I don’t know why coastal Georgia doesn’t celebrate Thank a Yankee Day. Oh, yes, I just made that term up. But I’m serious.

Take a look around! From Savannah to St. Marys, this place of beauty, rest and maritime life and recreation owes its protection and current economic health to northerners.

(It owes its destruction to Northerners, too. But that was the subject of my last podcast from this year’s “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium. Today it’s preservation.)

  • The Parsons family of Maine saved Wassaw Island.
  • The Torrey family of Michigan saved Ossabaw Island.
  • The Noble family of New York saved St. Catherines Island.
  • The Coffin family of Michigan saved Sapelo Island.
  • The Berolzheimer family of New York saved Little St. Simons Island.
  • The Vanderbilts, Morgans, Pulitzers and others saved Jekyll Island.
  • The Carnegie family of Pennsylvania saved Cumberland Island.

On the mainland, too, northerners bought and saved large tracts of land that are important to us today. Coastal historian Buddy Sullivan explored this fascinating history in this talk that he gave at the February symposium organized by the Ossabaw Island Foundation.

“Northern money ultimately determined the shape of much of today’s Low Country landscape as the rich Yankees who acquired the islands and some of the mainland tracts decided they were worth keeping,” he says. “They unknowingly launched one of the great conservation movements of the United States in the 20th Century.”

Today, most of Georgia’s 14 barrier islands are protected in some fashion by public conservation agencies, either state or federal. And those that are still privately owned, notably St. Catherines and Little St. Simons, are owned by conservation-minded families.

It was, of course, the devastation of the Civil War that opened the floodgates of northern money to invest in the South. The ex-Confederacy was desperate for cash. And “Lord, please send me a rich Yankee” was a common prayer.

“They wanted solitude,” Sullivan says of the decisions by northern industrialists to seek out land here in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. “They wanted havens for rest and recreation. Like a lot of people, they wanted to escape the rigors of the northern winters.”

They didn’t create public parks, mind you. These were private lands. And men with guns would let you know it. They farmed and built roads and ostentatious homes (that they called “cottages”) and made nature bend to their wills – just like everyone else did.

But they also kept the land for generations. And their children and grandchildren, who came to these islands each winter, would grow to love these places as much as we do. And from the 1940’s-1970’s, they would be the ones who sold them into conservation.

“Migrating northerners coming to coastal Georgia adopted that sense of place and permanence [in contrast to] the earlier owners of the islands,” Sullivan says. “Place and permanence can then be seen as the lynch pin or the spring board to conservation efforts.”

Sullivan talks most passionately about Sapelo’s Howard Coffin, a subject he knows well as a historian of McIntosh County. An Ohio native who founded Hudson Motors, Coffin bought Sea Island and built a hotel there, capitalizing on 1920’s highway expansion.

“It was a Coffin who was among the first to realize that a healthy coastal ecosystem could work in tandem with economic development particularly in relation to tourism and the hospitality industry, concepts that represented the framework of his creative instincts with regard to Sapelo, Sea Island and The Cloister.”

Because of its protection, Sapelo Island later would become an important estuarine research center, a marshy home for plants and animals where Eugene Odom, the man who coined the word “ecosystem,” would launch the modern ecology movement.

Likewise, Ossabaw Island would help us learn about hogs, donkeys and chimpanzees. St. Catherines Island would help us learn about our Native American and Spanish history. And the whole coast is now a laboratory for important climate change research.

Of course, that legislation and those public actions that legally made Georgia’s coast one of the most protected on the Eastern seaboard had local champions. And that will be the subject of a future podcast from this symposium.

But for now, the next time you look out the window and it doesn’t look like Hilton Head Island (developed, I should say, by a Hinesville native, Charles Frasier, a Southerner!) thank one of those “damn Yankees” for whipping our butts, buying us out and raising some pretty eco-minded children.

This is the seventh of 10 lectures that I will present from the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium. To browse the others, click this link.