SAVANNAH — The woman who relinquished ownership of one of Georgia's largest barrier islands to ensure its preservation has died at age 108.
The family of Eleanor “Sandy” Torrey West owned Ossabaw Island for more than five decades before she sold it in 1978 to the state of Georgia for $8 million. The deal required the island's 26,000 acres (10,520 hectares) of beach, marsh and maritime forest remain undeveloped and used only for study, research, education and conservation.
West's grandson, Beryl Gilothwest, confirmed that she died Sunday on her 108th birthday, the Savannah Morning News reported.
"She felt so extraordinarily lucky to have Ossabaw in her life,” Gilothwest said. “It completely changed her life from the moment she stepped foot on it when her parents bought it in 1924.”
West's wealthy parents bought Ossabaw Island, Georgia's third-largest barrier island located south of Savannah, when she was 11 years old. The family built a Spanish Colonial Revival mansion on the island and used it as a winter retreat to escape the cold of Michigan.
West inherited the island in 1960 and began using it to host retreats for writers, artists and scientists. Her guests included writers Ralph Ellison, Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker; composer Aaron Copland and ecologist Eugene Odum.
Despite her love for the island and its abundant wildlife, property taxes made it tough for West to keep Ossabaw in private ownership. She rejected offers from private developers and sold the island to the state for what the Ossabaw Island Foundation says was half its assessed value.
Terms of the sale allowed West to keep an estate on the island for the rest of her life. She lived there full time for nearly 30 years until 2016, when West moved to the mainland at age 103.
“It is hard to imagine that the death of someone at age 108 is surprising, but we are in shock over the loss of our visionary and friend,” Elizabeth DuBose, executive director of the Ossabaw Island Foundation, said in a statement. “Ossabaw Island as we know it exists because of Mrs. West, and Georgia is a better place because of her life’s work."