The two Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia that we visited this week are a study in cultural contrasts.
Both have important history and beautiful beaches. But Jekyll Island is a land of paved bike trails, golf-and-tennis clubs and mansions bearing names like Gould, Morgan, Pulitzer, Vanderbilt and Rockefeller.
Sapelo Island forbids visitors from driving motorized vehicles, boasts but one paved road and is inhabited by just 42 full-time residents, descendants of the slaves brought to the island from West Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.
We started on Jekyll and took a leisurely four hours to bike around the island. Our favorite spot: Driftwood Beach, where ancient and picturesque monuments of driftwood dot the shoreline.
(Trivia footnote: We notched our 13th Casita sighting of our Year on the Edges of America as we entered the island via the causeway from the mainland.)
After Driftwood, we pedaled through the campground at the northern tip of the island and to the Horton House, built by Major William Horton in the 1700s amid the French-Spanish-British struggles for control of the region. We learned about tabby, an unusual building material made from burning oyster shells to create lime to be mixed with sand and water – a coastal version of the adobe I grew up with in the Southwest.
It was Horton’s boss, Gen. James Oglethorpe, who established Georgia as a colony in 1733 and reportedly named the island in honor of his friend, Sir Joseph Jekyll who had contributed £600 towards the founding of the colony. (No, it has nothing to do with the 19th century gothic novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson.)
We pedaled past the Jekyll Island Airport, where the pilot of a small helicopter seemed to be practicing how to hover just above ground at just about 10-15 feet, and down Riverside Drive with historic “cottages” (aka mansions) built by some of the richest people of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The well-preserved houses are lovely and the manicured landscaping gorgeous.
Gazing at the mansions and reading their descriptive plaques makes history so tangible, palpable. Imagine the stories those structures could tell….
The plaque by the Goodyear mansion told perhaps the best story, one I stopped to read in part because one of the very first city council meetings I covered as a young reporter in Phoenix some 38 years ago was in the then-tiny town of Goodyear, Arizona. It said that Frank Henry Goodyear started as a lowly bookkeeper and, in the quintessential American rags-to-riches story, ultimately became the head of a shipping and energy empire that allowed him to bequeath his heirs $10 million upon his death in 1907.
But Goodyear didn’t get to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He was only 58 when he died, “worn out with ceaseless activity and worry.”
There’s a lesson there for all of us.
The next day we visited Sapelo Island, and a starker contrast there couldn’t be.
First, you can only reach the island by ferry (30 minutes from the marina in Darien) and you must have a permit to visit. Second, nearly all the island is owned today by the state of Georgia and has been set aside for non-development and environmental research. Third, nearly all of the 42 full-time residents are African-American, a few of whom still speak the centuries-old Gullah language, and none of whom – according to our guide, Ira Gene Grovner – want any part of the fast-paced, stress-filled life of the mainland and beyond.
These residents live in the small and only privately owned hamlet on the island, Hog Hammock.
The Gullah language dates to the 1600s, but is fading away as fewer and fewer young people today have any interest in learning it. Also, the number of locals who know enough of it to teach it has dwindled. In reading more about the language after our tour, I was reminded that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was raised as a Gullah speaker in coastal Georgia. When asked by a high school student why he has so little to say during hearings of the court, according to one article, Thomas said that the ridicule he received for his Gullah speech as a young man caused him to develop the habit of listening rather than speaking in public.
(Another interesting note about the Gullah language: It comes from a people with a rich storytelling tradition that blends African oral traditions with uniquely American experiences. Among them: the series of Br’er Rabbit stories, which I remember my parents reading to me as a child, featuring a trickster rabbit who outwits authority figures.)
Our guide is maybe in his late 50s and talks of his son, JR, and grandchildren, but his skin has nary a wrinkle and his complexion is as smooth as polished ironwood. He’s retired from the state Department of Natural Resources as a ferry boat captain and says he’s a ninth-generation descendant of the slaves Thomas Spalding brought over from Sierra Leone to operate his sugar plantation.
He took us first to Behavior Cemetery. It got its name after the slaves who lived up by Chocolate Plantation on the north end of the island got tired of walking the six miles each day to and from their workplace in Community Landing. So they set up camp near the landing in what is now the cemetery. They asked the overseer if they could stay there and he reportedly said they could so long as they “behave theyselves.”
Sapelo Island is 14 miles long and just three to four miles wide – about the size of Manhattan. We saw the ruins of slave houses, slave churches and slave-worked plantations. It’s a graphic and sobering reminder of one of the most shameful chapters in our country’s history.
Other things we learned from our guide:
- There’s no police department on the island because “there’s no crime, no drugs.”
- The island population is declining mainly because people are having fewer children today than before. (Not sure I buy this cause-and-effect explanation as it seems more likely that the young people today are lured away from the island by the faster-paced excitement of mainland life, but who am I to say?)
- The yellow-green flowering plant along the 4WD road is still used to make a “life-everlasting” tea to relieve pain and break a fever.
- Children are taught to hunt at ages 7 or 8. Prey includes deer, wild hogs and gators.
- Raccoon is a delicacy consumed by the locals on the holidays. He even summarized for Georges how it is cooked, which involved a lot of boiling of the meat and tossing out the water to reboil it with fresh water. (Not sure we’re up for trying this any time soon.) Added our guide: “Some folk eat opossum.’
- Sepalo Island has a stunning white-sand beach of its own.
Spalding ultimately sold the island to Howard Coffin, whose widow sold it in 1934 to R.J. Reynolds Jr. (son of the tobacco magnate) when he was in his 20s. We visited the Reynolds house on the island – complete with what used to be an indoor swimming pool and a library of movie reels, as well as a “Circus Room” upstairs.
Reynolds’ widow sold the house to the state of Georgia in the mid 1960s. It can sleep up to 29 and is available to rent for special meetings, weddings or parties starting at about $6,000.
The list of top-echelon visitors over the years is impressive.
Before we knew it, it was time to take the return ferry to Darien, where we would visit friends Fran and Brian (she formerly of The Dallas Morning News) and cook and consume together some outstanding, locally sourced jambalaya.
What a fascinating way to learn American history. The four hours we spent on each of these islands has probably done more to enrich our understanding of U.S. history than any college-level course.
Which makes me think: We should find a way as a society to teach history like this to young people of all economic means. History is so much more meaningful – and memorable – when you can touch and feel it.
It becomes an almost spiritual experience.