Geechee community endures on the island, but just barely
Photo: The remains of Chocolate Plantation (1789-1875), once a prosperous antebellum Sea Island cotton plantation on Sapelo Island.
Belle Marsh. Lumber Landing. Shell Hammock. Raccoon Bluff. The names of the slave and freedmen communities on Sapelo Island are as poetic and picturesque as the canopy of Spanish moss that covers this oblong-shaped island off the central coast of Georgia.
The names speak to a way of life shaped by a spiritual connection to nature. But they also echo with heartbreak and upheaval handed down by slave owners and industrialists whose actions helped erase those communities from the island.
Photo: Gravestones in the small Behavior Cemetery on Sapelo Island show signs of the ancient Gullah culture in the way the headstones are carved and in some of the personal belongings left by relatives of deceased residents. AJC file
Since it was purchased from the Creek Indians by the British Crown in 1733, Sapelo Island has passed through a dozen or so white men’s hands, three of particular note: plantation owner Thomas Spalding, who brought over 385 slaves; automotive industrialist Howard Coffin, who ran several commercial agricultural operations here; and tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, who lived on the island part time.
But it was the freedmen and their descendants, originating from enslaved West Africans brought here in 1802, who have maintained the only continuous community on the island, despite a series of challenges that continue today.
Photo: Hog Hammock resident Yvonne Grovner uses a cast net for bait off the dock at Long Tabby on Sapelo Island.
At one time, 480 descendants lived throughout the island. Now they number less than 50, and all their homes are in Hog Hammock (Hogg Hummock to locals), a 434-acre area on the south end of the island, where Reynolds relocated homeowners in a forced land swap in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Today Hog Hammock represents Georgia’s only remaining community of coastal West African slave descendants, whose culture they call Geechee, most likely a reference to the Kissi ethnic group of their homeland. And its future is precarious as increasing property taxes and lack of economic opportunity have driven residents to the mainland.
Efforts are underway to change that. The Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society is working with a group from Clemson University to grow and harvest Purple Ribbon sugarcane, a crop once raised here by Spalding’s slaves. The hope is it will become an income-generating operation, which could help stabilize the community.
In her memoir “God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man,” lifelong Sapelo resident Cornelia Walker Bailey (pictured, photo by Ben Gray/AJC) describes some of the characteristics that distinguish Geechee culture: a lyrical pattern of speech, belief in the supernatural, faith in the healing properties of nature and a rich tradition of storytelling designed to make the listener laugh or learn a lesson.
Photo: Organized in 1866, the First African Baptist Church sits at Racoon Bluff, Sapelo Island.
Casual visitors to Sapelo hoping to steep themselves in that culture may be hard pressed to locate it. What they’ll find in Hog Hammock is a quiet, shady community of wood houses and trailers with a couple of empty community buildings, some small fields of crops and a modest convenience store/snack bar that opens just a few hours a day.
The best way to get a taste of Geechee life is to visit on Culture Day, held every third Saturday in October on the grounds of the First African Baptist Church. It’s a homecoming of sorts for friends and former residents of the island who come back for a day of music, dance and old-time ring shouts, a traditional call-and-response style of singing accompanied by handclaps and shuffling dance moves. Other festivities include demonstrations of fish net and basket making, and food vendors serve up helpings of pigs’ feet, ribs, shrimp, red rice and red peas.
There are plenty of other reasons to visit Sapelo, though, not the least of which is the stunning beauty of the island’s wide wilderness beaches and dense maritime forests thick with live oaks and palm trees.
With the exception of privately owned Hog Hammock, Sapelo belongs to the state of Georgia and is managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The island is home to the University of Georgia Marine Institute, as well as a 6,100-acre National Estuarine Research Reserve.
On the north end of the island overlooking Mud River are the remains of Chocolate Plantation, featuring the ruins and foundations of tabby slave houses and a huge tabby barn. The land was first occupied by a group of Frenchmen in the late 1700s who named it after Chucalate, a Guale Indian village on the island. Used primarily to grow cotton, the plantation was established in 1819 and had a number of owners over the years, including Spalding and Coffin. Next to it is a Sears Roebuck house purchased from a catalog and constructed from a kit that dates back to the 1930s.
Just north of Chocolate Plantation is the oldest structure on Sapelo Island — a massive Native American shell ring constructed not only of shells but bone, pottery and refuse from dwellings including whole hearths. The ring measures 10 to 13 feet high and more than 300 feet in diameter. Its exact purpose remains a mystery, but carbon dating estimates it to be 3,000 to 4,200 years old.
One of the most significant structures on Sapelo is Reynolds Mansion (photo by Suzanne Van Atten), a 13-bedroom, white-columned dwelling on a 110-acre wildlife reserve. The site was first home to Spalding, whose original tabby structure, made from oyster shells, was destroyed during the Civil War. Coffin rebuilt on the site in 1912, and Reynolds bought it in 1934. He had it modified by Atlanta architect Philip T. Shutze, who hired renowned bird artist Athos Menaboni and his wife, Sara, to paint murals on the interior walls. Today the state rents the mansion to groups for overnight stays.
The best way to see the sights of Sapelo is to take a tour. Visitors can also hike or bike the island, which is 11 miles long and 4 miles wide. There are no car rentals available, but golf carts can be rented through Sapelo Go, although they are restricted from the north end of the island.
