40 years ago, I came to Cumberland Island with some school friends. I was the only female in the group but was happy to be included in order to see this island which had recently become a national park and protected seashore. Even four decades later, it is largely undiscovered and is limited to 300 visitors per day, most of whom are delivered via a ferry from St. Mary’s, Georgia.
Often when one revisits a beloved memory, it disappoints, paling in reality to the memory which has many times been enhanced by loving recollection and the sharing of its highlights. Cumberland Island doesn’t disappoint. If anything, my new memory builds on and burnishes the old memory, increasing its glow. Both will now entangle themselves into an even deeper impression of a land that is lost in time.
Cumberland Island enjoys a rich history of inhabitants beginning with the Timucuan, who co-existed amicably with the French and the Spanish explorers and missionaries. When the British arrived, bringing yellow fever, that was the end of the Timucuan. The English were dispatched after the Revolutionary War and General Nathaniel Greene was granted a large part of Cumberland Island for his wartime contribution. There were other settlers who made fortunes in rice, citrus and lumber on Cumberland Island and it later became popular when it became home to the Carnegie family during the 1880’s and so became a playground for the rich. Lucy Carnegie was a conservationist long before it became popular, willing the land to her grandchildren rather than to her spoiled offspring who she feared would sell it for the money it would command. The eight grandchildren battled developers who wanted to build thousands of homes here and eventually donated the land to the United States government with the agreement that it would become a nationally protected seashore and park. There remain a few private homes and the Greyfield Inn but other than those parcels, the island is largely undisturbed.
Cumberland briefly hit the headlines in 1996 when JFK Jr. was stealthily married at the First African American church situated on the north end of the island. This church was the first church ever to be completely built by and for former slaves. Earlier, John had come to the island as the guest of a friend whose family owned the Greyfield Inn and had loved the fact that the press couldn’t find him here. He enjoyed running on the beach, which is the longest stretch of undeveloped beach in the United States. He could run for hours and never see another human being, an unusual event in his press-beleaguered life.
I had felt this same enjoyment four decades ago when I went to the beach during the day while my fellow campers did whatever college-aged boys do while camping. I felt as if I had entered another world where I was the only human being. I found bleached sea turtles femurs, brittle exoskeletons of horseshoe crabs, the skull of a large ray and shells of all kinds. It was isolated and soul-nourishing in a way that I had never before experienced.
It isn’t just the beach that engenders these kinds of feelings. Walking on the paths under majestic live oaks, swinging with Spanish Moss, the feeling is similar. Sharing these experiences is a little intimidating. There is no guarantee that the other person will feel the same way that you do or experience the same sense of awe that you do but I am not sharing this with just anyone. My husband has a quiet appreciation of nature and a strong desire to learn all that he can about the natural world and so I am thrilled when he is as entranced by the scenery and its inhabitants as I am.
On the south end of the island the feel is tropical, with palmettos standing guard on all sides of the walking paths; while on the northern end of the island, the feel is more like mainland Georgia with towering Georgia Pines and blankets of pine needles on the sun-dappled ground.
We see wild horses from the boat as we approach Cumberland Island, grazing in the marshes and then again later as we walk the island.
They are wild but are not overly concerned with us, other than keeping distance between us and their young. There have been horses on the island for a long time. A few came over with the Spanish, many more came over with the British and then almost all of them were removed during the civil war. Since then, more horses were introduced to work the plantations, citrus groves and sawmills and there were even 50 horses were stabled in the Carnegie carriage house. According to a University of Georgia and University of Kentucky genetic study, today’s feral horses are descendants of domestic breeds such as Tennessee Walkers, American Quarter Horses, Arabians, and Paso Finos. According to one historical account, there may also be blood from American Mustangs, burrows and maybe even retired circus horses. They are quite territorial, living within about a square mile of where they were born so the genetic strain of the horses on the north end of the island is very different from that of the horses on the southern end of the island.
Having walked the south end of the island the day we anchored here to explore the ruins of Dungeness,
today we decide to hike the more extensive north end of the island. The ranger at the welcome station advises us that it is a 7 mile walk to Plum Orchard, Lucy Carnegie’s house which has been restored.
We decide we can do that without a problem. But after three or four miles the shiny-penny kicks in when we see a marker to the beach. So, we detour off to the beach which is glorious in the early morning sun. We see 2 horses way away down the beach and not another living soul. We walk north on the beach for a while and find another path that leads over the dunes closer to where we are supposed to be.
The terrain changes appreciably, taking us through swampy lowlands, where we spy two baby gators sunning themselves among the bulrushes. Thankfully, we don’t see mama anywhere and we continue to walk along the narrow boardwalk, detouring through a campsite with colorful hammocks slung among the pines and young people just starting their day. Finally we are back on the path to Plum Orchard.
The day is heating up when we finally arrive at the grand mansion, a little too late for the start of one of the complimentary tours but luckily they allow us to join into the group in progress. The mansion is amazing, all dark wood interiors, modern (for its day) indoor plumbing, heated towel racks and spacious bedrooms and baths. There is even a fire suppression system, which would have been excellent to have in a largely wooden house.
Though the home was abandoned and left unattended for decades (our guide remembers exploring the home as a child by climbing through the glassless windows) the two Tiffany stained glass lamps still hang suspended in the game room. They are gorgeous, appearing to be patterned after the scutes of a turtle shell but when I look at the underside, each leaded section looks exactly like an oyster, complete with a pearl. It is amazing that they were never stolen or vandalized. Having been uniquely designed for this home, they are now considered priceless.
Done with the family’s portion of the house, we now explore the kitchen and servants’ areas which are also impressively large, bright and airy. This is where we learn about doorknobs. The doors where the family and guests would be welcome all have solid crystal, globe doorknobs. The spaces where these same people and their personal servants would have frequented have the crystal globe doorknob on the family side of the door and a cut crystal doorknob on the valet and lady’s maid’s side of the door. On the doors where the servants would be bringing in produce, coal, wood and other necessities there would be black doorknobs on both sides, as the family and guests never frequented such areas of the home. This system was popular in all the houses of this social class so that the personal servants could travel to any home yet never embarrass their masters by being seen somewhere they were not supposed to be. The doorknobs were the key to the social class system in homes from Cape Cod to Cumberland Island.
The tour finishes up with the indoor squash quart and indoor swimming pool and we are adjourned to enjoy whatever we have brought for lunch anywhere on the grounds. At this point our seven mile walk has stretched to 9.1 because of our detours and my feet are not looking forward to the walk back. Jerry surprises me by asking the tour guide if they have room for 2 more in the van and his reply, made in a true southern gentleman patois was, “Sure, we’ll make room for y’all!” And they do. Much to our surprise, we are included in the rest of the tour which goes for 2 more hours and allows us access to places we wouldn’t have otherwise visited and also allows me to share much of the history that I have related here. My feet are happily delivered back to the dinghy dock and we arrive back aboard Makin Memories in time for a refreshing drink and a gorgeous sunset.
Since then, we have met many people who anchored at Cumberland Island but they never even went ashore and I feel blessed that we had perfect weather and time enough to really do an in-depth explore of the island. I know we will experience many wonderful people and places in the months to come, yet I am positive that this visit will always stand out as one of the most special.