Tabby! She’s no Alley Cat

Tabby Smokehouse (Bleak Hall, Edisto Island) Built in 1840

Tabby Smokehouse (Bleak Hall, Edisto Island) Built in 1840

Pigs and barbeque and the new rock star butchers in Charleston have been on my mind for the last few days, so this well preserved smokehouse outbuilding, on Botany Bay Plantation, conjured images of charcuterie close to home. Built in 1840, this smokehouse would have originally hung with the well butchered pigs of the Botany Bay Plantation, on Edisto Island, a place owned by John Ferrars Townsend, one of the island’s largest sea island cotton planters.



The smokehouse is made of tabby, which was a type of concrete made from oyster shells, lime, sand, and water. Lime was created from burning the shells to make oyster shell ash. Tabby was the first concrete building material made and utilized in the United States, and was used as a building material along the sea islands and coast for over a century, until the development of portland cement in 1843. Tabby ruins are found along the coasts in from South Carolina to Florida and are reminders of the vernacular, of the irreplaceable cultural history of the sea islands. So unique is the tabby that one is able to see the varied tactile texture that is obviously a mark of the handmade, the artisan. Historians disagree on whether its use originated along the northwest African coast and was taken to Spain and Portugal, or vice versa. The origin of the word tabby itself is unclear: the Spanish word tapia means a mud wall, and the Arabic word tabbi means a mixture of mortar and lime. Similar words also appear in both Portuguese and Gullah.

A symposium took place a few years ago to study the conservation and preservation of tabby and is an excellent resource was published by the Georgia Dept. of Public Resources, including much about South Carolina building traditions. I was delighted to see so much written about the existing structures on Edisto Island, where I live. In Beaufort, on Sapelo Island in Georgia, and on Edisto, there are examples of the tabby construction that connect cultural histories, that of the sea island cotton planter, whose slaves’ labor surely mastered the art of building with tabby, and the Native American population whose large shell middens, high domes of discarded oyster shell, provided raw material. One shell mound, one they call Spanish Mount, indicates a Native American settlement they say existed 4,000 years ago on Edisto Island. It is now protected by the State Park near the South Edisto river.

Examples of tabby on Edisto Island exist at Point of Pines Plantation on the North Edisto river, where thick wall ruins still stand at the place where the original residence of Paul Grimball was built in 1696, known as the earliest tabby in South Carolina. Botany Bay Plantation boasts several tabby foundations, one for the ice house, which was also uniquely filled with charcoal between the interior and exterior walls, said to have been included to act as insulation.

Botany Bay Plantation Grain House, Edisto Island

tabby detail, grain house wall, Botany Bay

Tabby Ruins, Sunnyside Plantation, Edisto Island, SC

Tabby Ruins, Sunnyside Plantation, Edisto Island, SC

Additionally, tabby was used in the early 1700’s to fortify forts, in industrial use to build the Indigo vats at Burlington Plantation in Beaufort County, then again on Edisto, in the church foundation and baptismal pool at the First Baptist Church on highway 174. Sunnyside Plantation, on Edisto, is owned by the same family since 1860, and boasts the tabby ruins of an old cotton gin, built after the civil war in the 1870’s.

The story of Hepzipah Jenkins Townsend (1780-1847) wife of Daniel Townsend, is a fascinating one that still resonates on Edisto Island. She helped endow the First Baptist Church, than gave it to the Black congregation, who pack the church every week to this day, traveling from miles to attend (all morning) services on Sundays, and who serve up some of the delectable celebratory feasts on special occasions, Gullah style.

I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in architecture, art, Arts & Culture, creativity, Food, Gullah, Native American, South Carolina History, travel, women
9 comments on “Tabby! She’s no Alley Cat
  1. Pinkney says:

    I have often wondered at the ‘tabby’ we use today. It is desirable to have the shells and other debris show, but I imagine when it was done a few hundred years ago this wasn’t the case and likely the structure was finished with a smooth coat of something. You do see old pieces of tabby that haven’t been quite so exposed to the elements and they retain some of the finish. I guess it’s like the craze for exposed brick walls in some old house renovations. The originators might be miffed to find that present day occupants prefer to see the underlayment more than the finished product.

  2. Waring Hills says:

    Fascinating on how people used the local materials available to build, here is a page with a video on the making of tabby …quite a few of the old roads were also paved with oyster shells…

    Thanks Charlotte, your articles on pigs to barbeque and oysters to tabby…reveal much of the foundations of our Southern buildings (male and female)

  3. Charlotte’s very Blog is its own fine tabby house so skillfully made of nothing but the Low Country’s material of both land and sea and fashioned by her knowledge of this particular Southern earth and, especially,this Edisto that she so she loves. The Tabby blog and,indeed, every piece that has appeared so far gifts us with a history blessed with a lyrical uplift and a picture perfect painterly clarity. Thank you,Charlotte.

  4. I wonder why they stopped using oyster shells to build stuff. It would be a beautiful way to build a house on the island, if it were a renewable resource. I’d start with a garden wall…

  5. Skip M says:

    Neat post! Dad’s driveway in Morattico, VA as you may remember is all loose oyster shells. Not all that comfortable to walk on with bare feet, but a great crunching sound when you pull up to the house. I have seen an occassional poured concrete drive or walk with crushed oyster shells mixed in – I wonder why they dont use more of it. Seeing Botany Bay’s outbuilding was really fascinating.

    • Skip! In the Lowcountry they do use quite a bit of it for driveways and for chimneys…more concrete than shell, but the shell is still visible. It is a sort of what they called “pebble-dash” from what I read. The ‘brand new tabby’ is made with oyster shells thrown on a stucco finish. There is a specialist on Edisto that does it. If I ever get a house, ha, do hope to have some part of it built with it, that will remind me of this tabby history. YES, I do remember your dad’s unique oyster shell driveway, at the darling and historic Morattico house, with shells he so painstakingly collected.

  6. Charlotte says:

    This is a very cool entry, Aunt Charlotte… Your pictures are terrific. Skip, I remember the oyster shell driveway (although had forgotten until just now). I can almost hear that sound of driving up right now. :)

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What’s this?

Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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