Sweet hope for Sapelo Island

by Jim Melvin

Rufino Urib, Wikimedia Commons.

 
Long ago on a magical island, a three-year-old girl died.

She’d had wide, sparkling eyes and rich, brown skin. But on that day her eyes were clamped shut and her skin was cool. Invisible spirits swarmed around her, twirling in the air like wisps of a dancing breeze. But her family’s eyes filled with tears, blinding them to all things, visible or not.

The tragedy had begun innocently enough when her older brother had given her some unripe pears that had tasted fine to the girl but had somehow brought on a mystifying illness that worsened by the moment. Eventually, she quit breathing.

There were no doctors on the island to treat her. Only roots, leaves, and berries. And the spirits, if they were willing.

Members of the community came together to mourn the loss of such a young treasure. They built a small wooden casket and began to prepare for the burial. But one of the girl’s relatives, still not ready to give up the fight, stuffed garlic into the child’s tiny nostrils. Amazingly, her body responded.

Cornelia Walker Bailey returned to the living. And sixty-seven years later, her blood still flows with vigor. But when she dies for the second and final time, whenever that day comes, it will again be on the island where she was born.

Cornelia Walker Bailey, matriarch of Sapelo Island. Photo by William Thomas.

The island is called Sapelo.

And it is truly a magical place.

But Sapelo’s cultural heritage, which has survived throughout the centuries, is now fading away. One day it might vanish forever.

Long ago, a little girl’s life was saved. Now there’s hope for saving her people.

Nestled off the coast of Georgia among a string of barrier islands, Sapelo has remained anonymous, which is both its blessing and its curse.

With isolation comes preservation. But it can also lead to scarcity.

Though 97 percent of Sapelo is now owned by the state of Georgia, a private community named Hog Hammock still has its place on the island. The inhabitants of this 434-acre tract are a special people. Many are blood-related—through direct lineage—to West Africans savagely torn from their homeland more than three centuries ago and forced into slavery in America. On Sapelo’s plantations, they toiled for their white masters beneath a broiling sun, planting and tending a variety of lucrative crops that included a strain of imported sugarcane called Purple Ribbon. Sugarcane, a tropical grass, doesn’t thrive in cold weather. But Purple Ribbon resisted Sapelo’s relatively cold winters, and so it grew with vigor.

Eventually, the slaves of Sapelo were freed, and afterward many chose to remain on the island. But as the older residents have passed away and the younger ones have fled to the mainland in search of jobs, the descendants of those long-ago slaves have dwindled. Around fifty now live on the island on a permanent basis, but their heritage still clings to existence. They are Geechee people—saltwater Geechees, to be exact—and though they believe that Jesus is their Lord, a few also believe, as their ancestors did, that the spirits of the dead walk among them, some polite and helpful, others dangerously mischievous.

The Geechee of Sapelo, who have retained ethnic traditions that existed in West Africa as far back as the mid-1700s, represent a rare link to America’s tumultuous past. Despite its tropical surroundings, Hog Hammock has been frozen in place like a planet at the farthest reaches of its solar system. Stepping off the ferry that transports residents and visitors to Sapelo is like stepping out of a time machine.

And now, on this island, the site of the first commercial production of sugarcane in the United States, the towering grass is poised to make a grand return. And with it comes hope for jobs, income, and Hog Hammock’s survival.

Even the spirits would be happy about that.

In the Greenhouse Complex on the campus of Clemson University, renowned geneticist Stephen Kresovich and his assistants inspect plants representing fourteen labeled varieties of sugarcane—each about six to nine inches tall—that Clemson agricultural experts have painstakingly tended for several months. Some of the varieties might be redundant, so there are eighty-eight total plants. The original Purple Ribbon might be among them, though it remains uncertain if it, or any of the other varieties, are exact matches for the cane that first grew on Sapelo in the early 1800s. But Kresovich is confident—via scientific evidence, forensic methods, and instinctive know-how—that the canes are close enough to the original type.

Even better: All the plants are strong, healthy, and free of disease and insect infestation.

