Friday, January 24, 2020

Georgia’s Oyster Farming Industry – Positioned For Growth

This article was originally published in the October 2019 issue of Southern Tides Magazine.

Pictures and Story by Dan Foulds


Rob Hein, (L) and John Pelli prepare to get underway for a day of
data collection and research. 
On a fine Fall morning, I arrive at the University of Georgia’s Shellfish Research Lab on Skidaway Island to learn more about their project to create an entire Georgia industry from scratch. As I speak with Emily Kenworthy, the public relations coordinator, it quickly becomes apparent that I have much to learn about oyster farming and mariculture  - aquaculture in a marine environment.

Emily walks me down to the docks and introduces me to Rob Hein and John Pelli. These are the extension specialists working with the Shellfish Research Lab on the oysterculture project for the benefit of the nascent industry. These guys are where the rubber meets the road, so-to-speak, and the farmed oysters placed in the natural environment are their babies. (story continues below)



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In the same manner that states and universities send “agricultural extension agents” into the field to help farmers produce more crops, so the University of Georgia provides mariculture extension specialists to help maritime farmers do the same. The mission of the Shellfish Research Lab on Skidaway Island is to determine how best to farm oysters in Georgia, and then to provide oyster “seed” [or “spat”] to Georgia’s future oyster farmers.


These future farmers will purchase bottom leases for $50 per acre and use floating or stationary oyster cages with a fee of $1 per cage.. They are well into phase one, and phase two, commercial farming, will probably begin (this) summer. While the harvesting of wild oysters in Georgia is currently on a relatively small scale and is limited to collecting the bivalve mollusks from beds, reefs, or “rakes;” in the very near future, it’s going to be a much larger industry, thanks to the activities going on at Skidaway.

At present, commercial farming of oysters using floating or bottom cages is not permitted in Georgia. A bill passed (last) year in the Legislature provides for the sale of leases to farmers. The legislation created controversy over the details, which are being worked out by a stakeholder’s advisory group.


Farming of oysters is a multi-step process. As the oysters grow from fertilized eggs through to adulthood, they must be protected, fed, and provided with a steady supply of clean oxygenated water. The first steps take place indoors at the University of Georgia's Shellfish Research Lab located on Skidaway Island. Upwelling water systems provide aerated water to the juveniles which are kept in place with fine-mesh screens.



Juvenile oysters are nurtured and nourished at the shellfish lab. This device
allows water to flow up through the screen and out the top.
Researchers test various means and methods for raising oysters


As the oysters mature and grow they are moved to progressively larger containment equipment and eventually they are put into floating cages and placed into an estuary or sound. The floating cages lay either just under the surface - or when flipped on top of their floats - just over it. Cages must be flipped for one day a week in summer and a day every other week in winter to protect the oyster shells inside from becoming a habitat for free-swimming wild spat searching for a surface to attach to and grow on.

In the lab, ground-up oyster shell or "cultch" (culture?) is provided for spat
to affix themselves to. 

Whereas a perfectly formed “single” farm-raised oyster might fetch seventy to ninety cents at the market, one that has been colonized by other spat and turned into a cluster will only fetch about a dime.  For reasons not completely understood, spat show a propensity to anchor on oyster shells over other surfaces. Flipping the cages also prevents other marine growth from taking hold, and keeps the oyster shells clean.



John Pelli (L) and Rob Hein  are working to bring Oyster Farming to Georgia.


The view from the office.

Our task today is to flip the cages placed just off the UGA's shellfish research lab dock, and then to ride out the Skidaway and Wilmington Rivers and through Tybee Cut to the cages situated in the old fish habitat at the opening of the Cut into the Bull River.

After they drop me off and have lunch, they will return to the cages and painstakingly empty each mesh bag onto the front deck of the boat. They will count and measure every oyster in every bag in every cage. They will also count and remove oysters that have died – hopefully a small percentage. There are subtle variations in how the oysters are prepared and placed – some of the cages are situated on the bottom. The objective is to determine which methods yield the best results, and they are using the scientific method to derive results.

Rob is a native of Athens, Georgia and a graduate of UGA with a degree in Ecology. His background includes middle-school teaching, and he confides that while teaching was okay he missed doing research and was glad to get a glowing recommendation from a past-colleague which led to a job at the lab.

Rob is very knowledgeable and explains as much of oysterculture as I can digest. He tells me that there are diploid and triploid oysters in the cages we are working with today. Triploids cannot reproduce, and do not spend energy on creating sperm or eggs for reproduction.

Rob emphasizes that there is no genetic modification taking place. He explains that triploids will grow faster and therefore come to the market sooner and be more profitable. Nevertheless they are growing both varieties in the cages to see which ones do best.


As we ride out the river and I listen to Rob and John, I begin to realize that there is a whole world of oyster consumption beyond anything I have experienced.  My oyster eating and knowledge is limited to the typical low-country backyard oyster roast. All over America, people go to restaurants and sample oysters from every coast, with each region of origin having its own taste and characteristics.

Rob explains to me that an oyster from a specific region might be described as “a well-balanced combination of sweetness at the start and a buttery soft brine finish.”  Who knew that oysters could be a component of fine dining? Not me, but I am excited about the prospect of eating my way to better understanding. I can imagine tucking into a sampler platter with oysters from east, south, and west. No cracker, no cocktail sauce, just the oyster speaking for itself. Getting hungry yet?

