a proclamation from Savannah Mayor Floyd Adams when their family matriarch turned 100 years old. Emma Williams lived in the Cumming Street home with her daughter, Etolier Williams Garvin, until she died at age 102 in 2000. When Etolier Williams Garvin died in 2002, the home was left to Emma Williams’ grandchildren, Jewell and Connie Williams. Jewell Williams, a disabled veteran, was living in the home when fire broke out more than a decade ago. He was displaced by the blaze and assumed everything inside had been destroyed. Family members never went back inside the boarded-up structure. Confusion and complications relating to responsibility and ownership ultimately resulted in their loss of the property.
But Gutierrez surprised Jewell and the remaining heirs with news of her discovery. She took Jewell and his daughter Carla on an emotional walk-though of the old house, reunited them with the family quilts and brought them long-awaited closure. The family has agreed to share some of their treasured family quilts and photos to raise community awareness about quilting history on Savannah’s Westside, and the steps to recover personal items and follow through with property maintenance and repairs after a fire.
- After a structure fire, if deemed safe, homeowners can request a walkthrough with firefighters to recover belongings.
- Homeowners can obtain fire reports from Savannah Fire Headquarters, located at 121 E. Oglethorpe. Fire reports can be submitted to insurance companies to initiate the recovery process.