St. Simons Island — it’s where the sweeping moss meets sandy shores and Coastal history couples with Southern charm.
The landscape of the area offers a sense of beauty all its own, one that has been celebrated by the generations of people who have called the Golden Isles home. Of course, as more people have discovered this little slice of paradise, more have sought to settle here. As population and construction growth have ensued, one organization has sought to protect the nature and character of the island — the St. Simons Island Land Trust.
The organization, established in 2000, has worked to raise funds to purchase and preserve more than 1,000 acres of space on St. Simons Island. It’s not been an easy task, after all, it takes a pretty penny to buy up prime island real estate. But it’s an effort that has succeeded due to the support of the community.
Not only do individuals and businesses offer donations throughout the year, they also flock to its annual fundraiser — the St. Simons Island Land Trust’s Oyster Roast. The signature event, held for nearly two decades now, has become one of the most highly anticipated social events of the year.
But the dinner, which serves more than 1,000 guests, had fairly humble beginnings.
In 2001, organizers planned for 20 participants but received nearly 100, an early indication of things to come. Emily Ellison, development and community relations director for the nonprofit, says that it has continued to grow ever since.
“The oyster roast has become one of the most beloved and well-attended yearly events in the Golden Isles,” she said.
“People look forward to this event every year because it’s such a festive time and a true reflection of barrier island living: fresh seafood, great food and drink, music from a local band, joining friends, neighbors, and family to celebrate St. Simons.”
The location — Gascoigne Bluff — is a primary reason that the event creates such a draw.
“One of the things that makes it so magical is the setting — overlooking the river at Gascoigne Bluff, tables set up under those 100-year-old majestic lives oaks, lights twinkling in the branches, cool breezes blowing in off the marsh. It’s like nothing else,” Ellison said.
“And everyone who is there knows that they’re helping to protect and preserve St. Simons. It’s a real community event.”
That community will once again gather for the cause. The oyster roast will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Jan. 19 at Gascoinge on St. Simons Island. Tickets are $85. That includes food and libations from more than 50 local restaurants and vendors. Entertainment will be provided by Jamie Renee and the Walkers.
The event is also a testament to the personal dedication of Land Trust members and volunteers who give selflessly of themselves and their time, Ellison notes.
“Each year, more than 100 volunteers give their time, labor, and skills to ensuring that the oyster roast goes off without a hitch,” she said.
“Those dedicated volunteers do everything from cooking the food and pouring wine to providing lighting and decorations, overseeing parking, setting up tables, and cleaning up afterwards.”
For David Pope, executive director of the Land Trust, the roast also serves as a thank you to those who have backed the cause throughout the year.
“It’s a small way for us to give back to the countless people who support the Land Trust and to celebrate the community-wide effort to protect this special place,” Pope said.
Once the oysters have been shucked and the music notes fade, the proceeds from the event will go right back into the organization’s mission of conservation, work that will continue to preserve the island for generations to come.
Ellison notes that funds are critical to make that a reality.
“Management costs go up every year — from making sure that those properties with high visibility and public access are well maintained, to cleaning up after storm damage, to repairing and replacing structures on properties, to ensuring that we’re adhering to strict criteria in conservation easements and land management plans,” Ellison said.
“The Land Trust is committed to covering such costs in perpetuity and managing all properties to the highest standards. Proceeds from the event help in these efforts. It also provides a chance for guests to learn more about the mission and vision of the organization and to celebrate in their partnership in protecting the island.”
It’s not just the money going supporting the mission. The discarded shells from this year’s event will be taken to the Honey Creek Episcopal Camp and Retreat Center at Dover Bluff, where they will be used to rebuild the bluff that was damaged by Hurricane Irma. Marty Moody, the coordinator of the 19th annual event, says it’s an ideal way to embody the organization’s values.
“This is a great way to repurpose the hundreds of pounds of empty oyster shells that are mounded up each year after the oyster roast,” Moody said.