Two Georgia men have opened a treasure chest filled with precious jewels of information to enjoy.
Colonel’s Island native John Toby Woods Jr. and George J. Armelagos, a professor of anthropology at Emory University, have published a fantastic 300-page book they spent eight years working on. “St. Catherines Island—The Untold Story of People and Place” lets readers see a previously unrevealed look at the island. The book was written using Woods’ memories of events, his father’s daybooks, court records, census tracts, slave registers, unpublished maps and photographs, documents, newspapers and letters he and his father saved.
Armelagos, who has a retreat on Colonel’s Island and is Woods’ neighbor, provided the historical facts, but Woods provided the personal information about the day-to-day activities and the personalities of the people who owned the island. Woods is perhaps the last living individual who knew members of the Rauers, Keys and Noble families who once owned St. Catherines.
Woods, 82, has been described as the “harbinger of spring.” He removes his shirt when spring comes and does not wear it again until fall — except for formal occasions, of course. He rides his bicycle every day and often rides it on the 528-foot dock that leads to Sunbury Creek and his son Johnny’s shrimp boat, “Papa T.” A modest man, Woods is a veritable encyclopedia of the social and natural history of Colonel’s and St. Catherines islands. He remembers every detail, and his internal GPS that can instantly recall a sandbar. He is recovering from a fall but already is able to cut grass and ride his bicycle again. John was on the Coastal EMC for 41 years — president for 21 years — before retiring in 2006.
Woods was born on Colonel’s Island in 1930. When he was three days old, he moved to St. Catherines Island, where his father Toby was the caretaker. In 1936, he and his two sisters moved back to the island to live with their grandmother in order to attend elementary school at Dorchester Village.
However, at the touch of a button on July 8, 1948, Woods’ life was changed forever.
Lifesaver Candy Company owner Edward Noble, who also owned St. Catherines at that time, attained an athletic scholarship for Woods to attend St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. Woods’ parents were in Alabama, and Toby left a list of “chores” for Woods to do. On that day, he was to go by boat to the mainland and pick up a load of fertilizer. However, Woods touched a button on the boat, and the boat blew up. He spent a year recuperating in Savannah Candler Hospital and learned how to walk again. George Ginter, who attended Bradwell Institute with Woods, made several Sunday-afternoon trips to pick up Woods’ 100-pound body and drive him around the island for hours. Woods’ athletic abilities had vanished; Noble never mentioned college to him again. Instead, after Woods came home from the hospital, Noble presented shotguns for Woods and Toby’s use as well as their guests.
Woods attended a vocational trade school in Americus and obtained a degree in diesel engineering. While working for a Savannah company, he was sent to Detroit for specialized training. There, he received his master mechanic degree. He inspected shrimp boats and eventually bought his own. He worked for J. P. Morgan Company in Sunbury during the summer and in Key West during the winter. When Toby decided he had enough of the “salt-water area” and wanted to retire in 1960, Woods realized his ties to St. Catherines Island would be cut. He thought about it and applied for his dad’s job. He was hired by Alger Chapman, the executive director of the E. J. Noble Foundation. Woods said Chapman is the smartest man he has ever met.
St. Catherines Island, off the Liberty County coast, is 10 miles long, three miles wide and is composed of 23,000 acres. St. Catherines first was inhabited by the Guale Indians. Later, a Spanish mission was set up on the island. In 1759, Mary Musgrove was granted the island for all the help she gave James Oglethorpe when he was settling the colonies in Georgia. She is buried in or near what is known as “Mary’s Mound” on the island.
Button Gwinnett bought it from Musgrove but could not keep up the payments, so Musgrove got it back. Nine different people owned it until 1800 when Jacob Walburg bought it. Tunis G. Campbell occupied it after the Civil War. In 1876, Anna Rodriques sold it to Jacob Rauers, builder of the DeSoto Hotel in Savannah. He established the best game reserve in the nation on the island. John Keys bought it in 1929 just before the stock market crashed. The island went back to the Rauers family in 1937.
In 1943, Life Savers Candy Company owner Edward J. Noble, while attending Billy Flynn’s party at Flynn’s Maxwelton Estate, looked across the marshes, saw St. Catherines and inquired about it. Someone laughed and told him that Rauers had it for sale for $150,000. On Feb. 13, Noble sent a check for earnest money, and within a few months, he owned the island. Noble wanted to establish a large cattle ranch on it that could be used as tax write-offs along with his other business expenses. The island became part of the Edward John Noble Foundation to support educational, religious and charitable programs. In 1972, a wildlife survival center was established there.
Woods tells the story of the last African-American family to live on the island. Eutherle Austin was a little girl who was John’s only playmate in his early years on the island. Fifty years later, they met at the 2000 EMC meeting in Midway. She recalled the sad times she had when she lived on the island but times playing with John were about the only happy memories.
In the book, the exodus of African-Americans from St. Catherines to Harris Neck and White Bluff is discussed. An interview with Sonny Timmons tells of the struggle that still is going on today about land on Harris Neck. World War II brought the Coast Guard to St. Catherines. Woods said he used to have only one little girl for a playmate, but all at once, he had 43 older brothers as Coast Guard members became part of Woods’ family, and they still hear from many of them today.
Woods lives with his wife Katherine at Billy Joe Point (or Billy Harris Point) on Colonel’s Island. The book discusses the excavation of an 18-year-old boy named Billy Joe Harris, who was buried alone overlooking the marsh in 1859. Woods had Harris reinterred in 1977 farther away from the eroding area. The isolation of this “unclaimed or hidden” boy still bothers Woods today.
Woods and Armelagos have preserved a lot of history while it was still possible. At this time, Woods is working on another book filled with hundreds of pictures.
“St. Catherines Island—The Untold Story of People and Place” is available for $30 by calling Woods at 912-884-2731, Martha Sue Ginter at 912-884-9393 or Dock Supply 912-884-3443.