The Green and Gold of Ossabaw Island

on July 7 | in Featured | by

Ossabaw Island

Three Hollins women and their connection to 26,000 acres that inspire artists, scientists, and historians.

By Beth JoJack ’98

(Photos by Robert Cooper unless otherwise specified.)

On Ossabaw Island, it’s possible to imagine a wild world, one where humans do not exist. 

Nestled off the coast of Georgia, Ossabaw offers 26,000 acres of pristine maritime forest, salt marshes, and dune-lined beaches. 

Ossabaw IslandHere, Spanish moss clings to live oaks. Mother sea turtles climb out of the ocean, dig holes with their back flippers, and deposit eggs before returning to the sea. Great blue herons nest in cabbage palms as American alligators bask in the sun — doing their part to intimidate the raccoons who would otherwise happily dine on the wading birds’ eggs. 

Unlike so many of the barrier islands along the East Coast, Ossabaw Island isn’t littered with towering condo buildings or a bridge connecting to the mainland. Instead, it is now owned by the state of Georgia and available to students, teachers, artists, scientists, and others who yearn to experience the mystery of Ossabaw. 

This is no accident. It’s the result of the efforts of many determined Americans—a list that includes: Eleanor Torrey “Sandy” West, who inherited the island from her wealthy parents; the longtime president of The Coca-Cola Company, Robert W. Woodruff; Sandy West’s friend, former President Jimmy Carter; many dedicated officials from the state of Georgia; and — key for our tale— two determined Hollins alumnae, Patricia Thrower Barmeyer ’68 and Elizabeth DuBose ’89.

Ossabaw Island

Photo courtesy of the Ossabaw Island Foundation

“For a long time Ossabaw was viewed as — and was — a place you couldn’t get to,” Barmeyer says. “It was mysterious and private and you couldn’t go to Ossabaw unless you knew somebody who could get you there. But we have created opportunities so that anybody who wants to go can experience this wonderful island.”

Patricia Thrower Barmeyer ’68: Dogged negotiator

Patricia Barmeyer ’68 worked as an assistant attorney general for the state of Georgia for 17 years. During her tenure, she did everything from working to ensure Georgia’s beaches and tidelands belonged to the public to arguing a state boundary dispute in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Another career highlight: Barmeyer — who studied history at Hollins before going to Harvard Law School — spent two years negotiating with Sandy West to make Ossabaw Island the state of Georgia’s first acquisition under the Heritage Trust Act. The Act protects sites with “unique natural characteristics, special historical significance, or particular recreational value” from development. 

Ossabaw IslandRising property taxes and the enormous cost of running the island had forced West and her relatives who shared ownership of the island to consider selling. But West was determined not to let Ossabaw become another Hilton Head. 

“She wasn’t entirely happy giving up her island, of course, but she had decided she was going to do it,” Barmeyer says of West, who died in January on her 108th birthday. “At the same time, she was retaining a life estate in the Main House and would continue to live there, and naturally she wanted things on Ossabaw to continue the way she had always done them.”

Barmeyer and West, usually through her lawyers, endured protracted discussions over the fate of the island’s non-native animals, including cattle, horses, donkeys, and hogs, all brought to the island by various visitors over its long history. “All of those hooved animals were very destructive to the dunes,” Barmeyer explained.

Officials with the state of Georgia wanted to ensure hunters would be allowed to come to the island to shoot hogs and deer. West, an animal lover, blanched at the idea. “So those tensions led to some of the long negotiations that we had,” Barmeyer says.

West was a tough dealmaker. “She was a fierce advocate who was comfortable negotiating with governors and talking to presidents,” says Barmeyer, who now serves as a member of Hollins’ Board of Trustees. 

Ossabaw IslandBy 1978, the state managed to finalize a deal with West and her family. Robert Woodruff, the Coke magnate and an outdoorsman, gave $4 million of his own money, to which the state added $4 million from taxpayer coffers to purchase Ossabaw — a price that was about half the property’s assessed worth. The deal guaranteed the island could only be used for natural, scientific, and cultural study, along with research and educational programs, and that the island’s ecosystems had to be preserved — no bridge to the mainland, no airstrip. 

