Local historical structures built with resilient tabby offer a unique opportunity to learn about the past.
By Jessica Farthing
Few things are as iconic to the coastal South as the image of the oyster shell. Whether piled at the end of an outdoor roast or used in beach-themed decorations, oysters seem to exemplify life by the ocean. But what many people may not realize is that the strength of the shell served more practical purposes in Colonial times. In Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, oyster shells were used to create a building material called tabby. Thanks to tabby’s resilience, historical structures made up of this material can still be seen today, offering a unique way to experience the past firsthand.
A mixture of equal parts water, sand, shell and lime, plus ash from preparing the lime, make up tabby, all components easily found on the coastal plain. For years, the Native American population in these areas disposed of oyster shells in trash piles called middens, some of which even covered acres of land.
Once made, tabby was usually poured into molds, creating thick foundations and walls. It was also formed into bricks for fireplaces and used on roofs and floors with stucco to maintain it, as the stucco prevented the water from penetrating the tabby and eroding its strength.
The Spread of Tabby
Although its origins are unclear, the word tabby may have originally developed from the Spanish term “tapia,” meaning wall, or the Arabic word “tabbi,” referring to a mixture of lime and mortar.
Tabby was the building material of choice for Spanish settlers’ homes in St. Augustine, Florida, and was noticed by British Colonists. They began to adopt the method, and use of the building material spread to South Carolina as an inexpensive and easily accessible option for construction.
James Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia, was exposed to tabby while touring Fort Prince Frederick in South Carolina. Oglethorpe took the idea and used it for the construction of Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island, creating homes, barracks and a powder magazine out of the material. The walls were 36 inches thick, making them nearly impervious to cannon fire—a key defensive strategy. After the English defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh, Frederica’s garrison was no longer needed. Eventually, as the fort became abandoned, great chunks of tabby were cut from the construction. Pieces of tabby from the fort were used in the construction of the first
St. Simons Lighthouse in 1810.
For a while, tabby fell out of use. Interest was reignited when Thomas Spalding on Sapelo Island turned to the material to create his main house on the island, and even wrote a book touting the benefits of tabby. However, in the 19th century, the invention of Portland cement caused tabby to become less popular as a building material.
The physical remnants of the tabby structures around the St. Simons area give a glimpse into the lives of Georgia’s Colonial residents. The Georgia Historical Society in Savannah has an extensive collection of historical documents to further their mission of teaching Georgia’s history, and tabby complements this research and information—the lasting strength of the material has made it possible to actually touch the early structures.
“To be able to walk up to something now and put your hands on it goes beyond text, beyond words,” says Georgia Historical Society Senior Historian Stan Deaton. “There’s that sense of really being able to stand on the ground where people lived. To put your hands on something that’s been around for centuries is very special.”
Remains of tabby structures from the early 1800s are located around the property at The Lodge at Sea Island. The building that now houses the RSM Classic golf tournament offices originally incorporated the tabby walls of a 19th century corn barn; the current structure has 20th century additions, including board and batten. Resort Historian Wheeler Bryan Jr. hosts walking tours of The Lodge, including visits to the Corn Barn and the surrounding tabby structures, as well as customized trips off the property to visit the stalwart fortress of Fort Frederica and crumbling fireplaces of Cannon’s Point Preserve.
Bryan is constantly amazed that the sites are always revealing more information. “There were archeology digs even last year discovering more remains … [around] Fort Frederica,” he says. “Three hundred-plus years later we still have these because of the material. It’s an amazing place, whether you want to learn early history or take the kids to roam.”
Visit the Tabby Ruins
Explore these nearby buildings to learn more about this historical material.
The Lodge, Sea Island
Visit the concierge or talk to a reservations agent to schedule a personal tour from Resident Historian Wheeler Bryan Jr. Trips can be arranged to visit the Corn Barn on-site, or head off-property to learn about other significant areas.
Fort Frederica, St. Simons Island
Operated by the National Park Service, this 40-acre national monument has the remains of the soldier’s barracks and other structures. At certain times during the year, the staff demonstrate tabby-making methods and even host summer archeology camps for kids. It is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (nps.gov/fofr/index.htm)
Cannon’s Point Preserve, St. Simons Island
Shell middens dating all the way back to 2,500 B.C.E. and tabby ruins can be seen at Cannon’s Point, which has one of the only remaining standing tabby brick chimneys. With an easement held by The Nature Conservancy, the property is forever protected from further human development. It is open Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (sslt.org/index.php/cannon-s-point)