A slightly salty smell drifts cross the open waters of the Low Country surrounding Pin Point, a tiny fishing community that has sat quietly for a hundred years at the edge of the marshlands south of Savannah, Georgia.
A finger of water sits adjacent to Pin Point. It was renamed Moon River after the award winning song of the same name. A local boy called Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics inspired by the full moon over a river near his childhood home. Pin Point is like that. Visitors find that it gets under their skin and people lucky enough to have lived there have Pin Point in their blood.
Moon River, wider than a mile,
I’m crossing you in style some day.
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker,
wherever you’re going I’m going your way.
Moon River is about wanderlust but when the first people arrived at Pin Point they stayed. The original settlers were first generation slaves freed at the end of the American Civil War. They were Gullah Geechee people, descendants of Africans from Sierra Leone, Angola and other west African countries who were imported as slaves to work in the plantations along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Georgia and North Carolina.
After the war, free and unwilling to continue working the plantations, they came to Pin Point and purchased land. Their lives were isolated, moderated by the marsh tides and sustained by crabbing, oystering and fishing. In the close knit community, every one was taken care of. They’d come from many different tribes and countries in Africa so a common language of African words and pidgin English developed and became known as Gullah or Geechee. If you’re listening carefully you will hear someone speak Gullah at Pin Point. Like I said, it’s in their blood.
“Life passed us by. There were no roads here. We had our own language, our own culture. We were those people back in the woods.”
In 1926, A.S. Varn & Son opened an oyster and crab factory at Pin Point. It immediately became the prime source of income and employment in the community. The men went into the marshes in flat-bottomed bateaux (boats) and the women worked in the factory shucking and processing the oysters and crabs that they brought back.
Processing and packaging was done by hand in a cluster of white washed buildings that sat close enough to dip its toes in the waters of Moon River. Instead of refrigeration there were huge slabs of ice shipped from the north to keep the produce fresh. Pin Point oysters were canned and sent to restaurants as far away as New York and the crab was known as the best in the world.
The bateaux would return laden and sitting low in the water using the high tide to avoid bottoming out in the shallow marshes. Boys learned to recognise each bateau from the sound of the engine and they would rush to the wharf to unload the oysters. They’d hose away the mud clinging to the shells before dumping them into chutes where the women would wait, ready to shuck the oysters into pails. When each pail was full its weight was recorded in a ledger so that each woman could be paid for the work she’d done at the end of the week.
Standing in the restored factory it’s easy to imagine what it would have been like to spend the day in the oyster house. Hands would be red and raw from the cold and wet, and muscles would ache from constant reaching and bending.
The factory thrived from the 1930s to the 60s but times got tougher and by 1985 it was closed. The residents of Pin Point turned to the outside world for employment and community numbers dwindled. This important piece of African-American history was in danger of disappearing until an anonymous donor stepped forward and made funds available to restore the factory buildings and create the Pin Point Heritage Museum.
The museum was opened in 2011. It’s a beautifully curated mix of photographs, video and artefacts from the A.S. Varn & Son factory but what makes the experience truly extraordinary are the people who guide visitors through the exhibits.
These are the descendants of the men and women who worked in the bateaux and in the factory. Their stories are of great-great grandparents, neighbours and friends, and of their childhood where respect for elders was non negotiable, fun was playing baseball on a dirt diamond and eating rice and beans and crab every which way. Burning Spanish moss and pine needles kept the mosquitoes and gnats away and on Sundays everyone walked to church singing. Their recollections make a visit to Pin Point unforgettable.
An important part of the museum is an award winning 30 minute documentary “Take Me To The Water” which tells the story of Pin Point in the words of those who were there.
“We did it because that’s what life required,” says one. “We appreciated the smaller things in life instead of the finer things in life,” says another.
There’s plenty to learn about oysters at Pin Point too. How many inches does an oyster grow in a year? How many gallons of water can one oyster filter in an hour? What percentage of an oyster’s weight comes from its shell? There’s chocolate rewards for remembering the correct answers.
Everyone had a nickname at Pin Point, even it’s most recognised son, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. You have to listen right to the end of the documentary to find out what his nickname is. Close ups reveal faces etched by years of work and eyes that sparkle with gratitude for the lives they’ve lived and love for Pin Point.
Life at Pin Point was hard but family, community and church pulled them through and the elders rest easier now knowing that the culture and history of this special place has been preserved for generations to come.
Categories: An American Adventure