During the Civil War, most of the slaves on Sapelo Island were ferried to the mainland and were then marched en masse to Milledgeville to avoid the Union army. After the war, many of the freed slaves struggled to return to Sapelo, where they created five settlements around the island with acreage they had purchased through the Freedman’s Bureau, established by Congress during Reconstruction after the Civil War to provide aid to newly freed slaves.
In 1912, the Spalding heirs sold the remaining land in Sapelo to Henry Coffin of Detroit. In 1933, tobacco heir Richard J. Reynolds of Winston-Salem, N.C., purchased from Collins all but the former slave communities on Sapelo. Upon his death in 1964, his estate bequeathed the island to the State of Georgia. During the years that Reynolds owned Sapelo, he coerced, bought and relocated the various Geechee settlements into the inland—and landlocked—hamlet of Hog Hammock.
Inside the Hog Hammock of today, one hears the sounds of chickadees, frogs and cicadas and sees the occasional pure white egret or, chillingly, a circling buzzard. Rarely, one will hear a passing car, or see a resident on foot or peddling a bicycle to a neighbor’s house. The quiet is disquieting.
One might also hear the island’s elderly speaking in Geechee dialect, a blending of African, English, French and Portuguese. The lyrical vernacular is peppered with idioms and metaphors and spoken at a pace that precludes any understanding by the untrained ear. It is not rapid-fire; it is gentle. Scattered traces of the language can be heard in the English spoken by those in the community. Were it not for the context of the sentence, a listener might not understand that “boot” is really boat, “whet” is really wait and “ples” is really place.
Geechee traditions and language are similar to Gullah and the terms are often used interchangeably, yet what makes each distinct depends upon whose definition—or combination of beliefs—one accepts. Others suggest it depends upon what tribe one’s ancestors were from in Africa. Still others say “it depends upon who owned you,” a reference to slave ancestry.
The surviving Geechee culture, and the history of it—including the slavery heritage—is all Hog Hammock offers in the way of commerce. Crafts such as woven sweetgrass baskets and handmade fishing nets provide the elderly with little income. There are few, if any, jobs within the small community, save a sprinkling of businesses including a small convenience store and three small bed-and-breakfast establishments.
Younger residents have deserted the island to find opportunity elsewhere, as evidenced by the fact that more than five years have passed since a child was born to the community. Most young residents take the daily ferry to the “other side” (the mainland) to attend school and/or work in nearby Darien.
The shrinking population is intent on protecting its land and heritage, and has formed a non-profit corporation known as Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS), whose mission is to preserve and revitalize Hog Hammock. Among other things, the society has created a community land trust and is considering development of a cultural village to attract tourists and acquaint visitors with Gullah/Geechee history, lore and crafts. An annual fund raiser, known as Culture Day, is held the third Saturday of October.
Sapelo Island - Hog Hammock:
Getting there: Transportation to the island is limited to the Sapelo Queen and Anne Marie ferry services, which are operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The ferry departs from the tiny town of Meridien, which is off Georgia Highway 99 and eight miles northeast of Darien. Contact the Sapelo Island Visitor’s Center at (912) 537-3224 for a current ferry schedule and fares. The ferry ride takes 30 minutes. It is important to note that there is no transportation from the ferry to your destination unless otherwise pre-arranged. http://www.sapeloislandgeorgia.org/ferry.html
Where to stay: Sapelo is rustic. There are no golf courses, water parks or outlet malls. Transportation is available only through various island tours, on foot or via bicycle. There are three types of accommodations on the island and each is distinctive: inns at Hog Hammock, group bookings at the Reynolds mansion or group camping facilities. http://www.gastateparks.org/SapeloReynolds
Individual travelers can stay at any of three accommodations in Hog Hammock. Ask your host about ferry reservations and transportation from the dock when reserving accommodations.
The Wallow Inn: www.gacoast.com/geecheetours; (912) 485-2206. The Wallow Inn is a pleasant and comfortable six-bedroom inn owned and operated by Cornelia and Julius Bailey, who live next door. Guests may cook in a communal kitchen but must bring their own food.
The Weekender: (912) 485-2277. The Weekender has four bedrooms, a communal kitchen and a three-bedroom family unit. Guests must bring their own food or eat at The Tabby Cottage, which, like The Weekender, is owned and operated by Nancy and Caesar Banks. The Tabby Cottage has sporadic hours; inquire about meal times.
LuLu and George Walker’s Vacation Rentals: (912) 485-2270. Lulu’s Kitchen open by appointment. Reservations for meals must be made after arriving on the island.
Cambretta Pioneer Campground: (912) 485-2299. Groups of 15-25 may camp near the beach on Sapelo’s Cabretta Island. Make reservations through the Reynolds mansion.
What to see: Island tours can be arranged through the state-operated visitor’s center at (912) 437-3244 or through The Spirit of Sapelo Tours, operated by Maurice Bailey (the entertaining and well-versed son of Cornelia Bailey): (912) 485-2170. Guests of Reynolds mansion can book their tours through the mansion. All tours include a visit to the island’s lighthouse (circa 1820), Reynolds mansion, Hog Hammock, the University of Georgia Marine Institute and more.http://www.toursapelo.com/sapelo_tour.htm
What to take: Supplies are limited. One small convenience store is located in Hog Hammock, where the delightful proprietor keeps his own hours. http://www.nps.gov/history/goldcres/sites/sapelo.htm