Nestled away alongside Arthur J. Moore Drive are two magnificently restored pieces of both St. Simons Island and American history.
The two Hamilton Plantation slave cabins standing on Gascoigne Bluff were part of a longer row of cabins that housed around 400 slaves working on the Hamilton Plantation centuries earlier.
Originally constructed in 1833 by the namesake of the plantation, owner James Hamilton Couper, the cabins are alternatively known as the “tabby cabins” after the building material they were constructed from, tabby. Tabby is a mixture of lime, salt, water and crushed oyster shells and is thought to have originated in Africa.
Over the decades, two of the cabins remained standing as the plantation land eventually became the site of a robust timber industry, wherein many freed slaves found work. In fact, Gascoigne Bluff is where wood from St. Simons was shipped all across the country to be used in projects such as the construction of the USS Constitution and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Today, the two cabins are managed by the Cassina Garden Club, which was granted stewardship of the property by the Glynn County Commission in 1932 and eventually ownership in 1950.
The cabin on the right from the entrance holds a small exhibit of antebellum artifacts found on the plantation such as silverware and tools, where visitors watch a short informational video about the history of the cabins, as well as the Cassina Garden Club.
In the cabin on the left is a breathtaking restoration of the slaves’ living quarters complete with a cornered off section of original tabby flooring. On the cabin’s walls, one can still make out the remnants of haint blue paint that slaves used as a repellent of evil spirits.
Each cabin housed two slave families, with the children sleeping in the upper lofts while the parents formed a pallet on the ground floor. As made visible by the restoration, a fireplace was centered on the wall while the rest of the space was occupied by cooking pots, tools and miscellaneous furniture.
For a donation of $3, anyone can revisit the 19th century with a tour of the cabins led by a docent. Christine Walden, formidable history buff and co-chair of the Cassina Garden Club docent committee, said that the tabby cabins offer the most complete picture of the reality of plantation slave life on the island.
“There are about 14 other plantation sites on the island, but there is very little evidence of them,” she said.
According to Walden, the slaves who lived in these cabins were known as “task slaves” who rather than work from sun up until sun down, as the common stereotype of a slave would suggest, were given an individual task to complete for the day. After completing their task, they went on to tend to their quarters, weaving baskets and planting their own vegetables to supplement their rationed diet of salted pork and fish.
Gee Gee Adams, president of the Cassina Garden Club, said that the effort to portray the cabins as accurately as possible is meant to honor the legacy of the men and women who endured the blight of slavery in America. They even go so far as to omit the use of “slave” on social media promotions for the property.
Adams said the experience is very moving to visitors.
“Some people end up in tears when they walk through the cabin,” she said.