“We employ best management practices so that the plants are well taken care of,” Kresovich says. “So these are good, sturdy plants that are not chlorotic or stressed by drought. They are ready for the next step of their journey. They are ready to go in the ground.”

In Hog Hammock, Spanish moss casts its spell on an abandoned cottage. Photo by Jim Melvin.

The morning after the final inspection, the cane is trucked from Clemson to an organic farm in Townsend, Georgia, which will play a crucial yet temporary role in the plants’ cycle of life. Georgia Coastal Gourmet Farms is on the mainland, but it is not far from where a ferry makes multiple launches each day to Sapelo Island. The close proximity is no coincidence but rather a critical step in a carefully crafted plan. A crew of experts at the farm will tend the cane from the middle of spring until late summer. After growing from half a foot tall to eight to ten feet or more, it will then be chopped down and barged to Sapelo, its eventual permanent home. Thus, the cane replanted on Sapelo will be of the highest possible quality.

The venerable yet vigorous Kresovich, who had planned to make the six-hour drive to Townsend along with assistants Matt Myers, Kelsey Zielinski, and Alex Cox, is called away at the last minute on other business. But he knows the cane is in good hands. Awaiting the young Clemson trio is Jerome Dixon, co-owner of the Townsend farm, and several of Dixon’s employees.

The operation goes smoothly. Dixon, who traces his ancestry to Sapelo, remains intensely loyal to his island’s people and has made the work simple for everyone. Before the arrival of the cane, he and his crew have already tilled the sandy soil, laid in drip irrigation, and dug the holes for the cane. Because of this preparation, it takes only a single afternoon to put all the plants securely in the ground.

“My grandfather started this farm,” says Dixon, a rugged man sturdy as a tree. “And he always was generous with his community. The people of Sapelo needed a little help to get this going, so we’ve provided the land and the labor. I’m happy and proud to do this. If Sapelo wins, the community as a whole will win.”

It is now late afternoon of April 14, 2015, and the cane is already tentatively testing the rich soil with its roots. But this story doesn’t start here. Instead, it began to get interesting about twelve months before. You’ll see why in just a bit.

The cast of characters is large, and there are many you have yet to meet:

  • David Shields of the University of South Carolina (USC), whose expertise on Southern cuisine is only one of his many calling cards;
  • Buddy Sullivan, a former journalist and current historian, who is an expert on Sapelo’s storied past;
  • Dr. William Thomas, hence known as “Doc Bill,” a pathologist who practices in Gainesville, Georgia, but who over the past fifteen years has become one of Sapelo’s most dynamic movers and shakers and is a board member of the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS);
  • Fred Hay of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), who manages the 97 percent of the island that is owned and operated by the state; and
  • last but not least, Cornelia Walker Bailey, Sapelo’s magical Geechee matriarch, who was born and raised on the island and who probably cares more about Hog Hammock than anyone else on Earth, though there are spirits who might argue otherwise

You have already met Bailey. And you will eventually meet all the rest. But first, let’s visit with Shields and Sullivan.

In the spring of 2014, SICARS invited Shields and several cohorts—including Brian Ward, a research specialist at Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center in Charleston—to gather on Sapelo Island. The topic of discussion: How can Sapelo’s people generate enough income to pay their bills, which include a sudden rise in property taxes virtually unaffordable for many who live there.

The Sapelo Island lighthouse, first activated in 1820, was most recently renovated in 1998. Photo by Jim Melvin.

With developers circling like vultures ready to pounce on whatever private land might be put up for sale by desperate Hog Hammock residents, Doc Bill and Bailey are eager to enlist the help of experts willing to play a role in stemming this rising tide. Both are banking that the island’s rich agricultural heritage will help to provide the financial wherewithal for Hog Hammock to thrive on its own.

Even before the sugarcane project is envisioned, Doc Bill and Bailey have attempted other means of creating jobs and increasing income, including growing a special kind of pea that is not only flavorful but also deep red in color. The Sapelo Red Pea is as historically linked with the island as sugarcane. But though the pea project is by no means a failure, its sales do not generate enough income to make a significant difference in Sapelo’s fortunes.

