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Tabby, the Coastal Concrete

Thomas Spalding was a big proponent of using tabby as a construction material. “I was born in the old town of Frederica in one of these Tabby house; I had seen time destroy everything but them,” he wrote. “Tabby…a mixture of shells, lime and sand in equal proportions by measure and not weight, makes the best and cheapest buildings, where the materials are at hand, I have ever seen; and when rough cast, equals in beauty stone.” In most places on the coast, there is no natural stone or soil appropriate for producing quality brick, and wooden structures were vulnerable to decay in the subtropical coastal environment. Tabby, called “coastal concrete,” became a popular building material with settlers who wanted homes that could survive the rough coastal storms.

Tabby is created by mixing equal volumes of oyster shells, sand, lime, and water. Early builders would make ash-lime by digging a 4-foot hole in the ground, then setting afire a 10-foot-high kiln of oyster shells and heart pine logs in alternating tiers. The lime would be mixed with equal volumes of oyster shells, sand, and water, then poured in wooden forms 12 inches wide by 18 inches deep. After waiting a day or two, the process is repeated and the walls slowly grow one layer at a time. The exterior of finer homes were then covered with stucco, such as Savannah’s Owens-Thomas House. Tabby ruins are found all along the Georgia coast, and historians once believed they dated back to the Spanish mission period, but archeologists have proven that the ruins date back to colonial and plantation periods.

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