Nestled in a Victorian garden is one of Thomasville’s most interesting historical buildings.
People who pass by the intersection of Washington and Dawson streets might never even see the small, green gingerbread cottage tucked into a garden.
The structure resembles a cottage from a storybook. It sits behind the Royal-Miller House and holds a fascinating history to add to Thomasville’s schools of the past.
The Elisabeth Merrill Child Garden, according to documents and photographs, was created in 1899.
The Child Garden was said to have been commissioned by a Ms. Hansell, of Thomasville, who in return gave the Child Garden to the teacher, Elisabeth “Bessie” Merrill. However, documentation over the years has been somewhat muddled. Other documents from the Thomas County Historical Society state the building was a memorial to Elisabeth Merrill, who died at the age of four and a half.
A manuscript deed dated Jan. 6, 1897, says, “The land is where has been erected a building designed for a kindergarten” and it also stated it was to be “of some benefit to others like her beautiful happy life was to all who knew her well.”
Margaret Sibley, owner of the cottage, has done much research. Although the structure was to be used as a kindergarten, it was not called a “kindergarten,” but a “Child Garden” because of the arising conflict between Germany and the United States. Founders did not want a German word within the name of the building.
The charter for the kindergarten also said the Child Garden was a private institution whose “premises were to be used as a school for children and when the school was not in session, as a playground for children who manifest proper regard for other children and from the premises objectionable children were to be excluded.”
After only seven years in operation, the kindergarten closed, and it was no longer deemed practical to operate it. People joke that the kindergarten ran out of “well-behaved children.”
During the building’s history, it has had three locations.
The original location of the Child Garden was at the intersection of Jackson and Dawson streets. Later, it was moved on pine rollers or logs along Dawson to a lot at the intersection of Washington and Dawson streets, near the present location of the Christian Science Church, near the former Young’s Female College.
After closing of the kindergarten, the building was given to Young’s Female College.
Ten years later, in 1916, the Christian Science Church was formed. The church bought the kindergarten and property. Again, the building was moved only slightly. It was used as a Sunday School.
Also during this time, it is said a Mrs. Archbold used the building once again as a kindergarten a few years after the church purchased it. There is no written documentation of this, however.
The church later rented the building as a private home.
Louise Golden, of Thomasville, remembers her mother, Martha Mitchell, renting the “cottage,” as it was then called, from the church. She rented the cottage from 1950 until her death in 1963. At the time, Golden did not live in Thomasville, but she and her children visited her mother in the small cottage when they came to town.
The cottage made its final move in 1993, when Dr. Felix and Margaret Sibley purchased the building and moved it behind their home, the Royal-Miller House. The move was across the street into the backyard of Ms. Sibley’s house, which is home to her grandmother’s (W.R. McGrew) Victorian garden.
Margaret Sibley decided to purchase the cottage when she saw it on the market.
She said, “It was going to be sold, perhaps even changed, and I had always been able to look at it through my kitchen window. It was always a favorite. My husband and I decided to move it in my grandmother’s garden and restore it.”
Sibley took great care in ensuring the cottage would be an excellent fit to the garden. She hired movers to move the small cottage. It was carefully moved around 100-year-old camellia bushes to preserve the garden. The building was not unassembled in any way.
Sibley rented the cottage for about 14 years.
Today, Sibley’s daughter, Beth Sibley, and granddaughter, Maryam Sibley, reside in the cottage. They moved to the cottage in 2003.
Since Beth Sibley is a teacher at Brookwood Academy, she finds it fitting she lives there, since it was once a kindergarten.
“It’s neat living here. Sometimes I joke about hearing kids in the house. I look at the old pictures we have of the kindergarten and imagine how the classroom would have been set up in here,” she said.
She said her daughter Maryam, 12, find the house interesting, as well. Since the main room is oval in shape, she jokes about it being the “oval office.”
Another thing Maryam and her mother joke about is that all children who come to the cottage must have nice manners to comply with the kindergarten’s original charter.
Over the years, the house has undergone add-ons and renovations.
The church added a bathroom and kitchen by taking in part of the wrap-around porch. A bedroom also was added. The structure has two bedrooms and two bathrooms.
Sibley researched original colors of the building and painted it green, the color it had been long ago. She also restored the steps to make them look like the original.
Sibley’s restoration earned a Thomasville Landmarks award.
The cottage maintains original features, including 24 small, hand-blown window panes in each window, virgin pine floors that are the entire length of a pine tree, a 14-foot ceiling, two bay-like windows, cabinets beneath the windows for children to place their books, fireplace for heat, a light fixture and the original front door.
Originally, it only had one big oval room, a second room for the teacher to keep her supplies and a cloak room with a decorative window. Its architectural style is Queen Anne.
Since the early history of the Elisabeth Merrill Child Garden is partially unclear, information about the history is welcome.
Information was provided by Margaret and Beth Sibley and the Thomas County Historical Society.
EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of a celebration of the Times-Enterprise’s 125th year, this is the ninth in a year-long series of Sunday stories about important people, places and things in the area. The next one will be published May 18.
Reporter Susanne Reynolds can be reached at (229) 226-2400, ext. 1826.