Hope’s History – Toby, the Terrapin Pianist

By Gertrude (Barbee) Magee

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Thankfully, I remember my Grandfather very well.  I was nine when he died, and I recall being the oldest grandchild and receiving lots of attention.  Alexander Marcus Barbee was an entrepreneur, responsible for several unusual businesses. He became a street car conductor and his route from Savannah, Georgia, took him to an island which terminated at the bank of the inland waterway, known as Isle of Hope.  While making round trips from 1920’s Savannah, he noticed numerous strange turtles crossing over the street car tracks.  He gathered several of these creatures and discovered that they were “Diamond Back Terrapin,” named for the markings on their backs.

The terrapin were plentiful in the salt water marshes that surrounded the island and were caught by fisherman, measured and sold as ‘count’—a term used for full-grown females, the meat used for soup. He also found the eggs and noted how they were buried in sand.  Thus, began a business in the raising and canning of Diamond Back Terrapin, a delicacy he discovered in those early days as a street car conductor.  The Diamond Back Terrapin and delicious creamed terrapin soups were canned by Mr. Barbee and his son (my father) and shipped to gourmet restaurants in New York, Boston, and Washington where each chef could create a special dish.

In the early 1900’s, my Grandfather decided to pay a visit to the popular political orator, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) who was Secretary of State. Some way or some how he figured out how to make an appointment with Mr. Bryan in Washington. When they met, he greeted Mr. Bryan with a jovial handshake, wrapping Mr. Bryan’s fingers over a terrapin egg. The heat of his hand caused the baby terrapin to hatch. When the amazed Mr. Bryan discovered with he had this living being in his hand,he insisted to Mr. Barbee:  “You take this home, raise him, and name him Toby.” Mr. Barbee started a regimen of training to teach Toby how to shake hands with the gentlemen, wink at the ladies, and play the piano. Toby became a local celebrity and a beloved pet. (This may sound like an astounding story, but it’s all true!)

Written by  Gertrude (Barbee) Magee who is the oldest grandaughter of the late Alexander Barbee, the Terrapin King.  She was born in Savannah and lived on IOH until 1942 when she fell for a handsome air force pilot who took her around the world.  Now 95, she lives in Winter Park, Florida and visits Isle of Hope when she can.