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.
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.