The Rauers family sold St. Catherines Island to three investors (Keys, Coffin, and Wilson) from Detroit in 1929. Howard Coffin is well known for his involvement with St. Simons Island, Sea Island, and his restoration of a mansion on Sapelo Island that is today called “The Reynolds’ Mansion.” Between 1929 and 1931, the three restored one of the tabby slave cabins known today as Button Cabin. They also built a powerhouse for generating electricity, which is used today for a classroom, lab, and the island director’s office. Six additional guest cabins were constructed along an avenue near Button Cabin (called the Shell Road). All seven guest cabins are still in use today by visiting scientists and students. The threesome demolished the Rauers family’s mansion, built three staff houses (one is still standing today), added extensively to the Button Gwinnett house, and built a house for the superintendent. The Great Depression had a negative impact on the fortunes of the three, and Wilson never occupied the house that was built for him. Howard Coffin died, Wilson left, and the Keys attempted to continue solo with their plans for SCI. In 1937, St. Catherines Island reverted back to the Rauers family. In an attempt to offset expenses, the Rauers family cut and sold timber. The Rauers family had cut most of the old-growth pine by the time they sold St. Catherines Island to Edward J. Noble of New York in 1943. At that time, there was a horse-mounted National Guard and Coast Guard unit housed in a barracks on the island’s South Beach. The men were also housed in a couple of the north end cabins. The Coast Guard’s mission was to patrol for U-Boats.
After the end of World War II, Noble had one of the cut-over forests cleared—stumps were removed, land was leveled, bahiagrass was planted, and black Angus cattle were introduced. Noble owned the Life Savers candy company and, during the 1950s, he hosted corporate meetings of that company on the island. He also hosted such guests as former President Dwight D. Eisenhower and former President Richard Nixon.
Around 1930, the Keys family hired John Toby Woods to supervise their activities on the island. Mr. Toby, as staff called him, worked for the Keys family, the Rauers family, Noble, and for the E.J. Noble estate. His son, John Toby Woods, Jr., became the island’s superintendent for the E.J. Noble estate in 1962, for the E.J. Noble Foundation from 1969 to 1981, and for the St. Catherine’s Island Foundation from 1981 to 1982.
In the late 1960s, June Noble Larkin, Frank Y. Larkin, and Al Chapman began to research different options for how the island could be best put to use while still retaining its special wildness. A consultant was hired to write a conservation plan, and they sought the advice of scientists and conservationists from the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Zoological Society (NYZS), and the University of Georgia. Dr. Eugene Odum was one of the scientists from the University of Georgia sought out by the Larkins.
The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) was asked to supervise a research program on the island and the NYZS agreed to run a “survival center” for the breeding of endangered wildlife species. In 1972, the first researchers from the AMNH came to SCI in order to conduct surveys of flora and fauna on the island. In 1974, the NYZS brought the first endangered animals to SCI, and Dr. David Hurst Thomas of the AMNH arrived to see if the island had any potential for archaeological research. Though the survival center closed in 2004, Thomas continues to direct archaeological research on the island.
The title of the island was transferred to the St. Catherines Island Foundation in 1981. The Noble Foundation is still the main source of funding for the research, education, and conservation programs being conducted on the island.
From 1974 to 2007, the Wildlife Conservation Society operated a breeding facility on St. Catherines Island for rare and endangered species. As a result of this ambitious project, several thousand mammals, birds, and reptiles of 54 different species lived in the island’s facilities over its 33-year existence. The breeding facilities are located in the southern section of the main Compound, although few are in use today.
Animals bred at the center included:
The Bronx Zoo has closed a large animal preserve on a 14,000-acre undeveloped island off the coast of Georgia, where for 30 years zoologists have studied – among other things – the mating habits of wildlife, including lemurs, hartebeests, zebras, tortoises, gazelles and several species of exotic birds.
In the interior of St. Catherines Island, deer roam freely and wild hogs jog playfully throughout the woods. Suddenly, in the distance, a sound not native to the area is heard. A group of ring-tailed lemurs hangs from the trees, a small herd of African Jackson hartebeests prances by, and an exotic great hornbill bird is spotted. Welcome to the sanctuary of St. Catherines Island Wildlife Survival Center.