Google+ Georgia On My Mind: History of a Long Dirt Road

Friday, April 9, 2010

History of a Long Dirt Road

The following post details my love of meandering down Georgia’s dirt roads and a little bit of history regarding on in particular. This post first appeared here at Georgia on My Mind in December, 2007.
I love dirt roads, and Georgia is simply full of them.

Unfortunately you have to travel further and further from the environs of Atlanta to find them anymore.

When I was 18 and a newbie on the college campus of my parent’s choosing I was a member of the Dirt Road Club. The requirements were simple… had to have enough money to invest in either gas or an appropriate beverage or two for you and your fellow club members, you had to be willing to devote an occasional Saturday or Sunday to what could be an all day, all night road trip, and if you were the official driver for that trip you had turn off the main highway every time you came upon a dirt road and follow it until you couldn’t follow it any longer.

Needless to say I’m quite the expert when it comes to private drives and logging roads all over North Georgia.

Just like the explorers of the 1500s and just like those folks who brave the elements to climb Mt. Everest members of The Dirt Road Club ventured forth because they were compelled to.

Our club motto was “Because it’s there!”

Yes, there were some dirt roads that were a bit scary, some that had a Deliverance feel to them, and some were just plain dangerous. Others were pure gems. Once when riding along through a forest the trees suddenly cleared and we found ourselves on a ridge where you could see mountain rise after mountain rise in the distance. Another time we found a mountain stream complete with waterfall and on the hills rising up all around us were hundreds of mountain laurel in full bloom. Those were the moments that kept us going down all those dirt roads.

The road seen in my image at the beginning of this post has the distinction of being the longest and oldest dirt road still in use in America. It is located on Ossabaw Island, a barrier island along Georgia’s coast. The island contains over 26,000 acres and archeologists have determined humans have lived on or used the island for the past 4,000 years.

Thought it had two other prior owners Ossabaw Island was owned by John Morel during Georgia’s colonial years and through the Revolution. He purchased half of the island in 1760 and the other half in 1763. Morel was a Savannah merchant and Council of Safety member who with the help of slave labor used the island for timber cutting and agriculture. Indigo, cotton, and rice were main cash crops cultivated on Ossabaw.

During Morel’s ownership the avenue of oaks that remain today were planted along the long dirt road that traverses the island. To make it easier to manage agricultural operations on the island Morel divided the land into tracts. Following John Morel’s death in 1777 the island was divided among Morel’s three sons with each receiving a particular tract. Bryan Morel received North End Place, Peter Henry Morel received Middle Place, and John Morel II took control of South End. I would venture that they shared the fourth tract known as Buckhead. After the War of 1812 the highly sought Sea Island cotton was raised on Ossabaw because it has stronger filaments than cotton grown on the mainland and it was very desirable by textile manufacturers.

During the Civil War when the Union blockaded the South the Morel family abandoned Ossabaw Island. At one point during Reconstruction a Freedmen’s Bureau location was there. In fact, the Ossabaw Foundation site states that many of the former slaves from Ossabaw eventually relocated to Pin Point, Georgia which is the home of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

The remains of three slave cabins can be found at the northern end of the island. One is thought to date from 1820 and the other two date from the 1840s. Archeologists have found alligator teeth and racoon bones in the area surrounding the cabins along with the makings of a mojo bag along with blue beads. It was thought that the color blue would ward off any spirits. It was believed that spirits didn’t like the color blue because it reminded them of heaven.

During the Gilded Age in the late 1800s the island was controlled by the Wannamaker family of Philadelphia. They used Ossabaw as a hunting club.

During the 1920s Dr. H.N. Torrey built a vacation home on the island that in reality is a mansion. The Torrey family had moved to Savannah from Grosse Pointe, Michigan in 1923 and when their Savannah home burned they moved to Ossabaw where they entertained many people. It has been reported that Henry Ford, who had his own Georgia plantation, was the first to sign the Torrey’s guestbook.

Eventually, the island passed to the Torrey’s daughter, Eleanor Torrey West. Along with her husband, Clifford West, the Ossabaw Foundation was created which launched many unique programs on the island, such as the Ossabaw Island Project. This interdisciplinary program supported recommended individuals “of creative thought and purpose in the arts, sciences, industry, education, and religion” to come to the islands to share their ideas with other creatives and pursue their work without interruption.
The island was turned over to the State of Georgia in 1978, and was designated as Georgia’s first Heritage Preserve with the written understanding that Ossabaw would “only be used for natural scientific, and cultural study, research and education, and environmentally sound preservation, conservation and management of the Island’s ecosystem.” The acquistition was made possible by the generosity of Mrs. West and her family, a personal gift to the State of Georgia from Robert F. Woodruff (Coca-Cola), the assistance of The Nature Conservancy, and the State’s commitment to preservation of the island.
Gee, just think…..all of that a dirt road to boot. Thanks, Mrs. West!

For further reading:

An AJC article from 2006 provides some interesting detail about life on the island for slaves and those that come later Italic

This Smithsonian article also details slave life on the island.

A Georgia blog, Nature’s Harmony Farm, provides some information regarding Ossabaw pigs.

More history bits can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.

…..and to find out why I’m re-running various posts see my link HERE
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