Our adventures through the Lowcountry and Sea Islands introduced us to the Gullah culture and we reveled in our exploits, but other people were inhabiting these islands both before and after the Gullah people. We figured our explorations should include some of that history too.
For all we knew when we went to Edisto Island in South Carolina, we were just going to spend a day at the beach. We love the water and Edisto Beach State Park has a campground right on the shore. Perfect, we staked a claim on a campsite just out of the tide’s reach and took a seaside stroll. After ambling along the beautiful beach for awhile, we decided to break out the bikes and try out some of the parks many multi-use trails.
The ranger recommended the “Spanish Mount” trail for our ride. We rode off wondering why a trail named for the ever-present Spanish moss would be at the top of the list, so we were absolutely floored when we rounded a corner and encountered a monstrous mound of oyster shells. Oh… Spanish Mount. Spanish is certainly a misnomer, the mound is actually a shell midden left behind by the Edisto Indians for whom the island is named.
A midden is a prehistoric trash heap of discarded shells found on coastlines all over the world. One difference between middens and other archeological sites is that these are evidence left behind of a singular activity, eating. Now we like eating as much as anyone, but would have to agree with the old adage, “the bravest man I ever saw was the first one to eat an oyster raw.” Glad he did though.
Over hundreds, if not thousands of years, beginning some four thousand years ago, the Edisto people came to this spot to eat oysters, lots and lots of oysters and also a few fish, game animals, and turtles. Over time the shells and bones piled up until, according to a sign at the midden, the pile was so large that mid-17th century English explorer Robert Sanford wrote it was “discernible a good way to Sea.” Erosion from the tide waters has carried away about half of the ancient midden, but the remaining mound is still quite impressive.
The oyster shell piling seems to continue even these days. While driving around the islands, we saw several oyster shell recycling centers with mounds of mollusk exoskeletons that were well on their way to becoming impressive middens.
From Edisto Island we went south in search of a more modern historical location, Jekyll Island, Georgia. This is the site of the Jekyll Island club, where back in 1910 some of the world’s richest men gathered in secret to plan a central bank for America that became The Federal Reserve. This turned out to be perhaps the most pivotal point in the entire economic history of this country.
After discovering the meeting, Forbes magazine wrote: “Picture a party of the nation’s greatest bankers stealing out of New York on a private railroad car under cover of darkness, stealthily riding hundred of miles South, embarking on a mysterious launch, sneaking onto an island deserted by all but a few servants, living there a full week under such rigid secrecy that the names of not one of them was once mentioned, lest the servants learn the identity and disclose to the world this strangest, most secret expedition in the history of American finance. I am not romancing; I am giving to the world, for the first time, the real story of how the famous Aldrich currency report, the foundation of our new currency system, was written… The utmost secrecy was enjoined upon all. The public must not glean a hint of what was to be done.”
Congressman Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr., father of the famous flier mused: “From now on, depressions will be scientifically created.”
After leaving office, President Woodrow Wilson lamented: “I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country… We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated governments in the civilized world. No longer a government by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men.”
Oddly, considering the impact of these events, there is not one word mentioning the meeting here at the Jekyll Island Club. Just a cute little Victorian village. But it was interesting to see the spot where this significant gathering took place. Having satisfied our economics and political curiosity, we figured we might as well check out the rest of the island. Back to the bikes.
Trails wind through the village and forest down to the beach, but once we reached the water we noticed Veronica’s back tire rapidly deflating. Oops, didn’t bring the repair kit so she faced a race against decreasing air pressure. By the time we made it back to BAMF she was struggling with a wobbly blob of empty rubber tubing on her rear wheel. Hmm, time for a back up plan, we would have to drive around the island instead.
Checking out a map we found an old plantation that seemed worth a look, so we headed to the north end of the island and The Horton House. William Horton, the Undersheriff of Herefordshire back in jolly old England, was appointed by General Oglethorpe to set up a military post here in 1736. When his house was destroyed by Spanish attacks in 1742, he rebuilt using Tabby, a kind of concrete made from the shell middens in the area. The mixture of lime, oyster shells and water has survived the centuries leaving one of only two remaining two-story colonial-era structures in the entire state of Georgia.
There is some question whether Tabby originated in Africa or Spain and Portugal. Even the origin of the word tabby is unclear. The Spanish word tapia means a mud wall, and the Arabic word tabbi means a mixture of mortar and lime. There are also similar words in Portuguese and Gullah. Wherever it originated, Tabby was a hugely popular building material along this coast for hundreds of years and has proved to be remarkably durable.
Certainly more so than a bicycle tire.