One notable aspect of oyster aficionados is their willingness to spend real money for the object of their desire. That translates into opportunities for those who are willing to dive into the business. And that is coming soon. For now, the objective of the lab is to learn how to produce oysters with the perfect shape, shell, taste, and texture, and then to pass on that knowledge - and the spat - to replicate the production on a large scale.

John Pelli is a former Union Camp managing-engineer who has traveled all over the world. Of the three of us on the boat, he is also the only person who has actually engaged in commercial mariculture. He once operated a clam farm close to where the floating oyster cages are situated in Tybee Cut.

John's background makes him an obvious choice for extending expertise and practical skills from the University of Georgia and the Shellfish Research Lab to the future oyster farmers who will create the harvest. When I ask him if he is any kin to my friend and boat-mechanic Terry Pelli, he laughs and says, “he’s my brother.” As my friend Julius Bennett often says, “Savannah is really just a big one-stop-light-town!”

John Pelli operates the hoist used to haul the cage while
Rob Hien manhandles it into position for investigation.
As we pull up on the cages and Rob and John begin to flip them, I can see that it is hard work. Our boat has a winch motor and a swing arm to provide mechanical assistance, but as Rob points out, flipping 500 cages would be tough. If the water is the right depth you can flip baskets while standing in it, and John is working on other forms of mechanical assist as part of the project. Even so, like shrimping and crabbing, oyster farming will be hard physical work.
As the legislation to permit oyster farming was being created, there were differences of opinion as to how much of the year should be allocated to harvesting; cooler months only, or all year long. Another point of contention concerned how the bottom leases should be distributed; by lottery open to all, or Georgia residents only, or to the highest bidder. While the extension specialists are undoubtedly aware of these issues that will be ironed out by the advisory group, they aren’t concerned with them or the results. Their only concern is how to create the perfect oyster, using a method that is sustainable, repeatable, and predictable.



All Georgians will benefit from their labors, and I am grateful for what they and the rest of the team at the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant Shellfish Research Lab are doing. Here's to Oysters everywhere!



Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Causton Bluff and the Father of Methodism

This story first appeared in Southern Tides Magazine. Whether you are reading it here again, or for the first time, thanks for stopping by. If there is a maritime topic that particularly interests you, let me know in a comment and I will get to work on it.
DCF

Image courtesy Georgia Historical Society, click image to enlarge




As you cruise the creeks and rivers around our region by boat, you glide by countless places, each with its own story. I often think to myself, “if only that place could talk, the tales it could tell!” Part of the fun of living here is learning these stories. As a tour-boat captain, stories are part of my job; I’m always looking and listening for another good one. My friend Jim Hughes, a real no-kidding renaissance man, recently shared a link to the history of Causton’s Bluff in Savannah, and as often happens, there is a distinctly human element to the story. (story continues below)

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I found an article originally published in Georgia Historical Society’s “Historical Quarterly,” Volume 23, No. 1, dated March 1939. Here are some excerpts with personal thoughts and observations.

“Approximately a mile east of the present limits of Savannah and along the Savannah River eastward as far as St. Augustine Creek lie about 2.500 acres of land that at one time formed three outstanding plantations…Brewton Hill, Deptford, and Causton’s Bluff; the last, though farthest from the city… ranks foremost in historical interest.”

Today we refer to the river at Causton Bluff, near Savannah, as the Wilmington, and St. Augustine Creek begins further northeast, connecting the Wilmington and Bull rivers.

Sidebar:

I became curious about how the stretch of water called "St. Augustine Creek" in the image above and "Wilmington River" on today's charts and maps came by its name. A google search led me to believe that it was named after Walter Augustine who operated a sawmill "along its course.".

But when I downloaded the PDF of Kenneth Krakow's (fascinating!) work on Georgia Place Names - History and Origins - listed on that Wikipedia page and available for download here, and read what he wrote about Augustine Creek - "mistakenly called St. Augustine Creek and entering the Savannah River at Port Wentworth" I was confused. What's Port Wentworth got to do with this?

So I opened Google Maps and went finger-cruising up the Savannah River to Port Wentworth. Bigger than life, there it is, a "St. Augustine Creek" entering the Savannah River just west of the Houlihan Bridge and boat ramp. So, according to Krakow, that is the river that is misnamed "St. Augustine." That's where the sawmill was.

So, what about the other St. Augustine Creek? The only thing I can surmise is that this was the path that General Oglethorpe and others took when they rowed and sailed the inland passage down to Saint Augustine - in Florida - to do battle with the Spaniards there. If I am wrong about this assumption and you know better, please let me know in a comment. 

Okay, back to the story!

“In May, 1737 … [Thomas Causton] drew a ‘Bill of Exchange’ on Oglethorpe for fifty pounds… to enable Mr. Causton to settle his new Farm.”
“By 1738, …  Causton had settled at his plantation … Plat 6 and 7 were incorporated as part of Causton’s Bluff … containing 1,133 acres, of which 760 acres were suitable for cultivation while 373 acres, later resurveyed as 580 acres, were worthless marshland.”

This map dated 1779 indicates that Causton's Bluff was a 
"Place of Debarkation"

It’s worth noting that the idea of marshland being worthless was formed back when the cure for any physical ailment included cutting a patient on the arm and letting them bleed. George Washington’s doctor did that to him and undoubtedly contributed to his death. Those early colonists had no idea that the “worthless marsh” was the nursery for most of the bounty they enjoyed from the creeks, rivers, and ocean. Were it not for marshland we would have no Wild Georgia Shrimp to fry.

