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WEEK NINE - A Noble History

March 9, 2017


     There's a strange, albeit tenuous, past connection between myself and St. Catherines Island, one that began long before I was born. The year was 1913 and the place was the state of New York. Grand Central Terminal became the world's largest train station, the Woolworth Building became the tallest building in the world, and a man named Edward John Noble founded the Life Savers Candy Company. Seven years after, the building that housed the headquarters of the company until 1984 was built in Westchester County, where it stood adorned with jumbo rolls of the famous confection. It was on these oversized cylinders that my own dear grandmother climbed and clambered as a child. To be certain, she was not the only young New Yorker to do this, but I'm willing to bet good money that she's the only one who's granddaughter grew up to be a lemur intern on St. Catherines. 


     The Life Savers connection is significant because, in 1943, the very same Edward John Noble who founded that company (and founded the American Broadcasting Company and chaired the Civil Aeronautics Authority AND served as Secretary of Commerce) purchased St. Catherines Island. It seems he used the island mainly for raising cattle and as a meeting place for his corporation. In 1958, E.J. Noble passed on and his legacy went to his daughter, June Noble Larkin. She and her husband, with one other partner, decided that the island should be used as a place for research and conservation. That's when they enlisted the aid of the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Zoological Society, and Dr. Eugene Odum from the University of Georgia (there's another connection) to draft up a plan. Although today the island is owned by the St. Catherines Island Foundation, its financial support still comes from the E.J. Noble Foundation and one of June's sons, E.J. Noble Larkin, maintains a grand estate here. 



     The Nobles were not the first owners of the island, of course. There's a long history of European occupation of St. Catherines, beginning with the Spanish who landed in the mid 16th century. In true conquistador fashion, they took the land from the indigenous people and erected a Catholic church. That church is thought to be the first in Georgia and a group of archaeologists from the American Museum of Natural History regularly visits to hunt around the old mission site for pottery shards and beads. Naturally, there are human remains too, scattered around. Most of the graves are unmarked, the people buried there unrecognized. The King of Spain was the official owner of St. Catherines until 1670, when the State of South Carolina took it over. Then, it passed to Mary Musgrove, the famous interpreter and advocate for the Creek people, in the mid 18th century (twice). A string of European owners followed, the island being repossessed and confiscated several times by various governments.


     I like to think that somewhere along the line, pirates arrived with crates brimming with rum and gold. After all, Blackbeard Island is so close to the southern tip of St. Catherines that I could probably kayak there (that is, if I'd be caught dead in a kayak). Savannah is a short drive north and has a rich history of privateering and hosting seafaring ruffians. It seems naive then, to think that our island was passed by between the two, untouched by the black boots of scurvy scallywags. Wouldn't the archaeologists be amazed to find that they'd overlooked a chest of Spanish Royals? Would pirate rum still be good after centuries in casks? I'd love to find out the answers to those questions, but for now I'll settle for the more approachable goals of discovering how to weave a basket out of pine needles and finding out how to tell a red-tailed hawk from a red-shouldered hawk. 


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