Getting to the island requires taking a ferry from Meridian dock near Darien, and passage must be arranged by an island resident or the DNR once visitors have booked a tour or overnight stay. And all provisions must be brought from the mainland; there are no restaurants or grocery stores here.
Whether it’s history, culture or recreation that brings visitors here, they are advised to fully unplug on Sapelo. A big part of the island’s charm is the bewitching tranquility of its natural beauty.
IF YOU GO
Shrimp and Crab Day. 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. June 28. $15 per person. Go seining in the surf, then dine on a low country boil. Bring a side dish to share. Presented by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. RSVP at the Sapelo Island Visitor Center at 1766 Landing Road, Darien, or call 912-437-3224.
Sapelo Island Grand Tour. DNR and Reynolds Plantation host a two-night, three-day visit to Sapelo Sept. 9-11, including accommodations at the mansion and a variety of nature adventures, including hikes, kayaking, fishing and a bus tour. $599 per person, all inclusive. Limited to 24 guests. 912-485-2299, www.gastateparks.org.
Culture Day. A day of music, dance, craft demonstrations and food, Oct. 15 on the grounds of First African Baptist Church. $25, $15 children 6-12. Tickets will be for sale at Meridian dock on the day of the event. Advance ticket purchases can be made over the phone, via mail and fax. For details, call 912-485-2197 or visit www.sapeloislandga.org/projects/culture-day.
Geechee Tours. Hog Hammock resident Cornelia Walker Bailey and her family members offer island tours, camping, lodging and bike rentals. Call for rates and availability. 912-485-2206, www.gacoast.com/geecheetours.html.
Sapelo Sights. Hog Hammock resident J.R. Grovner and his family members offer tours of the island’s historic sites. Not all tours go to the north end of the island, so be sure to inquire if you want to see Chocolate Plantation and the shell ring. $45. 912-506-6463, www.toursapelo.com.
Sapelo Island Lighthouse. A state-guided tour gives guests the opportunity to climb to the top and visit a small museum in the former headkeeper’s house. 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays year-round; 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Fridays, June 1-Labor Day. $15 adults, $10 children 6-12, 5 and under free. 912-437-3224.
Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. Managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the 6,100-acre reserve is located along the western perimeter of Sapelo Island. It is comprised of 4,000 acres of tidal salt marsh and 2,100 acres of upland. State-guided bus tours are offered 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays year-round, and 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Fridays, June 1-Labor Day. Extended tours offered 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. the last Tuesday of the month, March-October. $15, $10 children 6-12, free children 5 and younger. Cash or check only. Reservations required. 912-437-3224,www.sapelonerr.org.
Hunting. Sapelo is a popular hunting ground for deer, feral hogs and small game. For details on seasons, transportation and restrictions, go to www.gohuntgeorgia.com.
Kayaking. Southeast Adventure Outfitters offers a two-night, three-day kayak adventure on Sapelo Island for groups of four to 10. $495 per person, which includes food, gear and overnight accommodations in a house in Hog Hammock. 912-638-6732,www.southeastadventure.com.
Ferry. The ferry to Sapelo departs three times daily Mondays-Saturdays and twice Sundays from Meridian dock. $5-$15, round trip. Dogs permitted with proof of immunization. 1766 Landing Road, Darien. Passage must be booked by an island resident or a member of the DNR. 912-437-3224, www.sapelonerr.org.
Golf cart rentals. Sapelo Go rents gas-powered golf carts for $35 half-day, $55 full day. They will book visitors’ passage on the ferry and meet them at the Sapelo dock upon arrival. 912-266-4848, 912-485-2110, 912-485-2206,www.sapeloislandbirdhouses.com.
Bike rentals. Island resident Cornelia Walker Bailey rents bikes in Hog Hammock. Call for rates and availability. 912-485-2206,www.gacoast.com/geecheetours.html.
Reynolds Mansion. The mansion has 13 bedrooms and can accommodate up to 29 guests. The minimum group size is 16, and a minimum two-night stay is required. $175-$225 per person per night, including meals. Discounts available for children 5 and younger. A $1,000 nonrefundable deposit is due one year in advance of arrival to confirm a reservation. 912-485-2299,www.gastateparks.org.
Sapelo Island Birdhouses. Island resident Annita Thomas provides accommodations in three luxurious, distinctly different cottages and two suites in Hog Hammock. High-end furnishings, extra comfy beds, fully stocked kitchen, screen porch, large flat-screen TV, internet, charcoal grill and a golf cart are among the amenities provided. Dogs permitted with a fee. Chef services available upon request. $150-$375 per night; two-night minimum. 912-223-6515, www.sapeloislandbirdhouses.com.
The Wallow. A six-bedroom, five-bath lodge operated by island resident Cornelia Walker Bailey in Hog Hammock. Call for rates and availability. 912-485-2206, www.gacoast.com/geecheetours.html.
Cabretta Island campsite. State-operated rustic, remote sites close to the beach. For groups of 15 to 25. $25 per person per night; two-night minimum. Showers, toilets, fire rings and grills available, and transportation to the site is provided. Reservations required. 912-485-2299.
Sapelo Island Visitor Center. 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturdays. 1766 Landing Road, Darien. 912-437-3224, www.sapelonerr.org.