Cumberland Island: Georgia’s Wild Coast

We know we’re about to step into a wilder world when Rachel, a staff member from the Greyfield Inn, greets us at the ferry dock on Georgia’s Cumberland Island. In her hand she holds a pelvic bone of an as-yet-unidentified animal she’d just found.

By Carolyn Males

Greyfield Inn

It will be the first of many bones we’ll see as we wander about an island that has escaped the clutches of development and embraced Mother Nature.

During our short stay here we’ll explore the history and ecology of this 36,000-acre sparsely populated barrier island, always returning to the comforts of the inn. In short, this brief interlude would be a perfect respite from everyday obligations and the incessant blare of cable news and social media.

On our first morning, a path that looks straight out of a fairy tale beckons us to walk beneath its canopy of gnarled Spanish moss-bearded live oaks down to the Atlantic. A few paces in, a feral horse, the first of many we’ll see, crosses the sandy lane and ambles off into the brush. Meanwhile, it feels as if a nor’easter is kicking up. Yet we press on, braving 

the winds. A surprise awaits when we reach the dunes. Acrew from a glossy magazine stands poised in front of a red Land Rover to photograph a young model in a filmy dress that puffs up and swirls in the gusts. While she attempts to wrestle it into submission, a camera man is trying to coax Fisher, the inn’s personable golden retriever, to pose alongside her but he’s clearly spooked by the flying fabric.

Leaving them to their seemingly impossible task, we step out onto the white sand and head down to the water’s edge where whitecaps dance on the gray sea.

At the risk of being sandblasted, I pause to marvel at the wide pristine stretch of oceanfront real estate. There isn’t a building or vendor in sight, only a few other intrepid souls on this blustering late morning. I can’t help thinking about what is, what was, and what might have been. Especially the latter.

More than fifty years ago, Charles Fraser stood on this bridgeless, untamed island, his head full of dreams. Amid the mudflats, salt marshes, creeks, forests, and sand dunes, he contemplated building a Hilton Head resort-type development linked by aerial gondolas to the mainland.

Bubbling over with enthusiasm, he unfurled his maps and plats for a gated community (with golf course, shopping, and marina situated amid environmentally protected land) onto a table during the wedding reception of one of his Sea Pines employees to a Carnegie heir.

If that didn’t doom his proposition, environmentalists and more Cumberland families rallied to the anti-development cause. Fraser rolled up his plans when the National Park Service bought the 3,000 acres he’d already acquired. Then, having struck deals with the big estate owners, the NPS established the country’s largest and most biologically diverse national seashore in 1972.

Today, there are two options for overnighting on this 17½-mile-long barrier island: rustic camping at the National Park Service sites or the simple elegance of the Greyfield Inn. The latter, a 1900 winter retreat for Margaret Ricketson, heir to the Carnegie steel fortune, was turned into an inn by her daughter Lucy R. Ferguson in the 1960s. Over the years the two-story white frame building has served as a secluded escape for well-heeled nature lovers. In September 1996, the inn scored national headlines when it hosted festivities for the John F. Kennedy Jr.-Carolyn Bessette wedding, an event so swathed in secrecy that even the storied couple’s guests didn’t know where they were going until they set foot here.

Not being ones to cart our own tents, we’d opted for the Greyfield with its package of private ferry service to and from the mainland, lodging, meals, island tours, bikes, fishing gear, kayaks, and more. Staying in one of the inn’s fifteen rooms has been compared to vacationing at a friend’s country estate. A refrigerator of box lunches in the mansion’s kitchen means guests can pick them up to picnic on the beach, tuck them into a bike basket, or take them to an indoor or outdoor spot to dine. On the main floor, a self-service honor bar features a booklet of favorite recipes for creating your own cocktails.

Feral horse with no name.

With dinner time approaching, a casual formality takes hold as men, now wearing jackets, and women in dressy attire mingle in the antique-filled drawing room as a portrait of the red bandana-wearing, dagger-toting Lucy R. Ferguson looks on. On the wide window sills sit skulls of a gator and sea turtle, both indicative of the artifacts that Lucy, an avid naturalist, might have collected during her lifetime.

Among the folks we chat with are a group of California winery owners, a Google employee and her mother, a couple from Savannah celebrating an anniversary, young honeymooners, and our host Mitty Ferguson, the Carnegie heir who with wife Mary operates the inn. While some visitors come to see the island’s wilderness and historic sites, others bliss out (there is no television or Wi-Fi) luxuriating in solitude as they read, bird watch, fish, or roam the 200-acre estate.

At 7:30 the dinner bell rings and we all head to the dining room and the veranda where the conversation continues over a gourmet meal of sugar snap pea salad with king trumpet mushrooms and a line-caught sheepshead fish followed by a Meyer lemon pudding cake –– all sourced from the inn’s garden and the surrounding water.  The next day, as we travel the island’s unpaved roads through maritime forests of loblolly pines, palmettos, cedar, and live oaks, our guides offer commentary on the ecological system and environmental concerns. Along with alligators, armadillos, butterflies and birds, we spot several of the feral horses, their gene pool said to be a combined legacy of those brought over by Spanish settlers mated with the Carnegie’s Kentucky thoroughbred stock. No matter their provenance or their appeal, we learn that the creatures, not in the best of health, are a topic of controversy as they munch on cord grass and sea oats, destabilizing marshes and dunes.

Too soon, it’s time to leave. The ferry ride back on the Amelia River allows for a gradual re-entry as we cruise past the narrowing tip of the island and head into Fernandina Beach where we’ll disembark. But just before we get to that charming little town, a strange Rube Goldberg-esque configuration of pipes and smoke stacks looms into view—a paper mill now revved up to manufacture packaging for internet shipping.

