Most visitors to St. Simons Island are immediately captivated by the “Avenue of Oaks” located on what remains of the Retreat Plantation. This colonnade of trees, located on the southern end of the island, was planted by the King family over 150 years ago. Today these stately sentinels lead wealthy golfers into an exclusive golf club, but these giants have been witness to a rich history.
In previous posts we’ve gushed about the beautiful, old live oak trees on St. Simons Island. The artistic carvings of the Tree Sprits are lovely, but the true artistry of the oaks is their contribution to the unique beauty of the island. As we continue to explore, we are constantly amazed at the natural canopies provided by the fantastic stands of live oaks, draped in Spanish moss.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, St. Simons was carved into 14 large plantations, which grew rice and very valuable Sea Island cotton. The climate of coastal Georgia and South Carolina is perfect for growing this special type of cotton, and obviously, oak trees as well.
For 75 years, well-to-do planters made large amounts of money growing cotton. And while profitable, cotton cultivation was also a very labor intensive pursuit, requiring lots of slave labor. The Hampton Plantation on the north end of the island had more than 1000 slaves! When the slaves were freed at the end of the Civil War, this profitable lifestyle came to a screeching halt.
After 150 years of neglect, rain, heat, humidity, termites, carpenter ants, hurricanes, and the casual looter, there is little left of the old plantation buildings. But the oaks remain, and St. Simons would be a very different place without them.