Clearly, more will have to be done if the island’s rich traditions—culinary delights, fishing, hunting, doll and basket making, to name a few—are to be carried on by future generations.

After the meeting, Shields started the research that eventually led to the sugarcane project.

“I began thinking about what could be done to supply Sapelo with what it needed, something that was true to the island in terms of its own history, something that could generate more than one kind of revenue stream,” says Shields, the author of Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine. “And within the first hour of systematically looking at the history of Sapelo’s agriculture, I realized that there were three possible crop products that had greater potential for money than the peas: sugarcane, dates, and arrow root. When I started looking at each one, I realized that sugar held the most promise.”

To better understand why Shields came to this conclusion, you’ll need to take a trip back to Sapelo’s past. Buddy Sullivan goes into intimate detail in his book Sapelo: A History.

According to Sullivan, the earliest inhabitants of Sapelo were American Indians who had lived on the island for more than 4,000 years. But during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Spain and France laid various claims to Sapelo and its surrounding islands. This, however, was eventually overshadowed by one of the most significant events in Sapelo’s more recent history. In 1802, Thomas Spalding, who was of Scottish descent but was born in Georgia, completed the purchase of several thousand acres on the south end of Sapelo. He would eventually come to own all but a small portion of the island.

Spalding became one of the most influential agriculturists of his day, and during his tenure on Sapelo, much of the then-forested island was cleared for cultivation or pasture. At times, Spalding held more than three hundred slaves on the island, providing him with the labor force necessary to turn a tree-laden paradise into an agricultural powerhouse. Spalding’s main cash crops became cotton and sugarcane

After Spalding’s death in 1851, his descendants took ownership, but they quickly abandoned the island during the Civil War. When the war ended and slavery was finally abolished, several groups of newly freed black people set up communities on Sapelo.

Over the next several decades, various attempts to re-establish agricultural operations failed. By the early 1900s, the once-cultivated fields had regrown into forests. With the return of the trees came new wildlife, prompting a syndicate of Georgia investors to take control of some of the island and use it as a hunting preserve.

In 1911, Howard Coffin, the developer of the Hudson motor car, purchased a large portion of the island and began restoration projects that included the reintroduction of agriculture and the renovation of many crumbling buildings. But after the stock market crash in 1929, financial pressures forced Coffin to sell Sapelo.
Enter tobacco tycoon Richard J. Reynolds, who bought the majority of Sapelo in 1934 and vowed to continue Coffin’s work. Reynolds also began buying land owned by the black communities, and eventually only Hog Hammock remained as a separate entity.

Meanwhile, in 1953 the University of Georgia established a marine institute on the island to study salt marsh ecosystems. When Reynolds died, his widow sold the northern half of Sapelo to the state of Georgia. And in 1976, the state completed the purchase of the southern end.

In the present day, Hog Hammock’s 434 acres are the only privately owned land on Sapelo. The government owns the other 16,000-plus acres.

What interests Shields most is Spalding’s sugarcane.

“I took a look at the sugar that he was producing and saw that the two early varieties were a Tahitian sugarcane, which apparently has been extinct since the 1940s, and the Purple Ribbon cane, which became sort of the standard nineteenth-century crop cane and the ancestor of all of the famous canes that are now used throughout the South,” Shields says.

The Southern culinary expert began an exhaustive search to find the original Purple Ribbon cane. But try as he might, he could not locate it anywhere. He finally came to the conclusion that his only option was for a scientist to genetically identify, validate, and re-establish Purple Ribbon from an existing collection.

Stephen Kresovich and Kelsey Zielinski, a lab technician, inspect the sugarcane in the Clemson Greenhouse Complex. Photo by Jim Melvin.

“I instantly thought of Steve Kresovich,” says Shields, who became friends with the geneticist during a time when they were colleagues at USC. “So I called Steve and described the project. It had a genetic component to it, it had a great story to it, and it dealt with creating a product. So he almost immediately said yes.”

