Tabby ruins at Spring Island a vivid reminder of cotton's power in the South

March 12, 2010 

In this file photograph, College of Charleston students tour the tabby ruins at Spring Island.


The juxtaposition is startling. Coming up the immaculately maintained 9th fairway of Spring Island's Old Tabby Links golf course, what remains of another illustrious period of the island's history comes into view.

Tabby ruins, three stories high and 150 feet long, stand as a testament to the success of George Edwards, owner of Sea Island Cotton, who, for the first half of the 1800s, was the richest man in the country.

Using more than 350 slaves, Edwards' cotton crop alone earned him $100,000 a year, which would amount to about $2.8 million today, using a monetary calculator by economist Samuel Williamson. Edwards also grew 3,000 bushels of vegetables and raised livestock. Overall, 1,000 acres was cultivated, according to "History of Beaufort County" by historians Lawrence Rowland, Alexander Moore and George Rogers.

For 50 years, Edwards was a cotton king.

Then came the Civil War, which drew the curtain on labor-intensive cotton. And came the Union army, which burned the Edwards estate.

Thus, on the private Old Tabby course arises the perfect alignment of modern-day leisure with the vestiges of the splendor of 19th-century cotton wealth. The ruins are some of the grandest and best-preserved in the South. They also were remote. The first bridge to Spring Island, from Callawassie Island, wasn't built until 1991, shortly after a group of developers bought the island.

So began the latest chapter in a sea island's history that dates to the Yemassee Indians, the first known inhabitants.

The British arrived in the late 1600s and started aparade of notable owners.

Lord Colleton deeded the island in 1697 to John Cochran, an Indian trader. Spring and Callawassie islands stayed in the Cochran family for nine generations before they were sold to another prominent landowner, Thomas Barksdale, in the late 1770s. It was through his marriage to Thomas' daughter, Elizabeth Barksdale, that George Edwards acquired Spring Island in 1801 and amassed a cotton fortune.

After the Civil War, Col. Thomas Martin owned the island and turned it into a hunting club.

The island reverted to a plantation when Col. W.M. Copp, a World War I veteran, bought the island in 1921 and planted 3,000 acres of crops. He later turned to livestock, which sent many deer swimming to other islands, according to a 1931 article by Chlotilde Martin. He built a magnificent home in the area known as Bonny Shore.

Then came the Great Depression and the end of Copp's fortune.

The home lay vacant for several years and ultimately was destroyed by fire.

The island was used only for hunting and fishing until Elisha Walker Jr., a New York City investor, bought the island in the 1960s. With the help of his general manager Gordon Mobley, Walker created one of the South's legendary quail hunting plantations, complete with mule-drawn wagons, Tennessee walking horses and a distinguished line of hunting dogs, according to the Spring Island Club. Elisha Walker died in 1972, his wife, Lucile, in 1982, and Gordon Mobley in 1995.

The island's latest reincarnation began in February 1990, when developers Jim and Betsy Chaffin, Jim and Dianne Light and Peter and Beryl LaMotte bought the island from the Walker Trust. They formed the nonprofit Spring Island Trust, put 1,000 acres under it and gave it with a three-fold mission: Protect and manage the island's natural environment, document its history and promote its availability as an inspiration for the arts.

The new owners embarked on a low-density development plan, reducing the existing county permit, which would have allowed 5,500 dwelling units, to a maximum of 500 homes on the island's 3,000 acres.

For the residents, the club had Arnold Palmer design the Old Tabby Links, which opened in 1992, and built a hunt club, equestrian center and a fitness center. Tabby-style materials appear throughout the island, from the floor in the River House, to the bulkheads supporting some greens and tees.

So, in some respects, the island has come full circle. It reverted to much of its natural setting and the Spring Island Trust works to keep it that way. The River House enables the current landowners to once again gaze over the Colleton River. And the ruins stand as a reminder that the grand present, in whatever form, is fleeting.

What is tabby:

Tabby is a construction material dating to the mid-1500s and consisting of oyster shells, which are primarily calcium carbonate. When the shells are burned, they decompose into calcium oxide (lime) and carbon dioxide, which dissipates into the air. The resulting lime, mixed with sand, reacts with water to form a concrete. The key step in the process is to begin with removing salt, which weakens the concrete, from the shells and the sand.

Tabby ruins are found primarily in St. Augustine, Fla., left by Spanish explorers, and in Beaufort, where the British used tabby, according to Janet H. Gritzner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation. Use of tabby by the British peaked in about 1700, with Beaufort as both the primary center and the location of the earliest British tabby in the southeastern United States. "It was here that the British tradition first developed, and from this hearth tabby eventually spread throughout the sea island district," Gritzner wrote.

Colin Brooker of the Historic Beaufort Foundation said Beaufort County has the largest number of tabby ruins in the United States. But the substance is endangered because "tabby, by its very nature, is generally a poor quality material," he said.

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