Friday, September 15, 2000

The Golden Isles of Georgia

Written in 2000 for Islands magazine. This was my second collaboration with photographer Macduff Everton. 

Back in the 1970s, my mother and I made regular pilgrimages to the Georgia coast during my spring vacations. From the port of Brunswick, we’d cross a causeway to an island that seemed to me, at age fifteen or twenty, a quietly funky heaven of sand, sea, spartina grass, and motley year-rounders. The idea of an island linked to the mainland seemed perfect: all the usual advantages, and few of the customary difficulties. It was easy to imagine coming back when I was older, maybe settling in for several months to write.

But I never did. My life took me to New York, and overseas for many years, then finally to New England. Yet fantasies have a way of coming up in casual conversation, and after I moved up north, I was always surprised at how few snowbirds, migrating annually, had heard of the barrier islands that hug virtually the entire 150 miles of Georgia coast. Recently I decided to find out if the decades had been kind to them.

Eight are large enough to be named on maps. Ossabaw, St. Catherines, and Blackbeard are state nature preserves, with only a few researchers and no visitors. Continuing south, Sapelo, Sea Island, St. Simons, Jekyll, and Cumberland were still names I at least recognized from years ago—though I knew I’d never visited all of them, and (even worse) couldn’t be sure which technicolor fragment of teenage memory belonged where.

Part of my beginnings as a writer were on those isles; my second novel, never published, was set along that coast. I had an acute memory of how the islands were a unique, unusual incarnation of the south—surrounded by salt marshes, with an otherworldly poetry all their own. So I flew to Savannah, drove south to Brunswick, and crossed the first bridge.

St. Simons was where my mother and I always stayed, the only island with a significant population (about 25,000) and plenty of motels. Here once again was the dense scent of pines I remembered, the same coastal breeze. The road through the island looked far more commercial than before—swank new malls and gated “communities” alongside the much more satisfying anarchy of the Georgia woods. I headed for the Village, the island’s compact hub, with its fishing pier, its clustered vacation shops, its lackadaisical bygone air, and its elegant 19th century lighthouse. I was glad to see that so little had changed; you couldn’t get a designer coffee, though you could find 1950s-style flip-flops.

No Butchering of Large Fish On Pier said the sign. Fat kids in swimsuits were leaping in, and a few regulars were busy with a spigot for cleaning fish on the wood-railed pier. To walk along it was still a promenade worth doing a few times each day; for my mother and me it had always rounded off a fish dinner. I saw now that for her, being English, this spot would’ve held faint echoes of a small-scale British seaside resort. This had never occurred to me before.

Here too was our changeless motel, the Queen’s Court, with its serene gardens around a modest pool, where I wrote a chunk of my first novel at age eighteen and solidified a lifelong work pattern (black pen, yellow legal pad) on instinct alone. I remembered scribbling in the drowsy heat, a few kids splashing away and paradoxically helping my concentration, nursing the vague sensation that there were many more books in me and wondering what they might be.

In a used bookstore a block away I fell into conversation about those old days with Bill Baxter, a hefty man who helped run the shop. He said, “You bet St. Simons has changed a lot in two decades. Now we’re busy year round.”

“I suppose the shopkeepers like that.”

“Well, some do. Personally, I don’t like all the money here now—lot of folks who work here have to live over in Brunswick, on the mainland. It’s hard to find a reasonable place to rent unless you’ve been on St. Simons a long time. And I wish they wouldn’t keep cutting trees down for all the new shopping centers. It makes me mad when they do that.”

I could only agree: it seemed a betrayal of those beloved Georgia woods.

I had one more pilgrimage to make. Just up the road, at Fort Frederica, I realized I’d forgotten how little there was to see of Georgia’s original military town, which held back and ultimately defeated a Spanish force moving out of Florida—a barracks tower, the odd house foundation, the stone remains of the fort’s magazine. But the site is superb, with a view across the marsh. A few cannon (range: one mile) make it evident why Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia in 1733, chose this spot for his settlement of 1500, which survived barely twenty years. Once the Spanish were gone, it had outlived its usefulness.