During the summer of 2014, Shields, Kresovich, and Charley Richard, a noted cane expert from Louisiana, joined Clemson’s Bradley Rauh and Hannah Mosby to doggedly sift through all the varieties of heritage sugarcane they could find in public and private collections.

“We didn’t rest until we had collected all sorts of cane,” Shields says. “I wrote to gene banks, herbaria, and museums everywhere. I talked to people in the cane syrup network. And between us, we made the connections necessary to form the selection of cane that was planted in Townsend, Georgia. We even bought one strain of Purple Ribbon from a grower on eBay.”

Following the acquisitions, molecular forensic testing has remained under way to validate the genetic characteristics of the Purple Ribbon variety.

“At this point, we’re still not certain that we have the exact match because we haven’t identified a validated reference from a museum,” Kresovich says. “But we’re always on the lookout for new candidates, and if we find the original, it can be added to Sapelo’s current collection of canes.”

It is now April 23, nine days after the sugarcane was planted at the Townsend organic farm.

Doc Bill has chosen this day to visit friends and take care of some business on Hog Hammock. He steps aboard the 8:30 a.m. mainland departure of the Sapelo Island Ferry, which takes about thirty minutes to reach the island’s small port. Breathtaking views and warm ocean breezes form an intoxicating brew that makes the trip feel like it lasts more like a minute than half an hour. Doc Bill has brought along a ladder and other supplies—and once off the ferry, he faces a mile-long trek to the truck he keeps permanently on Sapelo. But after just a few strides, a friend drives over and offers Doc Bill a ride, which he gratefully accepts.

Doc Bill, a pathologist by profession and a philanthropist by nature, was not born on Sapelo but has strong familial ties to Georgia’s barrier islands. “Every time I come to the island, I feel like I’m stepping back hundreds of years,” he says. “The solitude, the pristine nature. A lot of people here still do things the way they used to do them. So the heritage is here, and it’s rare and beautiful.”

William Thomas, “Doc Bill,” pauses near the ruins of the original Thomas Spalding sugarcane mill on Sapelo Island. Photo by Jim Melvin.

Doc Bill loads up his truck and heads toward Hog Hammock along a bumpy dirt road, eventually reaching one of the island’s only paved thoroughfares. Sapelo’s residents have named this road the Autobahn after the famous series of highways in Germany, some of which have no speed limit. Sapelo’s version of the Autobahn does have a speed limit: twenty-five. And while Germany’s Autobahn swarms with traffic, Sapelo’s rests quietly as a secluded country trail. Towering trees laced with Spanish moss form natural bulwarks on each side of the road that are so thick only spears of sparkling light can pierce them. Rather than pressing on the gas to go ninety miles per hour, the urge is to step on the brake, pull off to the side, and enjoy the view. Irony can most certainly be delicious.

Though he is not as young as he used to be, Doc Bill remains a cacophonous bundle of energy, a do-something-all-the-time kind of person. He first visited Sapelo fifteen years ago while on his honeymoon, and he and his wife Annita instantly fell in love with the island—much to Sapelo’s eventual benefit.

“We became interested in the island and its people,” says Doc Bill, who owns several properties in Hog Hammock, including rental cottages called Birdhouses that provide maintenance jobs for Sapelo residents. “And we eventually started working with them to try to help them preserve their heritage. The first project we worked on was a cookbook called The Foods of Georgia’s Barrier Islands that I coauthored with Cornelia Walker Bailey and Yvonne Grover. This fostered cultural relationships, which helped me gain their trust.”

Doc Bill’s involvement in Sapelo deepened. Along with Bailey and the rest of SICARS, he searched for ways to create more jobs. This led to the meeting with Shields mentioned earlier.


Chef Linton Hopkins. Photo courtesy of Linton Hopkins.

the market awaits Sapelo sugar

As any farmer will tell you, marketing and selling a crop can often be more difficult than growing and harvesting it.