“Originally Causton’s Bluff plantation was made up of approximately 260 acres lying about five miles east of Savannah … at the peak of its prosperity, Causton’s Bluff  contained more than 3.000 acres extending north to the Savannah River.”

For a time, rice was grown in much of the low areas adjacent to the river, but as time went on and the Savannah River was dredged, saltwater intruded and ended rice cultivation this close to the ocean. When rice was grown and the fields were flooded with standing water, mosquitos bred and spread Yellow Fever.  These epidemics terrified the white people living here, who attributed the disease to “miasma” a noxious gas thought to be emanating from the muddy lowlands. Only when the Panama Canal was dug did we learn the truth about mosquitos and how to control them. Whenever you hear about a “mosquito ditch” in a marsh area, know that it was created to introduce salt water and reduce mosquito infestations.

“In the early part of November 1737 … a comfortable house had been built and was being occupied by the Causton family. The hospitality … was enjoyed by the Parson, John Wesley [the father of the Methodism]. Sophia Hopkey, Causton’s niece … spent many hours in the company of Wesley. The fact that Sophia lived at the plantation may be the reason that Wesley always accepted Causton’s invitation to visit … Causton apparently approved of the friendship and hoped they might marry …”

Alas, The Reverend John Wesley had no interest in marriage.

“Sophia, apparently piqued at Wesley’s procrastination [in asking for her hand in marriage] became engaged to William Williamson and four days later married him.”

Pause for effect; “four.days.later!”

Things deteriorated. Wesley wanted to continue giving Sophia the Sacrament in private. At her husband’s objection, she refused. Then Wesley refused to give her the Sacrament at the next church service. 

“Williamson then filed suit against Wesley, contending that by refusing his wife the sacrament Wesley had cast a reflection upon her character.  The case never actually came to trial, though it was still pending when in December, 1737 a great stir was caused by his flight. 

In his own words Wesley says, ‘about eight o’ clock, the tide then serving, I shook the dust off my feet and left Georgia…” 

We are only human, after all.

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The World is Your Oyster!

This article first appeared in the October issue of Southern Tides Magazine


“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster” [Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745] 


October means three things are happening in our region. First, the brutal heat of summer is easing into the more user-friendly climate of fall. Second, many of us are watching College Football on Saturday afternoons if we aren’t out fishing or hunting. Finally, on many weekend evenings we gather with old friends and new around an Oyster Roast; engaging in the time-honored low-country tradition of shucking and shoving these tasty morsels straight into our mouths.
The term “roast” is something of a misnomer. Roasting involves dry heat, and most of the time we are cooking oysters with wet heat in the form of steam. Whether we steam them in piles covered with hose soaked burlap on a metal shelf set over a roaring fire, or in a purpose-built propane-fired oyster cooker, or in a boil-pot with an inch or two of water at the bottom and a brick under the basket; the objectives and results are about the same. We don’t want to “boil” our oysters in water as this would wash much of the flavor out of them. Rather we want to cook them gently with steam, over several minutes. Steam keeps them from drying out and reduces shrinkage.

As the shells “pop,” or open slightly thanks to heat and moisture, we dump them in a pile onto the serving tables and belly up beside each other. We might stand shoulder to shoulder with a complete stranger, shucking and sharing and laughing at our great good-fortune; the wonder of living a low-country life.
Some purists eat them naked. Some dredge them through hot sauce and melted butter. Some like them covering a saltine - the only oyster cracker worth its salt.  And then folks like me sandwich them between cracker and cocktail sauce and cram the whole assembly inside at once. It ain’t pretty but it’s fun.

An Oyster Roast is a great equalizer. It’s a supremely egalitarian thing. You might have a congressional candidate on one shoulder and the lady who cleans houses for a living on the other.  The three of you will stand there, enjoy each other’s company, and solve the world’s problems as you harmoniously fill your bellies with this naturally salt-seasoned bounty from the sea. Should you and your table-mates deplete your pile, you will patiently stand and swig your beer or iced sweet tea until another bucket of the steamy bivalves arrives.

Crash! Onto the table they go! “Slide in right here friend!”
Etiquette? Grab oysters from the pile in the middle of the table, one at a time. Only take what you will eat. It is okay to shuck for a friend, but don’t expect anyone to shuck for you. Don’t show off your speed-shucking skills at a table populated by casual shuckers, it will make you look inconsiderate. Don’t forget to enjoy the social component of the experience as well as the gastric, in other words, speak with your neighbors between mouthfuls. I mean after all, you do want to be invited back, right?

Invariably, while eating, some bits of oyster will get lodged between your teeth where they hang tenaciously and evade capture.  It’s a good idea to have a roll of floss in your pocket for a discreet oysterectomy. It’s also a good idea to bite down gently on each new arrival a time or two to make sure no shell fragments entered your mouth as stowaways. When its tooth or crown or filling versus shell, the shell wins. The number one rule is that there are few rules. Just have fun and be friendly.

This annual event is a great chance to enjoy some deliciousness!

