A native of the island whose family has had a presence on St. Simons for four generations, Davis says she hadn’t thought of writing a book about her home until she was approached by an editor from the University of Georgia (UGA) Press.
“It was a ‘duh’ moment,” she says. “I always thought I’d write fiction once I’d retired. But I don’t know how to write fiction.” Instead Davis was asked to write a comprehensive history of St. Simons. It was the perfect assignment.
“I’d been a writer so long,” she says, “lived on the island for so long and had so many great stories from my grandmother and my parents. It really was a natural fit.”
The book, An Illustrated History of St. Simons Island, Georgia, includes photographs by Benjamin Galland, another island native. It’s the type of book one usually finds gracing a coffee table, but unlike many of those types of books, this one is a fascinating read.
A longtime journalist with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) before she retired in 2007, Davis dug into her subject with the enthusiasm of a cub reporter.
“I spent a lot of time in Athens in The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at UGA,” she says. She found information at the libraries on St. Simons Island and pored over the archives at the Coastal Georgia Historical Society, also located on St. Simons. Though she was already knowledgeable about her subject, she found some surprises.
“One thing I discovered while talking to a professor of archeology was that the first pottery made in the Americas was probably made on or near St. Simons Island, close to 5,000 years ago,” Davis says. “It had already been invented in the Orient but had never crossed the land bridge. The earliest pottery ever found in the shell ring was found at St. Simons, and they were definitely Paleo Indians on the coast.”
Davis also recounts differing versions of the “Legend of Ebo Landing,” a tragic tale of Ebo slaves who chose to drown in Dunbar Creek, either the result of a slave uprising or mass suicide, rather than live in bondage. “Either way [they died], it was a tragedy and speaks to the Ebo determination not to be enslaved,” says Davis. “When I was growing up, no fisherman, including my mother, would fish there. In her case it was out of respect for the people who drowned there, but in many cases it was because people thought Ebo Landing was haunted.”
The book was a three-year project for Davis, who had to write a proposal, complete with sample chapters, a foreword and marketing study. “I also had to write a complete outline, which I never do when writing,” she says. “I had to do a lot of thinking before I ever started writing.”
Once that process was complete, she was able to get into the research and finally the writing, tapping into her instinctive storytelling ability. “History can be awfully dry if you focus on just places, names and dates. But telling stories brings it alive,” she says. “To me, it’s always about the stories; what happened, then what happened next.”
Davis has a reputation as a solid news reporter and lively writer, freelancing for many years from coastal Georgia for a number of outlets including The New York Times and the AJC. She was hired by the AJC and moved to Atlanta in the 1980s. Davis was with the newspaper for 18 years, first as a general assignment writer then an editor. After she retired, she and her husband moved to Athens to be close to family, and she now divides her time between Athens and St. Simons.
Up next: another book. Davis and Galland recently signed a contract with the UGA Press to produce a similar book about Jekyll Island. She’s excited about the prospect of more storytelling. “Jekyll Island has wonderful archives,” says Davis.
“I want to write a whole arc of island history, from the shifting sands that formed the island to the shifting winds of state politics that shape the island today.”
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