Sapelo Island is one of Georgia’s most beautiful treasures, steeped in history and colorful people. The Southern Smiles Chapter of the Red Hat Society was recently fortunate to be able to tour this island.
Sapelo is not a public island. We were lucky to have been invited. After a 30-minute ferry ride, we were met at the dock by James Maund who works for the state at the Reynolds Mansion. Maund graciously gave his time to show us this wonderful place.
Packed into an old school bus, we bumped along narrow dirt roads not made for a big, old school bus. He was very knowledgeable about the history and told us about the Indians. He pointed out old shell rings that are thought to be the refuse of their diet. Oyster shells, clam and whelk shells are found there, along with the bones of deer and rabbit. He also showed us several burial mounds dating back to 1,000 AD.
Maund talked about the Spanish, British and French occupation that covered a time period of about 200 years.
He showed us old tabby ruins, and ruins of houses, barns, a sugar refinery and a lumber mill built and used by Thomas Spalding in 1802. Spaulding also built a big house on the south end of the island. Strong enough to withstand hurricanes, some of the walls were two-feet thick and made of tabby. He lived in this house for nearly 50 years. After Spalding died, his heirs used it for a retreat.
Vacated at the outbreak of the Civil War by its owners, Sapelo had its share of squatters during Reconstruction. By the time the Spalding heirs regained their property, the mansion had deteriorated to the point it was no longer habitable.
Howard Coffin, one of the founders of the Hudson Motor Co., bought Sapelo in 1912. He set up a canning industry for oysters and shrimp to provide employment for the island’s black community, descendants of Spalding’s slaves.
Sea Island cotton and food crops were planted and he built roads, sank artesian wells and brought in cattle. He renovated the house, added a second story and columns, and swimming pools to the mansion. He only used the house for a while as he took on another venture, the development of Sea Island Resort near St. Simon’s Island.
The house is still glorious. It boasts 13 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, a fully stocked library, wonderfully carved woodwork, doors and beautiful furnishings. The house even has a full basement under it.
We were thrilled to see a one-lane bowling alley, a billiards table, ping-pong table and a large screen TV. There is also an indoor pool that has been filled in because it leaked. It seemed funny a basement on a barrier island doesn’t leak, but a pool that is supposed to hold water does.
In 1933, Reynolds Tobacco of Winston-Salem heir Richard J. Reynolds of North Carolina purchased Sapelo. He was a lieutenant commander in the Navy during the war and was a generous man who used his wealth to help others. He built a gymnasium for the children at Todd Grant School in Darien. He also helped the scattered black community build new houses and establish a community called Hog Hammock. He employed most everyone on the island. He also did wonderful things like form the Georgia Agricultural and Farming Research Foundation in 1949 that later became a marine research center for the University of Georgia.
We had the most delicious lunch at a local bed and breakfast — local fare of fried shrimp with green beans, new potatoes and corn on the cob cooked by Caesar Banks and his wife. After dinner, we found room for sweet potato pie and bread pudding.
Banks wife entertained us with the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” in the local Gullah dialect. It was a good thing I knew the story because it sounded as if she was speaking a foreign language.
After returning to the bus, we ventured to the Sapelo lighthouse. How beautiful it is now. The lighthouse was severely undermined by a hurricane and tidal wave in 1898. The original brick lighthouse, oil house and cistern were meticulously restored 100 years later. A spiral staircase was rebuilt inside the lighthouse, permitting visitors to climb the stairs. Several of our group climbed the 77 steps to the top for a breathtaking view of Doboy Sound.
The last stop of the day was the beach. The sea was calm. Wide expanses of pristine sand and beautiful waving sea oats bowed to the dunes in a soft breeze.