Purpose-built tables will have a hole cut in the middle with a shell-bin beneath for easy tossing. The table should be kept cleared for action.  Another option is a folding plastic table with a shell-bin on either end. Don’t put anything in the shell-bins but shells, as any trash has to be picked out by hand when they are dumped for one of the myriad shell-recycling options available. On Talahi Island where I live, we dump our shells on the community-dock access-road to fill the wheel ruts for a level driving surface. They crush under tires and make a fine free road-bed. There are many takers for any leftover oyster shells, as long as they aren’t mixed with trash. Check with your city or county for recycling options.

The future of the oyster industry in our area is bright. From production to consumption, they are already part of our culture, traditions, and history. Thanks to the work of the scientists on Skidaway Island, progress is being made on increasing the harvest from right here versus having to buy them shipped in from elsewhere. You can get delicious clusters from the May River Oyster Company in Bluffton now, and “Single Lady” oysters from Lady’s Island Oysters in Seabrook. There are other local sources for wild-harvested oysters if you look.  If you are adventurous and licensed you can even do some harvesting for yourself in selected sections of our waterways. Here’s to oysters everywhere!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

For The Love Of A Marina

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Southern Tides Magazine


"Players with Short Bats, Please Step Up Close to the Plate"


I 've always loved marinas.  Each is unique - with its own quirks, forgivable weaknesses, and heartwarming strengths. Marinas are terraqueous places consisting of both land and water, where pleasure begins and ends and memories are made to last.

Like airports, marinas are jumping-off points between two worlds. They are checkpoints on our journey through life; natural gathering-spots where we team-up and set out on adventure - or return from it full of stories that bond family and friend alike.  Re-creation begins at a marina.

During the return from a trip south on the ICW long ago, Jeanne and I stopped at the marina on Jekyll Island as an October evening set in and the sky lost its light. The boss-lady came down to the dock and greeted us with a smile.
“Can we stay on our boat at your dock tonight?” "Yes!"
I think we paid a dollar a foot, so for 22 dollars we were ushered to an inside slip with our bow pointed towards the channel and any wakes from passersby. The lady was so friendly that I will never forget her. “Our restaurant is open now, and tonight we have live music. There are bikes that you can use if you want to go for a ride. If you need to go to the store we have an old van.” She made our stay special. We had a great dinner, enjoyed the show, and walked down to our little floating-bedroom for a good night’s sleep. Water lapping at the hull makes a sweet lullaby. What a great marina! I want to go back!

Image courtesy Jekyll Harbor Marina. I have stayed there and it's great.

When I first came to Savannah thirty years ago as an Army pilot, I lived on the Southside. Our favorite marina in those days was at Savannah’s version of Cape Finisterre - at the far end of Coffee Bluff Road. The old Coffee Bluff Marina - replaced now by a much finer city-funded endeavor - was a ramshackle affair with on-trailer storage barns, an old tractor for pulling boats to the hoist, docks for tenants and visitors, and a store with most of what you might need on the water.

The new Coffee Bluff Marina bears little resemblance to the old, but it's very nice and attractive.
Take note: The store does not sell beer. Photo by Daniel Foulds  

Early on, I was part of a group of soldiers and that left Hunter Army Airfield’s dock at Lott’s Island headed for Ossabaw’s beach. We ran into a pop-up summer-thunderstorm near Coffee Bluff. In line with “any port in a storm” we tied up to the docks and took shelter in the store, and that’s how I got to know Mr. Freddie. He was the man who ran the show. Freddie was a wonderful combination of behavior-traits. On the surface, he was a curmudgeon. As soon as he determined he wasn’t dealing with a fool or a know-it-all, he warmed right up and became as helpful as anyone could wish.

Freddie and I shared jokes and stories often over the years. He never let go of the day that I attempted to scud-run a Chinook up the river at low-level trying to reach the airfield. The weather was terrible, with low clouds, fog and rain, and no visibility to speak of. We crept upriver at fifty feet, marker by marker. We reached the marina at – maybe – a hundred feet up. On top of the store we ran into a solid wall of “I can’t see anything, can you?” (story continues below)

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We stopped and performed a pedal-turn, pivoting directly over Freddie’s head. Freddie certainly knew we were there. Heck, he may have been outside shaking his fist at us.
We snuck back out the river and up the coast and ended up landing at the Tybee Lighthouse helipad.

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When next I saw Freddie I asked, “Did we do any damage?”  He smiled and laughed and said, “Nothing I can’t handle.” That was Freddie. He was a great American and I miss him.

The Lee Shore Marina on Wilmington Island is a favorite of Sailboaters. And Cheers is right there!
Photo by Daniel Foulds
For the last fourteen years, my marina has been Hogans on Wilmington Island. I had the Sea Ray there for twelve of them and now I captain a tour-boat from their dock. The crew there are wonderful. The boss – Bubba Strickland - can best be described as a community-treasure. Like Freddie before him, he’s got a hard shell and a soft heart. He stands on “the quarterdeck” on a summer day and barks orders to his young charges like a drill sergeant. His kids learn much about life and being squared-away while working for him. These kids usually go on to enjoy happy and successful lives.

Bubba does this.
Another beautiful day ends at Hogans Marina on Turners Creek.
The Island Explorer, the great tour boat that I captain,
is on the outer dock. Photo by Daniel Foulds

Hogan’s Marina serves my community in many ways well beyond the normal services that a marina provides. “Hogan’s” and “Charity Event” are paired in sentences about every month. Without Hogan’s, there would be no “Fishin’ for Jaime.” Our lives are enriched by these events where we demonstrate kindness and compassion for our fellow man – where we become the best versions of ourselves. I love my marina



Sunrise at Isle of Hope Marina on the Skidaway River and ICW.
Photo by Daniel Foulds

When I stop at Isle of Hope Marina to deliver Southern Tides, I sense that this is a really great place with friendly people. I want to spend time there and learn more about it. I want to sit on their deck and drink a beer and hear their stories. They have a "marina car" and the Driftaway Cafe is just down the road. I imagine a fuel purchase might get you the keys, or a ride.







