The Old Lady of Ossabaw - Features - Atlanta Magazine

The Old Lady of Ossabaw

Sandy West is a living link to the days when Georgia's coastal islands were owned by industrial barons

In the evenings, when she closes her eyes, Eleanor Torrey West pulls on her riding boots and descends the back stairs of her pink stucco mansion on Ossabaw, an all but deserted barrier island twenty miles south of Savannah that only the luckiest people in the world get to see. Sandy, as she’s called, is more than lucky—she inherited the heart-shaped mass of thick forest and wistful marshland from her richer-than-Croesus parents. As she sees it, that makes her blessed by the gods.

Photograph by Kendrick Brinson

In her remembered twilight, Maria, Sandy’s brown and white pinto, is still waiting. So is her estate manager, Roger Parker, a rugged fellow in his signature black Stetson. The riders leave behind guests—some of the nation’s most prominent artists, musicians, and writers—as well as a staff of eighteen.

It is dark out, but the sky is popping with stars. Sandy and Roger know Ossabaw’s 26,000 acres blindfolded. They take off down the main road, Spanish moss dangling from the twisty live oaks that line their way. They pass the oyster-shell-and-lime slave cabins built when plantations of rice and indigo and cotton dissected the land. Three miles away at Middle Place, a plantation turned artists’ colony that grows its own food and draws its water from an artesian well, aspiring painters and poets sleep in tree houses built from lumber they’ve harvested themselves. Their craftsmanship can’t match that of the one-room wood hideaway that Roger constructed between an oak and a magnolia, a place where Sandy, a social recluse of sorts, reads and writes and thinks.

Tonight, Sandy and Roger hunt down poachers looking to make bacon from the feral hogs. They cross paths with alligators, rattlesnakes, and armadillos. Blue herons, bald eagles, and white wood storks with black-tipped wings that resemble fancy dinner gloves soar overhead. The riders take special delight in the snowlike egret rookery before salt air from the Atlantic smacks their faces. Stretched before them is a seemingly endless coastline of white sand and dunes, untouched by man. Loggerhead sea turtles have dibs here.

At the end of the journey, Sandy’s soft blue eyes open. She looks around her room—at the stacks of books piled up around her bed, at her dog sleeping nearby. The poets and painters who attended her artists’ colonies and filled the evenings with talk and laughter are all gone. The pinto died long ago. Sandy herself is now ninety-eight.

As for the island, Sandy no longer owns it. She sold it—no, gifted it, really—to the state of Georgia three decades ago after exhausting her fortune on the Ralph Ellisons, Aaron Coplands, Annie Dillards, and hundreds of other artists whose words or brushes or notes her island inspired. But Sandy has no regrets. The way she sees it, no one has lived a richer life. Although she could have gotten millions more for her island from Jackie Kennedy Onassis or Hilton Head developer Charles Fraser or others who came calling over the years, she did exact a steep price from the people of Georgia. She gets to stay in the pink house as long as she wants. But the real coup: Ossabaw must remain off-limits to developers, and the masses, for the most part, remain stranded on the mainland. Even after she dies, Ossabaw will continue on as one of the last unspoiled places in Georgia and on the planet. “I fought. And I won,” she says. “Unbelievable. An old crock like me.”

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