OSSABAW ISLAND, GEORGIA
Middle Earth, Ossabaw Island BT
Caroline Vaughan ©1974
Middle Earth, Ossabaw Island Caroline Vaughan ©1974
from the Genesis Project
Henry and Nell Torrey, purchased a parcel of land in Savannah as their winter retreat and made frequent trips to Ossabaw Island, accessible only by boat. Born in 1913, their daughter, nicknamed Sandy, first set foot on Ossabaw Island at age 11 in 1924. Her parents' 40 room home in Savannah burned to the ground in 1923 and forced Sandy and her nurse to jump from the second floor window to survive. Rather than rebuild their winer retreat, her father and mother purchased Ossabaw Island in 1924 from men who used the island to hunt. Her parents built a Spanish Colonial Revival Mansion. Eleanor "Sandy" Torrey was the granddaughter of John Bapiste Ford, founder of Pittsburg Plate Glass Company in 1883 where he had made his fortune.
Sandy and her brother's children inherited Ossabaw in 1959. Sandy inherited half of Ossabaw Island with a life estate for the winter home. The remaining half of the island was inheriteded by her deceased brother Bill's four children. Eleanor "Sandy" Torrey West and her husband Clifford West made Osssaw into and intellectual and artistic haven, spending much of her own money underwriting retreats for artists, writers and scientists such as Ralph Ellison, Annie Dillard, Margaret Atwood and Aaron Copand among others. Although Sandy and her brother Bill had lived a life of privilege, Ossabaw transformed them from pampered children to young adults who could fend for themselves, change a tire and run a boat.
In 1970 , Sandy and her husband, Clifford, felt some success for the residency program they created for professional creative people distinguished in their fields. In the same year, the Wests recognized that a separate and different experience for young people was needed, one that could bring to Ossabaw a completely different group of visionaries. This new experience was Genesis--a cooperative, intentional, semi-sustainable community which operated at historic Middle Place from 1970-1983. The first Genesis members worked on projects, in addition to creating a community, repaired the buildings used for sleeping quarters, made an outdoor shower, a treehouse and sourced wood from the island. When I arrived for two weeks, the buildings were suitable for habitation but still rustic with no running water or electricity. Applicants were warned of the bugs and snakes on the island. The 26,000 acres barrier island, twice the size of Bermuda, hosted many animals and birds.
In 1974, I had applied to participate in a new project on Ossabaw called the Genesis project. Started in 1970, the new program invited younger artists to apply with an outline of their project. When accepted, for two weeks I had access to the island to photograph, explore, find inspiration in the vastness of the island and its quiet environment. Sandy once said that she liked the animals because they lived in the present. People worried about the past and the future. On Ossabaw my experience gravitated to the present, something I had not known. Part of Genesis was working with people from diverse fields to create a sustainable community, both pioneering efforts of their kind.
The young artists lived at Middle Place near the water, in wooden cabins sleeping four, an outhouse, an outdoor shower heated by a sack of water on its roof. We ate together and shared our exeriences but were also allowed to roam solo during the day. I often walked with a buddy who drew and sketched the landscapes so my setting up my 4x5 view camera for every shot didn't disturb her process as we both took a long time to practice our skills. I took a 35mm camera and made hundreds of color slides because I had never seen such green lush forests of saw palmettos, high pines, live oaks with hanging Spanish moss along our foot path creating an idyllic, haunting place undisturbed by time. An example of my favorite is above. I changed the name to describe my own experience.
My most visvid memory was a walk into the woods with two other women when my gut clenched tight and I stopped ,trying to figure out what had happened to me. I looked ahead about the length of a football field and saw something lying across our path. I asked my friends would they please wait in place for five minutes, that I had a paralyzing fear of snakes and had gotten a signal from my stomach to stop. Both were kidding me. You can't even see that far. No, but I could sense it in my body. Both agreed with me to wait, but insisted it was a fallen pine tree in the distance. I made a bet with them that after five minutes if the pine tree was still there we could continue the walk. The pine tree moved off the path and both thanked me for not seeing the largest snake in their life.
There was the mansion further down the path from Middle Place. Curious about the dwelling, I was told that older more accomplished artists stayed there to rest, refresh themselves in a quiet setting or work on their craft. Aaron Copeland, Annie Dillard and Margaret Atwood at some point accepted an invitation to visit and enjoy the island, living in the more luxurious accommodation. Georgia's third largest barrier island, on the Atlantic Ocean gifted an experience that meant connecting with a place for scientists, educators, researchers, naturalists, artists, musicians, thinkers and students. A natural preserve, an unspoiled ecosystem, a creative studio, a retreat and a muse. Sandy dedicated her life to preserving the island in its unspoiled natural retreat, but in the early 1970's the rising property taxes forced Sandy, her children, and her nieces and nephews to face the necessity of giving up ownership of the island For eight years she rebuffed wealthy developers, various state and federal organizations. She wanted a partner who woud preserve the island and its cultural heritage of 4,000 years of inhabitants and archeology defining their place in history.
In 1978, the Torrey/West family, in an arrangement facilitated by then-President Jimmy Carter, sold Ossaw Island to Georgia state, in an arrangement (the island was appraised as $16,000,000) at 50% of its estimated market value, and gifted the other half to Georgia State. The State of Georgia paid $4 million, Robert Woodruff (Coca Cola fortune) contributed the remaining $4 million of the selling price. Ossabaw was designated as a state Heritage Preserve, protected from development and limited to the use for natural, cultural, or scientific education. These protections were stipulated by the Torrey/West family as a condition of the sale. Sandy also retained a life estate of the Main House and the 23 acres surround the house.
1983, she had to suspend operations of the Ossabaw Island Project (OIP) due to funding deficits. In 1994, Sandy's private foundation, the Ossabaw Foundation was dissolved. A new non-profit foundation, (TOIF) The Ossabaw Island Foundation, was created to manage programming and facilities and to serve as steward of the Heritage Preserve. In 2020, Georgia Rep. Darlene Taylor (R-173) sponsored Georgia House Bill 906 seeking to sell State Heritage properties such as Ossabaw Island. Public outcry, emails, letters and a letter from Jimmy Carter opposed the bill. Sandy Torrey West died on her birthday in 2021 at age 108, after spending most of her life preserving Ossabaw.
A film by Max Ramming, a student who applied to film Ossabaw describes it better than any words can.
Please consider sending a donation to support Ossabaw and its educational programming by contacting the Director:
Executive Director, Ossabaw Island Foundation
The (TOIF) is a non-profit 501 (c)3 and would be tax-deductible for those who contribute.
Please watch the 19 minute video made by Max Ramming who was working on his Master's Degree when he made the film. You will fall in love with this island. Please allow a few minutes for the movie to download.
Middle Earth, Ossabaw Island ©1974 Caroline Vaughan
from the Genesis Project
I kept a diary of images, dreams, and expenses while I traveled and photographed. This excerpt shows how small a fee Ossabaw charged the young people at Genesis for the meals, lodging, boat ride and food.