Even the birds know a good marina when they find one.
Photo by Daniel Foulds

We would love to hear your story about your favorite marina. The one that makes you take a deep breath and let it out and relax. Please share your story with us on our Facebook page named
"SavannahBoater.com"
or send us a message at foulds.daniel@gmail.com.
Heck, I might come to enjoy your marina with you and hear your story in person. First beers on me.

Now, maybe you are wondering why I opened with the quote above. This instruction was printed on a piece of cardboard cut in the shape of home-plate, and fastened to the wall behind the toilet at the old Coffee Bluff men’s room. I imagine Freddie smiled when he posted it, and it never failed to make me chuckle when I stood in position at the appropriate distance from the plate.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

An Island Icon - The General Oglethorpe

What if I told you that we have near us a "friend" who lived through the Great Depression and Prohibition. A friend who served our country in World War 2, and who welcomed me home from the first Gulf War with open arms and a cold beverage. A friend who can undoubtedly claim a role in the creation of some of the people living in Savannah today. This friend was once an Olympic Star and could be holding the truth of Jimmy Hoffa's whereabouts under a cement secret. This friend has been a white elephant and an object of desire. It will shortly be a movie star - again! If places could talk, this place could surely tell some amazing stories.

A beautiful structure rising from Wilmington Island, today's Wilmington Plantation Condominium has enjoyed a long and storied life. Photo by Daniel Foulds (Click image to view full size.)

By now you should know we are discussing the General Oglethorpe Hotel on Wilmington Island, completed in 1927. I first visited the property shortly after my arrival in Savannah in 1989, after being invited to attend a "Thursday Night Sunset Party" at what was then "The Sheraton Savannah Resort and Country Club." As the blue-black hue of the sky deepened and a spectacular sunset fired up the western horizon, we strolled the space around a beautiful swimming pool laying at the edge of the Wilmington River. Guests enjoyed enchanting views, live music, and the ever-present chance to "hook-up" with a new friend for a romantic evening. I daresay that many long-term relationships were born as a result of those sunset parties. And inevitably, over the years, some kids were born as a result too.

Several times during my first years here, while I was serving in the 3rd Battalion of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, we held our annual formal-banquets at the Sheraton. I stayed in the corner room on the second floor on the right-wing (as you look at the building.) It was a grand old place, with a fine ballroom built for fun. It was classy and made us feel special.

Image Courtesy "Mob Island" Facebook page. A film with the same title is in the works. Visible at the left is the dock and deck created for the 1996 Olympic sailing events, along with the infamous "helipad." Click image to view full size.

The General Oglethorpe Hotel and Resort was the brainchild of Mr. Henry Walthour and Mr. Thomas Saffold, both prominent citizens and island residents in the early 1900s. They sank pilings cut from island timber into the soft island mud and formed a foundation strong enough to support a towering superstructure. They spared no expense and ignored no detail during the creation of their resort. I used the word "Icon" in the title because this building is indeed an icon. It is instantly recognizable, visible for miles around, and was copied in many ways by the people who built the condominiums across the island on the Bull River. 

Bull River Condominiums




The views from the added upper floors of the old Oglethorpe are spectacular. As the upper units are all vacant, I was able to visit and take some photos.

The Donald Ross-designed golf course is now owned and operated by O.C. Welch.
Photo by Daniel Foulds (click image to view full size)


The Pool Deck is beautiful today, as it was during "Thursday Night Sunsets"
Photo by Daniel Foulds (click image to view full size)
 
In a classic example of bad timing, the Great Depression wrought havoc on the nation's economy shortly after the General Oglethorpe was completed. If you ever saw the film "The Legend of Bagger Vance," you know that the struggling golf resort portrayed in that film is none other than the General Oglethorpe.  So in a sense, the General has been a movie star for decades. A few years later a film titled "The Gift" was made in and around Savannah, and a scene displaying infidelity and lust was acted out at the old golf-course clubhouse. (The D.A. did it) 

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A new film project promises to bring our old friend into the limelight once more, it's an expose of the General Oglethorpe's years as a mob-property, titled "Mob Island."

From "Once Upon an Island" by Elizabeth Carpenter Piechocinski, "The old hotel was the site for the International Monetary Conference in March of 1946. Two hundred and fifty delegates from forty-five nations, along with more than a hundred financial writers, photographers, and newspaper reporters, attended this conference ... to promote foreign trade and to organize a World Fund and Bank (added: World War Two had just ended and much of the world was devastated.) One of the delegates to the conference was Lady Nancy Astor ... She referred to Savannah as 'a lovely lady with a dirty face."

That is arguably the most famous descriptive quote about Savannah, referring to a time when our city was down on her luck, and it was uttered at the General Oglethorpe! 

