A preservationist group is abandoning modern day construction methods and going back to basics to save two slave cabins along Georgia’s coast. They’re doing it by using what is known as tabby - with a recipe that’s over 200 years old.
The efforts could salvage the last two remaining slavequarters on the land.
Craftsman John Ecker with Tidewater Preservation is outside the Cassina Garden Slave cabins making stucco, the material tabby consists of. It’s a mix of shells, sand, water and quicklime - a powdery chemical substance. He pours the supplies in a wheel barrel.
He’s a dark haired strongly built- young man with paint and stucco splattered on his clothes. He tightly grips his mixing tool and forces it through the thick concoction. It doesn't look like an easy process.
As he add water to the quicklime it pops and hisses. Steam floats off the top of the barrel.
The Cassina Garden Slave Cabins are located on what used to be the Hamilton Plantation on St. Simon’s Island. Janis Rodriguez is a member of the garden club.
She said this project is not only about preserving the buildings, "there’s never been much history or documentation about Hamilton Plantation so the cabins for the first time are telling their story," it’s about preserving the memory of the people that lived in them.
"We can do some archeology and find some artifacts that will tell about the people that lived here," she said.
The fireplace in the middle of the small room divides the space in two. It would have been used to house two families. The cabin’s outer walls show exposed oyster shells poking through the otherwise smooth surface.
Tidewater’s Greg Jacob said most people expect to see shells when looking at tabby structures but, when it is in good condition, the surface is smooth.
"As pretty as it looks its actually in a state of deterioration."
He said the right cabin was renovated several years ago with a concrete material called Portland cement.
"The idea is that yes the original stucco failed but it failed after many, many, many, many decades. It’s really hard to argue with time-tested materials," said Jacobs.
It turned out to be incompatible with the soft tabby, causing it to crack. Water seeped inside the walls and eroded the original tabby beneath it.
Without conservation efforts within two decades he said all the tabby in the cabin could disappear. To find out just how damaged the cabins are, they perform a process called sounding.
"Whereby you tap gently with a hard object," Jacobs explained. "If it's well-adhered it has very solid sound, and if its coming loose from the tabby beneath it, it makes kind of a hollow sound."
John Ecker said saving these cabins is particularly important because most of the others were demolished after the Civil War.
"When slavery ended slave cabins were kind of a blight on the property. Most of them were torn down because they didn’t want to have to look at them or remember that they existed."
The residents of the cabin were most likely "house slaves" so the cabins are in better condition than a typical slave dwelling.
"Tabby slave cabins are even rarer because they would have been the nicest of the slave cabins, to actually have masonry walls is extremely rare," Ecker informed.
The renovation process will cost 400 thousand dollars to complete and will take several years. Steve Hartley is head of the Historical Preservation Dept. at Savannah Technical College.
"It’s expensive to make tabby, it’s expensive to build tabby. We are not going to be building tabby structures in the future."
Early European settlers experimented with tabby and it was later perfected by slaves. But now, there are few tabby experts and the process is very labor intensive.
Still, Hartley says the work is important.
"We look on the coast we don’t have any natural quarries. So the closest thing we had to masonry buildings is either brick buildings or tabby. So it’s important to acknowledge that portion of Georgia built history that has a potential of being lost."
March 27-29, the history of the cabins will be remembered through the slave dwelling project. Founder Joe McGill travels the U.S. sleeping in slave quarters to raise awareness about preservation. He'll be at the St. Simons this weekend.