Marietta Johnson brought her own ideas and dreams to the small utopian society of Fairhope on Alabama’s Mobile Bay. Finding a community of like-minded idealists, she took on the structured education system she had taught in for years and created an environment of learning where children were free to be children. A school where each child’s unique personality was welcomed and cultivated. A school where she would let no child fail.
Marietta Pierce was born October 8, 1864, in the rural area just outside the city limits of Minneapolis, Minnesota. One of eight children, she spent her childhood on the family farm tirelessly worked by her parents, Rhoda and Clarence Pierce. Perhaps it was growing up in a large family that helped sway her decision, or maybe it was just a route taken by many young women pursuing a degree in the late 1800’s, but Johnson set her sights on the education field while attending the Third State Normal School (which became St. Cloud Teachers College in 1921 and eventually St. Cloud State University). Upon graduating, she taught in both elementary and secondary schools throughout the state.
In 1897, when she was in her early thirties, she married Franklin Johnson. The couple settled for a short while in St. Paul, Minnesota, before leaving behind everything Johnson had known for the relatively new state of Montana. Education left behind, she spent the next few years working alongside her husband as a rancher. But they didn’t stay long. After hearing about a new community near Alabama’s Gulf Coast, Johnson and her husband headed to the Southern state in 1901 toward a community of idealists. And they welcomed Marietta Johnson with open arms.
Fairhope was built on a dream and based in the economic theories of Henry George. Founded by twenty-eight progressives from the Midwest, the city was incorporated in 1894 as the country’s first single-tax colony. Johnson found kindred spirits in the utopian community by the bay. She taught in the Fairhope Public Schools for a year before once again leaving home with her husband for a farming venture. After roughly a year of running a failing pecan orchard in Mississippi, Johnson and her husband gladly returned to Fairhope.
Johnson immersed herself into life in Fairhope as easily as she did when first moving to the city, teaching before taking charge of Fairhope Public Schools. Johnson herself was a progressive educator. She embraced the ideas of John Dewey who argued that learning was a social and interactive process, and those of Friedrich Froebel, an early childhood education specialist and kindergarten founder. It was through the study of these education reformers, as well as Rudolph Steiner, Maria Montessori, and others, that Johnson began to form her own beliefs and ideas of what childhood and learning should encompass.
Johnson rejected the “one size fits all” approach to education that permeated the public school system. With the encouragement and monetary support of friends in Fairhope, she opened the Organic School of Education in 1907. Her own two sons were among the first students at the school, in which tests, homework, and grades were nonexistent. Failure was not an option or a worry at the Organic School. Children learned at their own pace, not confined by comparisons to others, and were introduced early to the arts. A firm believer of the environment’s impact on the learner, she said, “The greatest minds are those able to use the spirit of play in their work.” Other educators came to view her work at the Organic School, and she and the city of Fairhope became well known after Dewey came to discuss her work in 1913. His thoughts on her endeavor were included in his book Schools of Tomorrow.
Johnson’s work made her a leader in progressive education. She was invited throughout the country and around the world to share her ideas on shaping schooling around a child’s natural development. Reading, writing, and traditional math were postponed until children were at least eight. The later success of Organic School students spoke volumes to the school’s efficiency – becoming the next generation of doctors, scientists, engineers, professors, lawyers, and teachers.
Johnson ran the Organic School of Education until her death in 1938. To this day, the school has run continuously, never closing its doors and keeping at its heart the beliefs held dear by its founder. The site of the original building is now a museum in honor of Johnson, although the school has relocated to Pecan Avenue—ironic, since it was pecans that nearly took one of Fairhope’s most beloved residents away. But Marietta Johnson couldn’t stay away from the city that captured her heart—a city filled with like-minded friends who gathered to create a utopian school where children were free to be children, and no child entering her doors would fail.
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