During the years when the Teamster's Union owned the property (1961-1982) (the mob connection) the likes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra performed at the waterfront restaurant and club. The Union's pension fund had loaned $2.4 million to the hotel company that owned the Oglethorpe. That loan went into default and the General Oglethorpe, the Desoto Beach Hotel, and the Savannah Motor Lodge were purchase at auction at the Chatham County Courthouse for $1.9 million in 1961. Mobsters liked visiting the property for precisely the same reason that it was never a commercial success, its secluded isolation at the end of an island! 

According to Jerry Hogan (quoted in Island Memories by Marianne Heimes), "They didn't dress like Savannians. They wore long Bermuda shorts with black knee-high socks and sandals and bright Hawaiian print shirts over T-shirts" Jerry also observed that the "wise guys" brought their "nieces" with them. Indeed.

Turner's Creek and Turner's Rock are visible to the northeast. The property sits on a peninsula.
Photo by Daniel Foulds (click image to view full size)

In "Island Memories" Ms. Heimes tells of Albert Fendig living at Maridon on Wilmington Island during World War Two. In an essay, Fendig recounted that "Savannah was far away, and each morning as Dad drove us to school and himself to his office, he would stop by the Wilmington Hotel Bachelor Officer's Quarters to pick up two young ensigns..."

The view of the Wilmington River from the upper floors, added during the renovation, is stunning.
Photo by Daniel Foulds (click image to view full size)

This is the only reference I can find to a "Wilmington Island Hotel" and I surmise that he can only have been referring to the General Oglethorpe. During the war, the entire country "mobilized." Everyone and everything was affected, and the idea of the Navy requisitioning or contracting for rooms isn't at all far-fetched. If that's the case - the General Oglethorpe is a veteran of wartime service!

Later, the hotel became a franchise and then a wholly-owned Sheraton Hotels property. This was the situation when I got here in 1989. The next few years were good ones, at least from my perspective, but it seems the resort had three things going against it; location, location, and location. It sat out on its own on a small island without much else for visitors from out of town to do beyond swimming, golfing, and drinking. Unlike the hotel properties downtown which are within walking distance of - well - just about everything, the Sheraton was out on its own. In 1994 it closed for good.

An Olympic Performance:

The strategically located property was selected as "The Olympic Marina" during the 1996 sailing events.  As the picture below shows, the United States Coast Guard staged from the large dock - still there today. Competitor boats were put in the river by crane and either sailed or were towed to the day marina - a temporary structure moored in Wassaw Sound. Yep, the General Oglethorpe was an Olympic Star!


The USCG provided support for the 1996 Olympics.


Black = Marina'sBlue = Alpha courseGreen = Bravo courseYellow = Charly courseRed = Delta course
Site plan of the 1996 Olympic sailing events. The General Oglethorpe/Sheraton was the Olympic Marina


Image result for 1996 olympic sailing sheraton savannah
The Day Marina in Wassaw Sound.

In 1998 a developer purchased the property for conversion to condos, but the renovation and additions were plagued with problems.  Lawsuits were filed. More recently, a friend and condo-owner active in the homeowners association, Mr. Dennis Barr, took on the task of managing the project to completely correct the discrepancies. If you live near here you probably remember the scaffolding that surrounded the entire structure for several months. Dennis told me that "it's the hardest project I ever took on." The pot of gold at the end of the renovation rainbow is that the property has room for lots more development - and the current condo owners own that property. I hope they reap a fine reward for all of their frustrations.

Looking at the stunningly beautiful property today, with all the work he has coordinated now largely complete, I think Dennis' neighbors are in his debt. And I am glad the old 'Oglethorpe will live to see a hundred years on the Wilmington. After all, it's an Icon.

With all her discrepancies corrected, the Wilmington Island Plantation offers
a one-of-a-kind waterfront living experience. Photo by Daniel Foulds
Click image to view full size

I would like to thank my friend Rusty Hunter for taking me on a tour of the Wilmington Plantation/General Oglethorpe Hotel and allowing me to take many of these pictures. That's his truck in this picture and it's there on purpose. Rusty owns "Roof Hunters" a roofing and general construction and repair company - and he and his team can fix anything anywhere on any structure. From high-rise buildings to residential fencing, Roof Hunters makes it right - as they did at this beautiful property. Tell Rusty we sent you. (912) 342-3338


The General Oglethorpe Hotel and Golf Club, Wilmington Island, Savannah, Ga.
Postcard image courtesy Boston Public Library "with no known restrictions"





Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Manatees In Our Midst

There she goes, and there she blows. Watch out for Manatees on the move.



A manatee moving through the water leaves sign that you can see. An apparent "upwelling" (looks like a small boil) every ten feet or so - from them flapping their broad horizontal tail - indicates their path.

You can see these round circles on the surface as she works her way up for a breath of air. If you do see this sign, slow down and alter course. When they take a breath every minute or two, their nose comes up above the water and they make a sound similar to a dolphin breathing.

It's pretty cool to behold. (story continues below)

We were enjoying this beautiful day and delightful experience
aboard a Freedom Boat from Savannah and
Richmond Hill's Freedom Boat Club. This is boating the
way it was meant to be. Call 912 657-5222 for more info.


Manatees are slow-moving marine mammals, and are protected by law. They move toward warmer water as our temperatures drop. This picture was taken on the ICW near Skidaway Narrows and we appreciate all the Snow Birds slowing down and avoiding her after receiving our advisory call on the radio.


Exploring our Maritime History with Rusty Fleetwood and “Tidecraft”


Image result for early periagua



This article originally appeared in the December 2019 Southern Tides Magazine.

