Ossabaw Island Tabby: From Middens to Restoration

By Special Contributor posted 06-27-2014 08:51

This is part of a series exploring the Field Studies at 2014 PastForward, Savannah, Georgia, Nov. 11-14. We’ll look at the organizations behind the Field Studies, as well as the Field Study itself and what participants should expect. Registration for PastForward and the Field Studies will open July 1. For more information on PastForward and other Field Studies, visit

By Elizabeth DuBose

The three remaining tabby slave cabins located on Ossabaw Island’s north end | Courtesy of the Ossabaw Island Foundation
Ossabaw Island, Georgia’s third largest barrier island, is located about 20 miles from Savannah. But like many of the coastal islands, it is worlds away. This undeveloped island teams with a rich diversity of wildlife, including dolphins, eagles, a variety of wading birds, armadillos, and the famous Ossabaw Island hogs. Its history is equally rich, beginning 4,000 years ago, when indigenous people called the island home. The island’s history reflects our country’s history. There are stories from the colonial period, ante-bellum period, Civil War and Reconstruction and through the environmental movement.

In 1978 Ossabaw Island was sold to the state of Georgia and designated for scientific, cultural and educational uses as a heritage preserve.

The island, which is accessible only by boat, offers visitors a wide range of natural and cultural history. A few historic structures are still standing, including the Club House, a 1890s-era prefab house built over the foundation of the 18th-century North End Plantation house. The Club House won preservation awards in 2002 from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation and Historic Savannah Foundation.

Also still remaining on the island are three tabby cabins, which were used for worker housing and storage until the mid-1980s. Tabby construction, used in the coastal Southeast from the late 1500s to the 1860s, is made up of oyster shells, lime, water, and sand. Although tabby buildings were constructed up and down the southeast Atlantic coast, most have disappeared long ago. It’s estimated that Ossabaw had as many as 30 of these structures during the cotton-growing era.

In 2004, Save America’s Treasures awarded a $400,000 grant to the Ossabaw Island Foundation to stabilize and restore the tabbies. During the 2004 restoration, students from Savannah College of Art and Design and Georgia State University participated in a hands-on field school at Ossabaw Island, and professional archeologists conducted a dig to learn the history of the people who lived on the site.

The Ossabaw Island Foundation

 Exploring inside the 1840 slave cabin | Courtesy of the Ossabaw Island Foundation
The Ossabaw Island Foundation (TOIF), a nonprofit organization, is responsible for public use and education initiatives on Ossabaw Island. It operates through a use agreement with the State of Georgia, administered through the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). TOIF facilitates day trips and overnight stays for educational, cultural, or scientific activities. Approximately 1,500 to 2,000 people visit Ossabaw Island each year.
Funding for the Ossabaw Island Foundation is raised through private donations, grants, and program fees.

Ossabaw Island at PastForward

November is an enchanting time to visit this majestic island (not too hot or buggy!), and participants at the National Preservation Conference in Savannah will have the opportunity to do just that during a full-day Field Study on Tuesday, November 11. After taking a 30-minute boat ride from the mainland, tour participants will go on a guided tour of the island. Join the executive director from Ossabaw Island Foundation and the lead preservationist of the island projects for this exclusive tour of the North End and the award-winning preservation projects of the Ossabaw Island Foundation.

The oldest of the preserved tabby buildings dating from 1820 | Courtesy of the Ossabaw Island Foundation
Field study participants can try their hand at making some tabby, using natural materials mostly found on the southeast coast. They will also have the opportunity to walk to a 19th-century corduroy (a palm tree and marsh filled causeway) across the marsh to Cane Patch, the site of the oldest Native American settlement on Ossabaw Island. Cane Patch is the likely source of the oyster shells in the original tabby, and is where the restoration tabby oyster shells were harvested. Attendees will have the opportunity to explore the conservation and preservation techniques used on the tabby restoration. They will also have some time to explore the North End on their own.

Elizabeth DuBose has served as executive director for the Ossabaw Island Foundation since 1998. Prior to working with Ossabaw she was a Neighborhood Coordinator with the City of Savannah for five years.

PastForward Field Studies take attendees into the community to visit preservation success stories, confront on-the-ground challenges, and explore the region’s unique historic legacy while interacting with local residents and business owners.

For more information on 2014 PastForward, the National Preservation Conference, including details on programming, registration and other Field Studies, visit

The 2014 National Preservation Conference, PastForward, is brought to you by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in collaboration with SCAD: The Savannah College of Art and Design and in partnership with the Historic Savannah Foundation.

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