On a pristine island off the Georgia coast, Evan Kutzler ’10 is doing work far from the path he had expected to take after earning a Ph.D. in history from the University of South Carolina.
It all started in November 2015 when Kutzler met businessman Wayne Johnson, who invited him to work on an interdisciplinary book project about Ossabaw Island, a 25,000-acre barrier island 10 miles south of Savannah, Ga.
Since then, he has been part researcher, part detective and part fundraiser.
The island is currently maintained by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and is restricted in use to natural, scientific, and cultural research and preservation. Its fascinating past, however, is full of twists and turns—a research historian’s dream.
Primarily engaging in interdisciplinary public history research, Kutzler has worked with a number of organizations throughout the state, including the Georgia Historical Society, utilizing lists of slaves living on Ossabaw in the 19th century.
“The landscape of the island itself is its own archive,” says Kutzler. “Most people look at it and think ‘wilderness.’ If you look closer, there are traces of four thousand years of human history.”
Ossabaw Island was home to plantations that produced cotton and rice, and the oldest standing buildings on the island are slave quarters built between 1820 and 1840 made of tabby concrete, a mixture of oyster shells, lime and water.
“The oyster shells used in their construction were taken from a Native American settlement, now identified as a ‘shell midden,’ that dates to approximately 2000 BCE,” explains Kutzler.
Despite its long historical identity tied to agriculture, Ossabaw’s more recent past was the epitome of high society. The island’s only permanent resident, 103-year-old Sandy West, was only 11 years old when her parents bought the island in 1924. Her mother’s family founded Pittsburgh Plate Glass, which brought them immense wealth.
Despite the opulence of her home and the fame and fortune of residents of neighboring islands—mostly fellow “robber baron” families—West was drawn to the pristine natural world of Ossabaw.
The island’s ecosystem is home to an astounding array of animal species and plant life, and West spent the majority of her family fortune protecting the island from development. She sold the island to the state of Georgia in 1978 with the primary objective of staving off developers, and she had help from Jimmy Carter to broker the deal.
West was given permission to live in her family’s mansion and maintain ownership of 30 acres of the island until she died. A state actuary predicted she would live to be 78, an age she zoomed past some 25 years ago.
In 1961, she and husband Clifford West created the Ossabaw Foundation, which allowed for the use of the island for interdisciplinary collaboration, research and exploration. They subsequently launched the Ossabaw Island Project, an artist’s colony where intellectuals of every type could come to work on their craft surrounded by the island’s natural beauty and solitude.
Members of the colony included luminaries such as Ralph Ellison, Aaron Copland, Annie Dillard and Margaret Atwood. Kutzler has attempted to contact a number of alumni to gain a more personal perspective of Ossabaw, but unfortunately many have passed away.
He has, however, had the opportunity to meet West herself, and notes, “Although I had been warned otherwise, I thought she was incredibly lucid.”
Kutzler’s attention in recent weeks has been focused on West and efforts to raise money to allow her to live the remainder of her days on her beloved Ossabaw Island. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help pay for her continued medical care and to prevent her from having to move to a mainland nursing home.
Once these fundraising goals have been achieved, Kutzler will return to his research for the book on Ossabaw, which will be published by Mercer University Press in late 2016. It will combine Kutzler’s research with photography by Jill Stuckey and offer glimpses into Ossabaw Island’s human and natural history.
Kutzler will also start as an assistant professor in U.S. and Public History at Georgia Southwestern State University this fall.
Above: Live oaks on Ossabaw Island. Photo by Jill Stuckey.
by Mary Trollinger
March 30, 2016