Anyone who knows me has surely heard me gush about Buddy Sullivan over the last year or so. Mr. Sullivan is an incredibly prolific writer with a huge body of work covering the history of coastal Georgia. His primary focus is on the areas around Darien, but in the course of telling those stories he includes fascinating details about places all up and down the coast.

I conducted a tour last year for kids from the Oglethorpe Charter School in Savannah, and overheard their teacher - Ben Wells - mention that Skidaway Narrows wasn’t the path of the Intracoastal Waterway until 1905. This piqued my curiosity, so I asked Ben about his favorite reference for maritime history in the low country. He pointed me to “A Georgia Tidewater Companion” by Buddy Sullivan. It’s a great resource for anyone interested in the past of this place. And in the vein of “one thing leads to another” Mr. Sullivan, with a reference in one of his notes, led me to the most amazing boat book I have ever seen, “Tidecraft” by William [Rusty] Fleetwood. 

If you are at all interested in boats and boating between Georgetown in South Carolina and St. Augustine in Florida, you must get your hands on a copy of Tidecraft. Live Oak Library has them as does Amazon.

As Fleetwood explains; the creeks, rivers, and sounds upon which so many of us play, in boats that are little more than toys, were once the best and most efficient way of getting large numbers of people and countless tons of “goods” from one place to another. The rivers, and the boats upon them, were matters of life and death. They enabled incredible wealth to be accumulated by a fortunate few, aided and abetted a subsistence living for many, and also helped the most unspeakably cruel acts to be perpetrated upon slaves from the west of Africa.

It’s all there in “Tidecraft,” all four hundred years of it. (story continues below)

Coming soon! The Savannah Boathouse Marina
will be your point of embarkation for Daufuskie, Tybee, 
Wassaw, and other points on the
Prohibition Coast. We will be your best way on the water!
Call 912 657-5222 for more info.


Our region served as ground-zero for centuries of desperate, bloody conflict between the world’s great powers – Spain, France, and England. And also of course, the Native Americans who were already here when the Europeans arrived on scene. Greed, avarice, and murder in the name of God were in full swing all across the last four hundred years of low country history, and Fleetwood paints vivid portraits of the drama with words and images gleaned from all over the world. He connects the dots between Barbados and Bermuda and Charleston and Savannah. 

It’s a hell of a story.

A few months back I wrote about Causton Bluff, and Mr. Causton becomes much more real in “Tidecraft.” He designed a flat-bottomed cargo craft derided by Von Reck around 1736, as being “… so heavy and so unsuitable for the Savannah River … the prow is not sharp, so that it stops the water. The oars and rudder avail nothing … “

While the typical river craft that had to be rowed upriver against a steady downstream current was narrow and streamlined [and often made from a dugout tree trunk], I think Causton designed his broad, flat-bottomed boat for a different environment and several times the payload. Causton Bluff is on a tidal river and the tidal creeks and rivers flow where you want to go twice a day.

Imagine trying to get into the head of someone who lived three centuries ago to understand what they were thinking. That’s what happens in “Tidecraft.” As well, much is brought to light that has been largely forgotten – for instance - there was a time when a skiff was an “esquiffe,” a sloop was a “shallop” or “chalupa” depending on where it was made, and a frigate was a “fragata.” There was a Carolina Skiff long before fiberglass was invented. It was built cheaply and for work, it was the truck of the waters, and it was known as a “periagua.” 

The entire maritime world is much more connected than one might imagine, and “Tidecraft” gathers up many of the threads and traces them from today's boats to their distant beginnings. I hope you enjoy the journey.

Thanks, Rusty Fleetwood. It’s a great book.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Rum Runners!




Savannah is world-famous for her history, her architecture, and her “go-cup” law – which encourages visitors to stroll the streets drink in hand. While almost every other city in America tries to keep consumption undercover, here in Savannah folks drink out in the open. In broad daylight.

Savannah mixed with hard-liquor before, during, and after the Trustees enacted their prohibition on rum.  The later loosening of their restriction was seen as a way to help the Salzburgers at New Ebenezer and other timber-rich Georgians sell lumber in the West Indies.  The timber-merchants needed a market for their products; the planters at Barbados needed lumber as they had cleared the island to grow sugar cane. The logical way for Barbadians to pay for this lumber was with molasses or the rum which was made from it.

As the decades unwound, the Baptists living in rural Georgia wanted to go “dry,” but Savannah was mighty thirsty.  Indeed, when the state of Georgia outlawed spirits in 1908 - 12 years before the 19th Amendment banned the production and sale of alcohol nationwide – Savannah and Chatham County considered seceding from the state and creating a separate Sovereign State of Chatham!

“When seceding was unsuccessful, Savannah became the unofficial headquarters for illegal imbibing … ‘Savannah’s location was perfect for moonshining, rum-running, and receiving bootleg. Moonshiners would make the bootleg liquor in the marshes, where it was easy to hide the stills, then they would run it through the narrow waterways out to the ocean and make a run for the international water line, about 3 miles out. They would also make pick-ups in international waters and then rush them back to waiting cars in the marsh.’ Al Capone looked to Savannah garage owner Sherman ‘Moose’ Helmey to make his rum-running cars, adding secret compartments and adjusting the suspension to make the car appear to be running light with a full load.” From Bootleggers and Bourbon at talesofthecocktail.com.

