Travis Haymaker and Isaac Forman are both skilled masons, but at the end of the day Monday their handiwork on St. Simons Island amounted to little more than ruins.
And that is exactly the look they were striving for at Fort Frederica National Monument, where the two applied their craftsmanship to shoring up the remains of a soldiers’ barracks built three centuries ago. If the next wave of visitors to Fort Frederica do not notice that that Forman and Haymaker did any work at all to the barracks’ 284-year-old gateway tower, all the better.
“We pay a lot more attention to detail,” said Haymaker, standing atop a ladder, trowel in hand, beneath the gateway entrance. “As far as the material we’re using, we’re sticking to the fabric of the original structure we’re working on. We take pride in preserving our cultural resources accurately so that future generations can see them for what they were.”
Around here that means tabby, the resourceful building material comprised of sand, oyster shells, lime and ash. Forman and Haymaker had previously replaced an 8-by-8 wooden beam across the archway over the entrance to the gateway tower. This afternoon they were sealing it in, using a cement comprised of local ingredients. Forman held up a dollop of the concoction on his trowel to show a visitor its locally sourced sand and shells.
“We’re keeping the structure up, but we’re also keeping it preserved by using these same materials,” he said. “It’s not only preserving the story of Fort Frederica, but also the construction practices that built it.”
These barracks housed about 100 British soldiers after Fort Frederica was constructed in 1736 under the direction of General James Oglethorpe, founder of the Georgia Colony. (One hundred or more other soldiers bivouacked in thatched huts beside the nearby parade grounds.)
The gateway remained standing through the ages, but it was in a dilapidated state when the National Park Service arrived here to preserve what was left in the late 1940s. Historic preservationists stuck to the same traditional practices when they shored up the gateway tower in 1950. In fact, the thick post Haymaker and Forman replaced above the entrance was put there by the 1950 restoration crew, in keeping with the barracks’ original structure.
The post serves no “load-bearing” purpose on the wall, so Haymaker and Forman suspect it originally helped support the barracks’ gate. “I’d say this (gateway tower) is all original except for a little patching here and there,” Forman said, stepping back and taking it all in.
Patchwork is their next task at the gateway tower. They have been burning shells to make lime and ash and collecting still more oyster shells to mix up a big batch of tabby to shore up pocks that have formed in the structure over time.
“Certainly, the tabby has been a key element in this project,” said Jessica Gordon, an exhibit specialist and the lead on this restoration project at Fort Frederica. “It’s a lost art, specific to this region. Whoever found out how to make tabby with just the resources at hand was very smart to figure it out.”
The work is being paid for by a $100,000 park service grant, Gordon said. The size of the grant speaks to the importance of Fort Frederica as link to our nation’s past. “Given the fact that only a few structures remain here, it’s important to take the time to preserve those,” she said.
Later this week, the crew will begin conducting similar work at the King’s Magazine, a defensive rampart that overlooks the Frederica River much as it did during colonial times. Additionally, they have done restoration work on a burial site at the fort.
“To be able to work on some of the historic tabby that is still intact and be able to preserve what it still there in the process, this has been a very cool experience,” Gordon said.