The residents of Sapelo Island might produce the best sugarcane in the world, but if they can’t sell it at a good price, their efforts will be in vain.

But the crop has already drawn significant interest, thanks mostly to Dr. William Thomas (Doc Bill), who has many friends in high culinary circles.

One of them is Linton Hopkins, a well-known Georgia chef who owns several restaurants, including Restaurant Eugene and Holeman and Finch Public House in Atlanta. Hopkins has become fascinated by the Sapelo project and plans to become one of its first customers.
“The beautiful thing about Doc Bill, David Shields, and their band of outliers is the idea of continuing to research ways to find nuance and distinction in the foods that define us as Southerners,” Hopkins says. “Good food and good restaurants should give you a sense of time and place, and I like knowing the people who grow and craft the ingredients I use. When I add sugar to a dish, it’s not just going to be granulated sugar off the shelf. It’s going to be Sapelo sugar.”

Another customer-in-waiting is Scott Blackwell, co-owner of High Wire Distilling Company in Charleston. Blackwell cautions that sugar is a big business, and to “compete with the big guys on price and distribution, it takes a lot of dollars—or a unique offering like fresh Sapelo cane.”

Blackwell is confident that the historical heritage of Sapelo’s cane, along with its potential for an exotic and unique flavor, will enhance its salability across the region.

“The flavor of fresh cane juice is so much more tropical and will give the taster much more sense about the place and terroir,” says Blackwell, who will use the sugarcane juice to make a Low Country take on rhum agricole. “Fresh juice has a green banana and grassy flavor that when fermented will have a crazy aroma that will make a really interesting final spirit. All the additional microorganisms and wild yeasts will add so much more to the complexity and depth.”

Doc Bill hopes that Sapelo sugarcane will one day become a household brand. And he believes that its best chance for success lies in its versatility as an agricultural product.

“Once you get sugar, you can build a cuisine around it,” he says. “For many dishes, you need a sweetener—and this one will be unique, both in flavor and tradition.”

“With sugarcane, you’ve got a product that gives you the potential to enhance anything you do,” says Doc Bill, whose many talents include being an excellent cook. “You have Sapelo sour oranges brought here by the Spanish in the 1600s. Add sugar to that, and you can make marmalade. You can make orange tea. The sugar allows you to use other crops and make them more valuable. My rationale is, if we don’t do it now, it’s not going to get done. What’s the worst thing that can happen? We’ll fail. But we might not fail. And if I have anything to say about it, we won’t fail.”

Doc Bill continues his tour of Hog Hammock, a sprawling yet modest community with a pair of Baptist churches, a country store, a small museum, a library, and a private campground among its amenities.

Surrounding Hog Hammock is a land of splendorous delights. There are two beautiful beaches—Nannygoat on the south end of the island and Cabretta on the north. Nannygoat, which is bordered by maritime forest, is the most easily accessible, yet it remains undeveloped. Cabretta, which overlooks Blackbeard Island, is one of the most pristine and extraordinary beaches in the world. There are thousands of acres of pristine forest filled with alligators, feral cattle, and a staggering variety of song and seabirds. There is the University of Georgia Marine Institute, on the southern end, which is dedicated to the preservation of wetlands and wildlife on Sapelo. There is the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, on the west end, which helps manage Georgia’s coastal resources. There is the expansive Reynolds Mansion, once home to the tobacco magnate, which can accommodate up to twenty-nine guests in its thirteen bedrooms and which often hosts weddings, conferences, and corporate retreats. And near the mansion, there is a lighthouse built in 1820 and restored in 1998. Walking up its narrow spiral staircase is not for the faint of heart.

But despite all the surrounding exquisiteness, Hog Hammock remains Sapelo’s most alluring asset, for it has an inner beauty as invaluable as it is subtle. Doc Bill knows this well.

As part of his tour, he drives to the DNR headquarters of Fred Hay, the longtime manager of the island. The pair have some business to discuss; and Hog Hammock, of course, is at the forefront. While Doc Bill wants to see Hog Hammock thrive, Hay’s job is to make sure it doesn’t thrive at the expense of the rest of the island.