As Rusty Fleetwood pointed out in “Tidecraft,” our creeks, rivers and sounds are now playgrounds, but once they were a matter of life and death. While it might have been all oysters, shrimp and crabs during the day, at night it was boatloads of booze running our creeks.

On her fishing-business website, Captain Judy Helmey writes, “My father was Mr. Sherman Helmey, owner and operator of ‘Helmey's Garage.’  His nickname at the time was ‘Moose.’ During this time Daddy allegedly worked with ‘Big Al Capone.’ … My father's garage sold and repaired automobiles.  In fact, my father was known for his great mechanical ways.  I was told that he could take a regular truck or automobile and install secret compartments in which to transport ‘said Liquor or shipments of sorts.’  His expertise came in handy because after loading the car or truck down with a shipment it never showed. According to sources my father tampered with the springs making them hold a lot more.“ From missjudycharters.com

The demand for spirits spanned the socioeconomic spectrum. Whether rich or poor – everyone wanted a drink. Common folk imbibed at Speakeasies and locker-bars; the upper crust poured in their parlors. (story continues below)

Today's Rum Runners run to Gilligan's Beverage Center on
Wilmington Island. Great spirits, a world of wine, and cold beverages to boot.
11 Wilmington Village Way, 912 897-2337 Ask for Chris!


In her book “Island Memories,” Marianne Heimes recounted an interview with one of Henry Walthour’s daughters in 2002.  Mr. Walthour was a wealthy Savannah cotton-broker who owned much of the south end of Wilmington Island in the early 1900s. He was a major partner and developer of the landmark General Oglethorpe Hotel, with its Olympic pool and championship golf course. He also had a large home on the Wilmington River with a dock and dock house.

Heimes wrote, “Although this was during Prohibition, Henry Walthour managed to smuggle whiskey back after stays at the family’s Quebec home. Combined with the local white lightning the whiskey made a fine Chatham Artillery Punch that packed quite a wallop.”

The wealthy weren’t inconvenienced by Prohibition and according to legend and lore, neither were the poor. Local stores sold big bags of sugar, and it wasn’t going in coffee. Sugar was used in isolated island stills to make moonshine. The fact that Walthour owned a dock would have made it easy for this moonshine to be delivered by boat under the cover of darkness; yet another example of our creeks and rivers driving our economic engine. 

In "Once Upon an Island" Elizabeth Carpenter Piechocinski writes, "All people in Georgia are divided into two classes, those who have a little still and those who still have a little ... The irregular coastline and marshes with their winding, lonely waterways were ideal for smuggling bootleg whiskey into the state. Moonless night brought the sound of speedboats moving surreptitiously through the water off Wilmington, Tybee, Whitemarsh, and Skidaway ... These swiftly moving crafts were used to unload contraband liquor from vessels outside the three mile limit ... "

While listening to a program on GPB radio, I heard a reference to “The Savannah Four” during a discussion of Prohibition; and the men and women who worked for and against it. I love it when a national story has roots that lead here, so I investigated.

Again, from Bootleggers and Bourbon, “Capone wasn’t the only one with the entrepreneurial spirit – ‘The Savannah Four’ are possibly the most infamous bootlegging ring, made up of Fred-Senior, William, Carl, and Fred-Junior Haar. They sold bootleg liquor from their grocery store during statewide Prohibition; National Prohibition made them even more successful. They controlled a fleet of ships that ran loads of booze from Scotland, France, Cuba, and the Bahamas; once shipments were brought ashore they were broken down and run by road, typically in trucks, disguised as potatoes, or in faux oil tankers.”

The Haar men must have been tough characters. There is an interesting anecdote referring to them in "Once Upon an Island." In the story, J.D. Powell, who owned the Desoto Hotel and the Savannah Beach Club, lost big in a poker game and owed money to some Mafia men from up north. Mr. Powell's agent took the winners out in a boat at low tide to look at some 'salt meadow,' and tricked them into accepting 6000 acres of salt marsh as payment in full for the debt. The only thing that kept them from coming back and making trouble was the 'Haar boys on Tybee Island,' who the Mafia were afraid of. 


That must have been an exciting time to be a small-boat captain, when a single run from the ship offshore might buy the boat! (story continues below)

Spectrum Printing: For all your printing, promotional, and apparel needs.
Call 912 897-7228 or message Kim@spectrumsav.com. This is a locally
owned small business, supporting them makes our community stronger.
Co-owner Michele Thompson supports the Save Randy Davis Project
and many other local charitable efforts.
spectrumprintingandmarketing.com


Imagine yourself in an unlit bateau, skiff, or flat; loaded deep with boxes of hooch and gliding along Freedom Creek after pushing off from the still on Skidaway.  You slide under a moonless night with a muffled motor. You quietly navigate the twists, shallows and rakes to reach a meeting place on a dry riverbank or a rich man’s dock.  With no talk other than a quiet challenge and response, the cargo is moved from boat bottom to back seat and trunk, then a stack of cash is passed from hand to hand.  With a whispered “Good luck; see you next time,” you shove off the bank and into the creek. The car rumbles into the night, and Georgia’s thirst is slaked again - the law notwithstanding. As it was in 1733, so it was during state and federal dry spells, and so it is today: Folks are going to have their libations.

Enjoy that go-cup.

What You Don't See Can Hurt You!

This is a typical low-country creek at low tide, viewed from the causeway onto Callawassie Island Those mounds of "pluff mud" are ...