I was staying on Sea Island, smallest of the isles, linked to St. Simons by a bridge even I could throw a stone across. House by house, it has some of the most expensive residences in the country, and grew up around a classic hotel resort called the Cloister (1928), designed by the master architect of Florida’s grand villas, Addison Mizner. Unfortunately, too little of Mizner’s detailed design has been preserved in the original tawny stucco building, and the new parts of the resort bear no connection to his serene Italianate vision. The Cloister remains a honeymoon of choice among Southern families with money, and thrives off golf courses over on St. Simons, a faithful staff, and the aura of a private island. Although the beach is still legally public, it looked more awkward for interlopers like my mother and me to come enjoy it for the day.

Apart from St. Simons, most of these islands were privately owned by millionaires for much of the 20th century; their present undeveloped condition is the result. Sea Island is the only one still in private hands—a family called Jones, who also control much of the unbuilt land on St. Simons. On both isles local chat oscillates between blame on the Jones family for the developments taking place, gratitude for so much that hasn’t, or a grudging it-could-be-worse.

And there isn’t much to narrow Sea Island: the resort and a systematic avenue of houses, with brief streets leading away either to the marsh or the Atlantic beach. At high noon I went for a walk in stupefying June heat and, pouring sweat and swatting bugs, I ran into a gardener who set me straight on prices, since—the literary life being uncertain—I am always in the market for prime real estate.

“You want something on the beach? Five to ten million. You don’t have to be on the beach, you can get away with four million.”

I said I absolutely had to be on the beach, but perhaps I might rent for a while first.

“You’re looking at six, seven thousand a week. There’s so much money now that people are lined up to try to buy. And all these new houses going up.”

More new houses? It looks impossible to build more on Sea Island. I had memories of plenty of open space, but most empty lots have now been built on, right to the end of the island. People were paying a great deal to be part of a community whose appeal was based on a quaintness that was no longer the case; and I could count on my fingers how many of the new houses had any aesthetic to them.

One beautiful exception—at first I thought I was hallucinating—was the house of architect John Portman, on 26th Street by the beach. It is almost beyond belief in context, for amid the low ordinary houses rises a playful white concrete and glass fantasy ten times their size, partly hidden by an ivied wall, with a sculpted nude dancer just visible. It could be the modern art museum of some major city, with a gigantic white arbor, immense windows, squiggles and commas and stacked cubes, walkways and audacious white beams running across, a helipad on the roof and a living room that revolves.

A writer who’d had the right idea long before me was Eugene O’Neill, who built a house here with his wife, Carlotta, in 1931—the Casa Genotta. Though closed to the public, I could just see the house, apparently of woven brick, from the beach at 19th Street. O’Neill’s second floor study was designed to resemble a captain’s quarters at the stern of a ship, with tilted windows and a view of the beach. There he wrote Day Without End, a religious play, and Ah, Wilderness, his lightest, and tried out his version of my fantasy. Apparently the O’Neills were very reclusive: she only went out once a week, to pay the bills, and he rarely went out at all. Imagining the view from his study, this was easy to understand, since the sea would’ve filled the horizon above his typewriter.

An hour’s drive north, at the sleepy, well-preserved mainland port of Darien, I barely made a punctual ferry that runs thrice daily to Sapelo. As we crossed the calm waters of an immense salt marsh, my fellow passengers, all surrounded by boxes of food, made clear this was another world. Sapelo is the sole island with a predominantly black population, descendants of ex- slaves who have owned their own land, called Hog Hammock, since the Civil War. With only ninety residents total, the situation on Sapelo, otherwise owned mostly by the state and formerly by millionaires, is of Byzantine complexity.

The island is managed (using federal funds) by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which provides free water, road repairs, and a ferry pass at a nominal fee for Hog Hammock residents. The state doesn’t offer private docking facilities; they manage a reservations-only campground, but you can’t bring over a bicycle. Sapelo—twelve miles long, three to five miles wide, with seven miles of beaches—is less developed now than a hundred years ago.

This meant you could camp out, or stay overnight with a resident (say, at a guest house in Hog Hammock, like me) or else with the University of Georgia Marine Institute, whose research facility has been here since 1953 and which some locals consider part of the island, some not. Most visitors, ten thousand annually, come over by the day for a three-hour DNR tour: the mansion, a beach, the old lighthouse, and Hog Hammock, where a few residents sell their dolls, quilts, grapevine wreaths. and baskets. But the day-trippers are usually gone around lunchtime, so they get little idea of the island’s life.