And so, we are back in the real world.

Note: A few months later I catch sight of the cover of that glossy magazine and see the model standing atop the red Land Rover, straw hat in hand, her skirt artistically blown to one side against the gray palette of the day. Fisher the dog is nowhere in sight.

Island Footnotes

• Pre-Civil War, the island had around thirteen plantations growing rice, indigo, and the lucrative cash crop – Sea Island cotton. Over the years, timber from Cumberland was harvested for use in shipbuilding, and making turpentine, telephone poles, and wood pulp.

Legend has it that Eli Whitney’s cotton gin owed much to Dungeness’s Charlotte Greene Miller whom, upon seeing his rough draft of the invention, handed him her hairbrush, suggesting he modify his design to include a comb-like mechanism to more efficiently remove seeds. Her second husband, Phineas, formed a company with Whitney, but farmers pirated the invention and Whitney earned little from his patent. In the meantime, the invention, meant to reduce production labor, ended up boosting slavery as plantation owners expanded the crop’s cultivation.

When the Union Army took over the island during the Civil War, plantation owners fled. Afterwards, freed and free-born African-Americans formed small communities in the High Point-Half Moon Bluff Area where they lived and farmed.

In the late 1800s, donkey-drawn trolleys would pick up guests arriving on steamers at the Cumberland dock and transport them via metal tracks to the High Point Hotel on the north end of the island. But in the 1920s as Florida’s new resorts began drawing the moneyed crowd, the hotel became a hunt club. Eventually the Candler family of Coca-Cola fame bought the property and converted it into a family compound.

Cumberland is a major transatlantic flyway for more than 300 bird species. Its salt marshes, dunes and forest offer protected breeding sites for many endangered species as well. This year loggerhead and green sea turtles built a record number of 885 nests on the beach here.

Wild Reads

Untamed; The Wildest Woman in America
and the Fight for Cumberland Island by Will Harlan

Environmentalist, grass-root activist, survivalist, renegade or hero, whatever you want to call this road kill-eating, sea turtle-riding rabble-rouser, Carol Ruckdeschel is not afraid to voice her strong opinions even when they clash with fellow conservationists. The outspoken islander would banish the horses along with the tourists from Cumberland. Along with this fascinating portrait, Harlan offers a fascinating glimpse into the lifecycle of sea turtles, encompassing their decades-long journey from here to Africa and back along with the incredible obstacles they must overcome to lay eggs on our shores.

Hilton Head Island to Cumberland Island
Duration: 155 miles (2 hours, 31 minutes)

Historic Highlights

These magnificent ruins seem to echo with the sounds of partygoers and well, money. Ironically, its origins began in debt, one the fledging nation owed to Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene whowas given 11,000 acres here as payback. His widow Catherine would build a four-story tabby mansion with her second husband, Phineas Miller, and oversee a cotton plantation and orchards.Thomas Carnegie, the next owner, went on a spending spree in the 1880s, transforming the vast 
property into a family resort with a 59-room Queen Anne mansion flanked by gardens, pools, golf course, and outbuildings. Alas, he would fall victim to the Carnegie Curse (males dying young) before the estate’s completion.

His widow, Lucy, in turn, expanded her brood’s island footprint, building Greyfield for her daughter, Margaret, and Plum Orchid for her son, George. But with the family fortune dwindling (imagine the upkeep!), the Carnegies eventually abandoned this sprawling pile which later burned in 1959. Arson, it’s rumored. Even so, they would return to picnic in the picturesque ruins.

Stafford Plantation
The manor house, built on the labor of 348 enslaved people with profits from Sea Island cotton, that once stood on this site, belonged to Robert Stafford, a plantation owner who weathered the Civil War in place. Stafford, who had a complex history with slavery, fathered six children with the enslaved Zabette Bernardey and sent them all north to Connecticut for schooling and safety during the war years. He then began a second family with Juda, a second enslaved woman with whom he had two daughters. The house went up in flames in 1900 and a newer, more fire-proof house was built in its place. (private)

First African Baptist Church
After the Civil War, free-born and formerly enslaved African Americans established The Settlement, a small community on the north end of the island. A log cabin first served as the church, which was established in 1893, until this tiny wooden house of worship was built in 1937.

Plum Orchard
Some newlyweds get silver or china as a wedding present. Lucy Carnegie, however, gifted her son, George, and his wife, Margaret Thaw, with money to build this Georgian Revival mansion on the Brickhill River in 1898. The 22,000-square-foot house with its Tiffany lamps, hand-painted wall coverings, intricate woodwork, plus an indoor swimming pool and squash-tennis court epitomizes Gilded Age opulence. Tours daily.

Gogo jewelry: Art in Nature

As I walk down the sandy driveway to Gogo Ferguson’s studio, I’m greeted by deer and horse skulls and the suspended skeleton of one of the island’s feral equines, a carpet of shells and sun bleached bones spread beneath. Necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, cufflinks dazzle in display cases amid shells, bits of antlers, and other natural artifacts.

Votive candle holders, their delicate design cast from sea kelp, shimmer with light while sea urchin napkin rings and jacaranda seed serving spoons entice with dreams of setting an elegant table. Gogo, a fifth-generation Carnegie, inherited her special connection to wildlife from grandmother Lucy R. Ferguson (the same Lucy in the portrait at the Greyfield Inn) who took her on island nature walks and nighttime turtle watches as a child. Her designs have garnered fans such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Carly Simon while Atlanta’s High Museum has celebrated her talents with a major exhibition of her work.

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