by Tom Poland
Photography by Robert Clark
Landlocked. That was my fate growing up in Lincolnton, Georgia. Thus it should come as no surprise, striped gray felines aside, that the Spanish settler building concoction known as tabby never entered my childhood glossary. Why should it? Oysters were as removed from my life as were Spaniards, sand dollars, and sea turtles. Years had to stack up before I would move to South Carolina and explore its Lowcountry. There I became conscious of tabby in a new way, and there I first heard that two-syllable term shot rapid-fire from transplanted lips.
A Yankee professor had to tell me about tabby. That rankles still. But forget that. How many real buildings does man cobble together from the remnants of meals? We’re not talking gingerbread houses. We’re talking enduring places that find their way onto historic lists. The kind photographers and artists love. The kind whose rough-textured ruins beg hands to touch them. Picturesque places at home among sawgrass, sand and Spanish moss.
When I see walls of ivory shells raised vertical from estuarine waters, I think of oysters as catering sub-contractors. Long, long ago men ate these bivalve mollusks, gaining sustenance, then applied that nourishment to making tabby and what would become ruins marinated in majesty. Steeped in a beautiful brine they were and Man turned his structures grandeur. That delectable architecture blesses us still. In yet another way we are better off because of oysters.
So, what was the recipe for making that delectable building concoction? Men burned crushed oyster shells. That yielded lime, which they mixed with whole shells, sand, and water in equal measures and poured into forms. Lowcountry air then dried it. Dwellings that would stand the test of time resulted, and today’s roll call of tabby structures is most distinguished. Men cast tabby blocks at Sapelo Island then set them into the sun to dry. Fort Pulaski’s bricked underground bunkers, mortared strong with tabby, nonetheless fell to the Union. That beacon, the St. Simons Island lighthouse, rests on a tabby foundation. A tree, long dead, shores up a Wormsloe Plantation tabby wall. Imagine a fine sugary powder coating McIntosh Sugarworks oyster shells, and the Spring Island tabby remainders from Cotton King George Edwards’s plantation are monumental in more ways than one. Jasper County has the White Hall Plantation House ruins and its tabby wings, and Beaufort has the Thomas Fuller House—the Tabby Manse—one of the few remaining early buildings on the South Carolina coast whose exterior walls are tabby entire.
Cumberland Island flaunts phantasmagorical ruins, the sprawling wreckage of Dungeness, a word as beautiful as tabby itself. Reading about tabby ruins is one thing. Seeing them is another. Come, walk with me beneath live oaks, over and through the dappled shadows to St. Helena’s Chapel of Ease. Rub your hands over its rough surface. Place your ear against that open shell stuck in the wall like no other. Child that you are, can you hear the sea? When sunlight strikes its walls just so, chapel shells shine like stars in the firmament. Now place your face against that pale, stone-like wall. Feel how sunlight soaks into shells … breathe in hints of alkaline.
Circa 1740, oyster banks sacrificed members of their dense aggregations to build a more convenient chapel for planters in and around St. Helena Island. In 1812 a parish church it became, and then the Civil War arrived only to be chased by abandonment. Methodist freedmen used the chapel until a forest fire destroyed it in 1886. A conflagration banished the congregation and the Chapel of Ease stands as you see it.
Friends, there are ruins and then there’s ruination. In many places oystering is a threatened way of life. Sewage spills. Overdevelopment. Water disputes. Too much rain. None of it does oysters any favors. Will the day come when tabby ruins stand as memorials to all we lost? I hope not. The Spanish brought tabby to St. Augustine circa 1580 and it came our way. Now, 438 years later, we have reason to worry. Nature’s catering sub-contractors gave us a delectable architecture. What can we give them in return?