Ceaser Banks, a grizzled gentleman of great warmth, met me at the dock. With his wife Nancy, he runs The Weekender guest house. In his van we rattled over the only road (which Sapelonians called the “autobahn”) to Hog Hammock—400-plus acres of neat houses, trailer homes, and planted fields among pines, palmetto, and live oak. “At this very moment,” he announced, “we have sixty-seven residents, two bars, and two churches that swap from week to week. Seventeen kids go to school on the mainland by morning ferry.”

“So what are you missing, Ceaser?”

“Well, we have no McDonald’s. And no crime.”

There are other limitations. Gas can be only bought for one hour on Tuesday, one hour on Friday. Grocery orders come over by ferry twice a week. The alternative, in the heart of Hog Hammock, is the BJ Confectionary, open daily. Inside, besides the shelves of staples, were framed pictures of FDR, a tv, sofas, family sports trophies, and a photo of B.J. with Jimmy Carter, who liked visiting Sapelo. The store is run by B.J.’s grandson, Tracy Alexander, a soft-spoken man in his forties, with gentle eyes and a tolerant smile.

I bought a couple of cold drinks and got Tracy to reminisce about his trucking days in California before coming back to Sapelo. I said, “It must seem pretty quiet here after living on the West Coast.”

He murmured genially, “Well, we’ve never had anybody sue anybody else. The biggest crime around here is gossip and slander.”

“That makes it unique.”

“Not really. You can look through America and find plenty of rural communities like this one. The Mayberries and the Hootervilles. What makes Sapelo special is water—the ordeal of water. The water we have to go across to get here or to get off here. It makes neighborliness different, it makes race relations different, because we don’t have a choice. When we know we’re all in this together, I don’t take advantage of you and you don’t take advantage of me.”

Another longtime resident, Cornelia Bailey—who has just published a Sapelo memoir, God, Doctor Buzzard, and the Bolito Man—told me, “A lot of times people come over to Hog Hammock expecting to see old folk speaking Gullah or Geechee. Once there were five communities; now there’s just this one. In 1974 there were three schools, now there’s no school. If we don’t make a decisive plan we’re in trouble.” She shook her head. “Success don’t always come in the form of a dollar sign. As children here we lived by the signs of nature; the old folks still do. I could tell the tides from how the marsh hens laughed. That’s my station in life—to remember these things.”

Late one Hog Hammock afternoon I went to visit Yvonne Grovner, who works days as a DNR guide—she’d shown me around the Reynolds mansion. Yvonne learned basket weaving eight years ago in a small class given by Allen Greene, the acknowledged local master whose baskets are in the Smithsonian. “Allen passed away a couple of years ago, at ninety-three,” Yvonne recalled. “He told me he started making baskets around 1918, having learned from his great- grandfather. From an African design and tradition. Now I have a grant from the Reynolds Foundation to teach a class here myself.” While we talked, Yvonne was making a “sweet grass” basket, using a sawtooth palmetto stem as the thread to hold the basket together, and a nail as the needle.

As day settled down with dogs barking, the blue-gray smoke from tree stumps being burned in a field rose over the road winding among the wooden houses and meticulous gardens and pine woods, the glow faded in an immense sky, and Hog Hammock at twilight became a mystical place, fully alive.

That night Ceaser promised to wake me at dawn for an early walk. “Say something to me in Geechee,” I asked him—like Gullah, a mix of English and African syntax and vocabulary, with various southernisms added.

He smiled broadly. “I’ll see you when day clean,” he said.

Much of the other half of the Sapelo story was contained in a single building. The Reynolds mansion turned out to be graceful and elegant; its lines are curved, and low, shaded by palms and live oaks. Originally built by the planter who owned Sapelo and kept a thousand slaves until the Civil War, it was revived in the 1920s by a man named Coffin, who also owned much of the island and received guests like Coolidge, Hoover, and Lindbergh before selling to R. J. Reynolds, the cigarette millionaire. In 1969 Reynolds’ widow sold the mansion, and (once again) most of Sapelo, this time to the state. It was no wonder Hog Hammock kept feeling like an island within an island.

Nowadays the Marine Institute appropriately occupies the out-buildings adjoining the mansion grounds, with resident ecologists, biologists, chemists, technicians, grad students, and interns. There I met with geologist Jon Garbisch, who made time to walk with me beside the marsh before meeting his wife and kids off the last ferry. I wondered aloud if many scientists stayed here long with their families and he grinned. “Some faculty have lived here for over twenty years. There’s plenty to study—close to 900 papers have been written about Sapelo in all the various sciences. The lab is the whole island.”