“What makes Sapelo unique is the presence of the Hog Hammock community and its legacy on the island,” Hay says. “The real question is: What does the future hold? The most vulnerable component of Sapelo is Hog Hammock. Its rich cultural legacy is in danger, not just from within, but from without. The island has the potential to be loved to death.”

After finishing his talk with Hay, Doc Bill hops back in his truck and pays a visit to an old friend.

Cornelia Walker Bailey, born on Sapelo seventy years ago, is in her red pea garden hoeing weeds. The day has become uncomfortably warm and humid, but Sapelo’s renowned matriarch merrily continues her work as if impervious to heat.

Bailey has spent most of her life on Sapelo, but she has lived other places and traveled to other countries, including Sierra Leone, the West African nation that is believed to be the homeland of most of the people who were first herded to Sapelo and forced into slavery hundreds of years ago. There, she experienced her heritage in person, and it enriched her worldview in ways she still treasures.

From tourist groups to wisdom seekers, Bailey is Sapelo’s center of attention, a saltwater Geechee brimming with tales from the past. Doc Bill is a driving force, but Bailey is the force. Without her guidance, Hog Hammock has little chance of long-term survival.

“I can trace our ancestry here back to before the Civil War,” says Bailey, who is the author of the lovely memoir God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man, cowritten by Christena Bledsoe. “Legally, it’s from the 1870 census record, but I can trace my ancestry back further than that by word of mouth. So my people have been here a long time. And I grew up here, and my parents grew up here, and my parents’ parents grew up here. Everybody went to school here. They died here. They were buried here. Our souls are firmly planted in the dirt.”

Bailey is enthusiastic about the sugarcane project and is helping to coordinate it. But she is not yet convinced that enough of her fellow islanders are ready to embrace the sweat and tears it will take to tend and harvest the cane in the years to come.

“My only concern about the whole project is labor,” says Bailey, who along with Doc Bill is a board member of SICARS. “But I’m trying to bring people back to the island. If this project bears fruit, then we can offer the young people something. Here’s where you started. Here are your roots. Now, you have the opportunity to come back, if you want to come back. Somebody will have to clear the fields, somebody will have to plant the cane, somebody will have to harvest it, somebody will have to pack it, somebody will have to account for the whole shebang. I’m too old to cut cane. That’s something for the younger generation.”

Bailey died when she was three. But she fought her way back to life. And she’s been fighting—for her people—ever since.

“Hence I am, and hence I will be,” Bailey says. “And my kids and grandkids and great-grandkids and hopefully even the unborn will have a place here on the island. That’s my dream. I hope the sugarcane will help make my dream come true.”

In early September 2015, up to four tons of top-quality sugarcane, grown to maturity from the original eighty-eight plants, will be cut down at the farm in Townsend and laboriously hauled by barge to Sapelo. There, it will be chopped into billets and replanted in a field that once grew a similar kind of cane more than two hundred years ago.

In its ancestral home, the cane will wait out the winter and then regrow for its first true harvest in 2016.

Bailey, Doc Bill, Kresovich, Dixon, and all the rest will continue to lend help and advice. But in the end, it will be the younger people of Sapelo—the ones still capable of performing the backbreaking labor of their ancestors—who will determine whether the cane becomes a savior or a failure.

This is a story about a proud people who have endured difficult times, both as slaves and afterward as free men, women, and children. But it most certainly hasn’t been all bad. They have also experienced the magic of living on one of the most diverse and extraordinary islands on Earth.

Over the centuries, the saltwater Geechees of Sapelo have stood tall and held their heads high. Soon, if the spirits are willing, the cane will rise to join them.

Sapelo risks being loved to death. Photo by Jim Melvin.

 
Stephen Kresovich is the Coker Chair of Genetics and director of Clemson’s Institute of Translational Genomics. Jim Melvin is a writer for Clemson’s Public Service and Agriculture.

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