The day the deal was signed stands out amid her distinguished legal career, Barmeyer admits. “It was very gratifying.”

Her work for Ossabaw didn’t end there. 

In 1990, Barmeyer moved to the private law firm of King & Spalding. One day, a senior partner called her to a conference room to meet with a man who wanted to create a nonprofit public foundation to look after the island.

“He introduced me and said, ‘OK, Patricia will help you,’ Barmeyer recalls. “And then he left, and so I started helping the foundation.”

She never stopped. 

Barmeyer, now a senior counsel in King & Spalding’s environmental practice group, has cycled on and off the board of the Ossabaw Island Foundation. She also serves as the foundation’s legal advisor. 

Ossabaw IslandShe does it, Barmeyer says, out of a genuine love for the island. 

“My idea of the most wonderful experience in the world,” she says, “is to be on a barrier island beach and look up and down to the horizon in both directions and not see anybody.”

dividerElizabeth DuBose ’89: Champion of Ossabaw

Elizabeth DuBose first stepped on Ossabaw Island in 1990. 

A student working on her master’s degree in historic preservation at the Savannah College of Art and Design, DuBose visited the island as part of a field trip for an architecture class. There, she toured the Torrey-West Main House (circa 1926) and listened as West held court about the island’s recent history. 

The trip made an impression. 

Ossabaw Island“I was intrigued by this magical island that not many people had heard of, that did not have a regularly scheduled ferry,” DuBose says. “There were some hurdles to get to it, and that made it almost mystical in a way.”

By the mid-1990s, DuBose found herself thinking about Ossabaw once again when she saw a newspaper classified ad hiring a director for the Ossabaw Island Foundation.

“I had this vision that I would go to this wild, romantic place every day to work,” DuBose explains.

By that time, DuBose had already put together a solid resume. Olivia Evans Alison ’78, then a curator for Savannah’s Telfair Museums, hired DuBose as an assistant while she was still in graduate school. Next, DuBose went to work as a neighborhood coordinator for the city of Savannah. 

Several years into that job, DuBose was ready for a new challenge. She applied for the Ossabaw position. Later, DuBose learned over 400 people had sent in resumes. “Obviously, I never even heard anything,” she says. 

A couple of years later, though, DuBose received a call from a friend in Atlanta. While shopping, he had happened to meet the chair of the Ossabaw Island Foundation, and she needed help. Turns out, the director the foundation hired hadn’t stayed very long. Was DuBose interested in throwing her hat in the ring? 

Absolutely. 

DuBose, who majored in American studies at Hollins, got the job and quickly learned she would be spending the bulk of her time not on Ossabaw but in the foundation’s office, which was then tucked away in the basement of a Savannah donor’s home. 

Ossabaw Island

DuBose and Barmeyer

Right from the start, DuBose had a full plate. Most urgently, the foundation owed several outside organizations reports detailing how the foundation had spent grant money. 

“I had to do forensics and look at the check stubs and try to figure out where did the money go and what was it used for and write these reports,” she says. “So that was a good nonprofit trial-by-fire.” 

That was only the start of challenges DuBose would face over the course of her 22-year career working, first as coordinator and then as executive director, for the Ossabaw Island Foundation. 

Over the years, DuBose has overseen the installation of a wireless network, data collection towers, and a weather station on Ossabaw. She’s helped thousands of visitors coordinate trips to the island. She’s managed the stabilization or restoration of 10 historic buildings. 

DuBose’s background in historical preservation has saved the foundation thousands of dollars. “She single- handedly runs the restoration of the historic buildings,” Barmeyer says. 

Of all her accomplishments as director, DuBose is proudest, she says, of overseeing the restoration of Ossabaw’s three slave cabins, built sometime between the 1820s and 1840s out of tabby, a mixture of oyster shells, lime, sand, and water. 

