I just got back from a short trip down to the Georgia coast. I went for two reasons: first, to take the half-day tour of Sapelo Island; and second, to take photos at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. I got to do both.
When I travel, regardless of where I travel, I am always struck by the fascinating stories and the rich local history you find when you take time to look.
I don’t mean the big, important stuff taught in school. I’m referring to the details of local history that non-locals rarely have occasion to learn.
When you think about it, the history we all know is only a tiny sliver of the total experience of the population. Around us is a treasure trove, an immense pool of history writ small.
I mention this because I came home from my trip with a head full of terrific stories about coastal Georgia.
There is, for example, Ophelia Dent, a spinster who died in 1973 and left her family home to the State of Georgia for “scientific, historical, educational and aesthetic purposes.”
What was her family home? The Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, a sprawling former rice plantation and dairy farm dating back to 1806. The property provides invaluable archeological data about the lives of planters and slaves. The plantation house itself, built in the 1850s, contains priceless antiques collected by Ophelia’s family over five generations.
Then there is Harris Neck, a remote peninsula just inland from the coastal barrier islands.
Located 50 miles south of Savannah, Harris Neck is named for William Harris, who arrived in 1750 with a group of Scottish settlers.
The wildlife refuge on Harris Neck consists of 2,800 acres of saltwater marsh, pine/oak forest, open fields, and man-made freshwater ponds.
The place is a sanctuary for a variety of migratory birds and assorted resident animals, all of them safe from the threat of development and commercialization. On any given day, you may see deer, ducks, wading birds, shorebirds, songbirds, eagles, hawks, turkey, quail, alligators, or armadillos.
A bit of Harris Neck history…
For many decades, like much of coastal Georgia, Harris Neck was populated by a few rice and cotton plantations and scattered families of farmers and fisherman.
After the Civil War, Margret Harris, a descendant of William Harris, willed her property to Robert Dellegall, her former slave. She said she trusted him far more than the whites she had known and done business with.
Dellegall shared the land with other freed slaves. From the end of the Civil War until the beginning of World War II, Harris Neck was home to 50-100 families, some black and some white.
When World War II arrived, life for the residents changed abruptly. In 1942, the Army confiscated Harris Neck to construct a military airfield. It was one of many takings by eminent domain that occurred as part of the war effort.
At the time, black families owned 1,100 acres on Harris Neck, and white families owned 1,500. The 84 landowners were paid a flat sum per acre and given two weeks to vacate.
Harris Neck Army Airfield was quickly constructed, and it became a training base for fighter pilots. My dad, a Savannah native, flew sub-spotting missions there.
After the war, the airfield was no longer needed. It was decommissioned in 1946 and turned over to McIntosh County for use as an airport.
Which was truly a mistake. The county was too small to need an airport, and anyway, the property was in the middle of nowhere, 30 miles from the county seat of Darien.
For several years, while the base sat idle, corrupt local officials and free-lance thieves dismantled the buildings and stripped the property of everything of value.
An old plantation house nearby, which had been used as an Officer’s Club during the war, was leased to the county sheriff. He operated it as a private club. Drinking and gambling occurred there, allegedly.
In 1949, citing gross mismanagement, the Federal Aviation Administration reclaimed the airport property. Various theft and racketeering charges were filed, but no prosecutions came of them.
Eventually, ownership of “Harris Neck Airport” was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The wildlife refuge was established in 1962.
Today, the refuge is a successful, important operation. It provides habitat for numerous migratory birds and protection for many endangered plant and animal species. In the spring, the giant rookeries of herons and wood storks are an amazing spectacle.
The story of Harris Neck should end there on that upbeat note, but it doesn’t.
In 2006, an organization called the Harris Neck Land Trust was established. The Trust represents “all the surviving African American families that lived on Harris Neck until 1942 as well as the few white families that owned property but did not live on the land.”
The mission of the Trust is to return Harris Neck to its former owners because the land was “wrongfully and illegally taken by the federal government.”
This group claims that in 1942, local politicians tricked the Army into choosing the Harris Neck site, knowing the county would get the property when the war ended.
Unfortunately for the Trust, the legality of the land confiscation was upheld years ago. Even the price paid to the former landowners was deemed to be reasonable.
The right of the state to seize private property may be distasteful, especially when it affects you, but it’s the law.
One other element of the Trust’s activities is worth mentioning. Legally, the Trust is free to make a profit. And, according to accounts, the Trust has specific plans for Harris Neck, should it win control.
Among the proposals: four-acre home sites, a hotel, and a convention center.
A cynical person might be tempted to see the Trust as a front for private developers.
When the Army took over Harris Neck in 1942, one fairly large estate was on the property. It was the Lorillard-Livingston House, built in the late 1800s by Pierre Lorillard, the tobacco magnate. This was the building used as an Officer’s Club and later as the sheriff’s speakeasy. Alleged speakeasy.
Today, all traces of the mansion are gone, except for three small remnants.
Two are shallow, in-ground concrete pools, probably decorative in nature. The third is a large concrete fountain, commanding and elegant, standing alone beneath the trees.
As I looked up at the old fountain, it was easy to imagine Pierre Lorillard strolling along on a spring evening, a lady on his arm, a mint julep in his hand.