Howard Coffin (1873-1937)
A successful pioneer in the automobile industry, Howard Coffin rebuilt an abandoned antebellum mansion on Sapelo Island and revitalized the agricultural potential on it, developed St. Simons Island and Sea Island as Georgia's premier coastal tourist destinations, and provided seed money for the mighty pulpwood industry that continues to thrive in the state's Coastal Plain.
Born in 1873, Howard Earle Coffin grew up on an Ohio farm and in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he studied engineering at the University of Michigan.
Coffin is known in automotive circles as the Father of Standardization, a result of his initiative in standardizing material and design specifications and in arranging for automobile manufacturers to share their patents. These accomplishments enabled the American automobile industry to grow quickly.
Before World War I (1917-18) Coffin served on the Naval Consulting Board, which helped plan the possible involvement of the United States in that conflict.
After the war Coffin helped launch the nation's commercial aviation program. He helped found and served as board chairman of the National Air Transport Company, a forerunner of United Airlines. In 1925 he served on the Morrow Board, which President Calvin Coolidge named to investigate and make recommendations regarding the federal government's role in air safety and in creating an air defense system. The board's recommendations established the principle of federal regulation of civilian flying, a vital step toward a federal air law.
Automobile racing first drew Coffin to Georgia. He considered racing as a means to test and advertise early automobiles, several of which he had designed. At a 1911 contest in Savannah he learned that Sapelo Island was for sale. Coffin and his wife, Teddie, who had visited the coastal area, jumped at the chance to buy 20,000 acres of the Sapelo Island land and marsh for $120,000.
He constructed a palatial home on Sapelo Island, using the existing tabby walls and foundation that had constituted Thomas Spalding's antebellum mansion. What followed were numerous improvements to the island: he had drainage ditches blasted, fields cleared, an oyster-canning facility constructed, and roads cut. Soon Sapelo was host to a number of dignitaries, including aviator Charles Lindbergh, President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, and President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover.
During this period Coffin bought vast tracts of land along coastal Georgia, and when paved roads began penetrating the area he foresaw the potential for tourism.
A causeway constructed during the 1920s between the mainland and St. Simons Island enabled tourists and day visitors to reach the beach area easily. Coffin used his floating dredges to strengthen the existing causeway and also to build a causeway between St. Simons and Sea Island. This ensured the success of the Cloister, the only major resort between Miami, Florida, and the golfing community of Pinehurst, North Carolina.
Coffin made another major contribution to coastal Georgia's economy by recognizing the area's potential for growing pine trees that could be used as pulpwood. In 1927 he invested $10,000 in an experiment to determine if pine chips from Georgia trees could be processed into paper pulp. The success of this led to the creation of the Brunswick Pulp and Paper Company, one of the many pulp mills that now dot the eastern seaboard.
Coffin died in 1937. His Sea Island resort, still run by family members, is scheduled to be razed and rebuilt closer to the Black Banks River by 2006. His Sapelo Island mansion is owned and operated by the state of Georgia. Georgia's vibrant coastal area is his most visible and significant contribution, along with the pulpwood industry he foresaw and actively supported.
Maxwell Taylor Courson, "Howard Earle Coffin, King of the Georgia Coast," Georgia Historical Quarterly 83 (summer 1999): 322-41.
Maxwell Taylor Courson, Valrico, Florida
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