Standing at sunset looking over a shimmer of green spartina grass, the Marine Institute seemed a good life, assuming you got along well with your neighbors and your colleagues. I told Jon I’d read how Sapelo’s marsh was as pristine as a coastal marsh could be—four to five miles of spartina that was “hardly impacted.” It didn’t seem possible, I said; surely the mainland was too close.

“Not at all. The last major development in the area was Darien, as a timber port back in the 1880s. We get two extremely high tides here daily that wash out the entire marsh with fresh oxygen and new nutrients. The result is that things grow twice as fast as in the Carolinas. See, nothing is static here. Everything is changing, but everything is adapted to change.”

The next day I took a long walk on Nanny Goat, which Jon had called “as pristine a beach as we have on this coast.” It was a wide expanse, with a stiff breeze sending wisps of sand scurrying in jet-trails. There was mild surf, which I didn’t see on other islands, and a wind-agitated sea farther out; the horizon was dotted with shrimp boats with wings extended. But they kept their distance, and after an hour I decided it was as majestic and peaceful a beach as this country has to offer, with absolutely no one else on it. It was irrelevant that I’d never seen it as a child, since it wouldn’t have been any different.

I’d visited Jekyll back then, though I had no memory of it. The island is a mere few minutes’ ride over a marsh causeway from Brunswick, right near St. Simons; its beach, longer than the island itself, runs for ten miles, with little surf. What I recalled instead were those schoolmates in Macon, where I grew up, whose families had rented houses on Jekyll for the entire summer; thus I imagined it an exclusive place. In early photographs the millionaires pose here on horseback, with satisfied grins at “roughing it,” for a century ago Jekyll was a club, a private island owned by a few industrialists who bought it in 1886 from the original French planters. For six decades you didn’t get on or off the island without a pass, and guests needed the approval of a club committee.

Today it feels remarkably innocent, the houses set spaciously apart, no hotels taller than any tree and no sense of exploitation. I came expecting a stodgy nostalgia for a privileged yesteryear, but instead found a quiet island of no pretensions, an odd mix of the relaxed year-rounder, campers here to go fishing, and tourists enjoying the preserved honor-guard of mansions or biking on trails amid live oak, trumpet vine, jasmine and wisteria. Only eight miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide, Jekyll is a state park: only 35% may ever be developed.

The epicenter of it all, a recently-restored hotel, was once the Jekyll Island Club—completed in 1887, with dining room, reading room, billiards room, ladies’ parlor, and card room, with a circular tower and wraparound porches. Nearby lots were planned so no “cottage” would be more than a quarter mile away. Jekyll had a three-month winter season; the mansions were mostly shingle style, built through the Twenties for Pulitzers, Vanderbilts, J.P. Morgan with his own indoor tennis courts and yacht. I particularly liked Mrs. Rockefeller’s house—not for sale, unfortunately—and her insistence on a dumb waiter in her bedroom, so servants could pull her up and down.

“It was a Who’s Who of the industrial world of the late 19th century,” June McCash said to me one afternoon on the restored hotel’s porch, where we sat in rocking chairs sipping lemonade. A medieval professor in Tennessee, since buying a home here fifteen years ago (though her intention was to find time to write in her field) McCash has authored several books of local history.

I told her how hard it was to imagine this place empty and abandoned, after so much money had gone into setting it up in the first place.

She shrugged. “Many of those affluent and powerful went through a difficult Depression. Jekyll Club membership kept falling, and the last original member died in ’38. Their kids found this a Victorian, musty place. People just wanted something more jet-set. So the club closed in ’42 and planned to reopen a year later, but a German sub was found in Brunswick harbor, and that was that. The war was a coup de grace.” In 1947 the state bought Jekyll and those mansions for $675,000; many had reverted to the club for non-payment of dues.

Now there are about a thousand residents, with plenty of part-timers from out-of-state who turn into Jekyll Islanders as soon as they open the shutters. I asked the maitre d’ at the hotel dining room, Joseph Ferrari, about them. A white-haired Italian gentleman with a courtly manner, a veteran of the Plaza in New York for nearly thirty years, he laughed. “The residents come sit around the pool like Roman senators, you know. They gossip and decide whom to like and whom to kill. The thumbs up or the thumbs down.”