Victor Thompson, Ph.D., an archaeologist at the University of Georgia, regularly brings students to Ossabaw. As the years have passed, DuBose has earned his respect as someone who has a genuine interest in the island’s history. “She has a deep appreciation not just for the big broader ecology of Ossabaw and the Georgia coast, but for the deep stories that it has to tell,” he says. 

Ossabaw Island

Elizabeth DuBose leads a walking tour of the island.

For sure, DuBose is quick to tell Ossabaw newcomers about the history of the people who inhabited the island before West’s mother and father purchased it in 1924. She talks of the migratory North American tribes who wintered on the island by harvesting shellfish, the enslaved people who lived on Ossabaw prior to the Civil War, and their children and grandchildren who later lived there as tenant farmers. 

Regularly, the foundation hosts a gathering for the descendants of Ossabaw Island. “It’s a great occasion for sharing stories of life on Ossabaw,” DuBose says.

West was famous for hosting intellectual salons with artists, writers, scientists, and other intellectuals at Ossabaw. Her famous guests included Ralph Ellison, Margaret Atwood, and Hollins’ own Annie Dillard ’67, M.A. ’68. 

The Ossabaw Island Foundation has continued that tradition. Today, the island regularly hosts writing retreats and events for artists, as well as trips for students, educators, and scientists. 

DuBose often greets visitors personally. She is constantly puzzling through the logistics of getting things on and off the island. DuBose figures she spends about a fourth of each year working on Ossabaw.

“She does everything from strategy to picking up the dirty towels and taking them to the laundry to be washed,” Barmeyer says. “She is a nuts and bolts person but also keeps her eye on the big picture and the vision of Ossabaw.” 

Caring for Ossabaw has definitely been a family affair. Mark Frissell, DuBose’s husband, who also studied historic preservation at SCAD, frequently travels to the island to help his wife. He lends his expert skills in carpentry and renovation to the myriad of on-island tasks.

Ossabaw Island

Selden Frissell ’23

Before DuBose’s daughter Selden Frissell ’23 left home to go to Hollins (following in the footsteps of her mother and her grandmother Kathryn “Kathy” Allen Standard ’63), she basically grew up on the island. 

One of Selden’s favorite memories of Ossabaw is begging her parents to buy her a five-pound bag of carrots to take there. “I’d bring those, and I’d have all the donkeys following me around because I was the keeper of the carrots,” she says.

Frissell, who’s majoring in French and studio art at Hollins, feels she has learned a lot about leadership just watching her mom care for Ossabaw for all these years. As an example she points to the 2020 legislative season, when a member of the Georgia House of Representatives introduced a bill that would have allowed the state to sell up to 15 acres of land protected under the Heritage Trust Act, which would include land on Ossabaw.

“She was relentless about that,” Selden Frissell says. “She’s a little bit like a dog with a bone. When she’s on to something, you can’t tear her away.”

The bill died in the state senate — no doubt, in part, due to DuBose’s advocacy.

These days, DuBose has stayed busy trying to figure out how to navigate fundraising during an unprecedented pandemic (since she couldn’t host events on the island, she launched a program allowing Ossabaw lovers to “adopt” the island’s few remaining miniature Sicilian donkeys). She’s also working with the board to figure out what to do with the Torrey-West Main House, where West lived until her poor health prompted her to leave the island in 2016. 

After all these years, DuBose has never felt tempted to look for a different job. On Ossabaw, there are always new challenges and new adventures. 

“The longer I’ve been out here, the more intriguing it is,” DuBose says. “Because, I think, we are continuing to learn from the island. Ossabaw reveals herself in a very mysterious way. As time goes on, it’s true, she reveals more and more.” 

Beth (Jones) JoJack ’98 is a freelance writer who lives in Roanoke.

Additional photos

Ossabaw Island

 

Ossabaw Island

Photo courtesy of the Ossabaw Island Foundation.

Ossabaw Island

 

Ossabaw Island

 

Ossabaw Island

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