Yet even on Memorial Day weekend Jekyll still felt uncrowded, and the beach was so long and wide there was no need for the joggers, shellers, kids, and honeymooners to avoid each other. It was all protected, and huge tracts were kept wild, yet you could buy the New York Times every morning. In the end Jekyll was the only island where my youthful fantasy still felt fully viable, where—with an adjusted income—I could actually imagine settling.

Cumberland is a third larger than Manhattan, roughly the same shape, but otherwise its antithesis: a nature island which mostly belongs to the nation. Barely in Georgia, it’s reached by ferry across a strait from north Florida. You can stay for the day, or hike to a campsite if you’re willing to lug everything you need. Or else, as I did, stay at an inn by turns lavish and rustic called Greyfield, built as a mansion by the Carnegie family at the turn of the century and run by descendants. In 1900, 90% of the island was in Carnegie hands; in 1972 the Park Service made 90% of Cumberland a “national seashore.”

Cumberland is the largest Georgia island, with the greatest diversity of plant and animal life. More than any other, it seems a conspiracy of nature to make up for the fact that man was here in force once; and much federal effort is being expended to help. The island has a furious profusion, an explosive sense of dynamic life growing and braiding everywhere—from feral horses wandering a beach, to the armadillo patiently going around a few unexpected humans, to squadrons of butterflies flicking through a mimosa tree at dusk.

The couple I met on the porch at the Greyfield Inn were rewarding themselves after camping out a few miles away. Kelly, a law student, and her husband Andy, a chemical engineer, had been under siege by mosquitos for five days, and they were glad to be at this turn-of-the-century house of informal grandeur on a large scale, with its wood-paneled libraries, a generous porch with rocking chairs, the first-rate dining room. They’d enjoyed both extremes of the island, and as Kelly said, “Once we realized it was all right, we’d hike from our campsite and spend every afternoon reading in a swing on the porch of Plum Orchard, this abandoned old Carnegie mansion. Every now and then someone would stop by to look around, stare at us, then move on.”

One morning with Fred Whitehead, a former park ranger now with Greyfield, I raced in a Land Rover down the 17½-mile beach on the Atlantic side, with low grassy dunes on our left and a few shrimp boats to sea on our right. At the water’s edge were pelicans and smaller royal terns assembled around them, a support system mildly watching for danger. Many animals here—like the horses that roam the island—are unexpectedly tame, and perceive people not as a threat but rather a petty annoyance to slowly walk away from.

This is recent history only, for after the usual pattern of Indian tribes, Spanish missionaries, and British conquest, under slave labor the island’s vast forests of live oak had been entirely, surgically pillaged for ships’ frames—timbers for the USS Constitution came from Cumberland.

Miles down the beach, turning inland, we reached Halfmoon Bluff, a settlement bought after the Civil War by several families of ex-slaves. Now only a few ramshackle houses, its core is the African Baptist Church—worn white planks with painted-over windows to keep it cool against the heat ticking away. It was no longer used, though J.F.K. Jr. and Carolyn had married here. I pushed open the church door; inside were only a threadbare rug, a broom stood upside-down in a corner, and a small cross of rough branches.

Farther on we came to Plum Orchard, a flaking, rotting white colossus framed by royal palms and shut tight. I peered through grimy windows at a tiled swimming pool, fine floors, dark furniture. Later that day I visited its predecessor, Dungeness, at the other end of the island—a mansion that once included forty out-buildings, served by a staff of 300. Having burned down in the ’50s, Dungeness is an overgrown stone ruin, with feral horses grazing the circular drive. On Cumberland it felt unbelievable, at a remove of a century, that millionaires had once owned these islands and built sumptuous mansions against their wildness. Nature, on this hot June day, looked highly efficient.

It struck me repeatedly, in my two weeks on Georgia’s isles, how very few places in the world you can go back to a quarter-century later and not feel dislocated by, much less cheated. By and large these islands were actually even improving, and in a curious way, the ones I’d never visited before began to feel as familiar as the ones I’d thought about all these years. I hadn’t realized their natural beauty had left such a strong imprint on me; I’d have said it was my sense of how people lived here. Now I realized I liked them better empty.

It was soothing to bike along a road of sand and crushed oyster shells beneath the arcade of live oaks that runs the length of Cumberland, to take a path through dense woods whiskered with Spanish moss and engulfed by the fierce humming of cicadas in the heat, to see the path eventually open onto mile after mile of beach. I’d remembered right for all these years; I’d remember again.

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