In the first part of this blog, we discussed the Golden Isles’ ecological characteristics, the colonial era, and the rise of agriculture and plantations. To recap: the lay of our land has intricately affected the way of life for residents since Native Americans once called the Golden Isles home.
Have you heard the saying “At the beach, life is different…We live by the currents, plan by the tides and follow the sun?” Not only is this a feel-good quote, but it’s actually 100% accurate. The currents, tides and daylight hours have dictated life in the Golden Isles from the 1500s ‘til now. The Indians would hunt and fish at certain times according to the tides and seasons; the currents in the rivers and marshes helped colonial settlers begin a new wave of life; the ebb and flow of the tides were crucial to rice cultivation on the plantations.
To read the first overview of Coastal Georgia history, click here.
Week Four: The End of the Plantations and the Beginning of the Civil War
As you’ll recall, during the agricultural heyday in the South, there were about 10-15 successful plantations in the Golden Isles. Rice, tobacco and cotton were all mass produced in our area and this helped establish the Golden Isles as an agricultural mecca during the 1700s and 1800s.
Many of the plantations were owned and operated by families who lived onsite. However, there were a few that had “absentee owners,” like Pierce Butler at Hampton Point Plantation on St. Simons Island and at Butler Island near Darien. Pierce Butler’s story reads like a soap opera.
Pierce Mease and his brother John inherited Hampton Point Plantation from their grandfather. One stipulation to this inheritance, as outlined in their grandpa’s will, was that the boys had to change their last name from “Mease” to “Butler.” The ownership transition went smoothly and the plantation flourished as Pierce managed the affairs from Philadelphia. (You’ll also recall that he hired a man named Roswell King as the plantation’s overseer.)
Enter Frances “Fanny” Anne Kemble, a famous actress from England. Fanny embarked on a two-year tour in the United States, met Pierce Butler, and the two immediately fell in love and got married. Unfortunately, their marriage was doomed from the start. Fanny’s family was big into the abolitionist movement in the UK and ironically, Pierce Butler was the largest slave owner in Georgia.
When the couple first married, Fanny knew Pierce and his family were wealthy but didn’t know the source of the wealth. She accompanied her husband and their two children at Hampton Point Plantation one year and witnessed firsthand the realities of plantation life. Fanny wrote letters to family and friends back in England, and she eventually compiled and published a journal detailing what she observed: Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839.
Throughout their tumultuous marriage, Fanny and Pierce both sought to change the other’s point of view, never to any avail. The couple eventually moved forward with divorce proceedings (at this point Fanny had returned to England and was working to reestablish herself as an actress). When Pierce caught wind of her journal, he blackmailed her into not publishing it by threatening to keep their daughters from her. Eventually, their divorce finalized and Fanny was reunited with her daughters. Pierce Butler continued to own and operate his plantations in the Golden Isles for a few years, although he fell into debt, was arrested (and released), and finally caught malaria and died.
And while a little feud was occurring between Pierce and Fanny, another was brewing between the North and South. The country was in the throes of the Civil War by the early 1860s. Union forces occupied mostly-deserted St. Simons Island and destroyed a couple of our most-prized possessions: Christ Church and the Lighthouse. (Don’t worry; they were later rebuilt and are still standing today.)
For the most part, the Golden Isles was spared of any battles, although our neighbors to the north (Darien and Savannah) weren’t so lucky. On his infamous March to the Sea, Sherman spared the city of Savannah as a “gift,” but his Union forces ultimately overtook Fort McAllister in a bloody battle. Meanwhile, a young Union soldier, Robert Gould Shaw was stationed on St. Simons Island and was in command of the Union’s first African-American troop. Shaw and his men were ordered to attack and burn down Darien in 1863. Shaw followed through with his order, although under protest as he didn’t want to attack a town without men there to defend it (many of the local men had enlisted in the Confederate Army and were off at war). You can catch all the action in the acclaimed film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. Parts of Glory were filmed in the Golden Isles, hence Glory Beach on Jekyll Island.
Week Five: The Workers and the Millionaires
Following the Civil War, most of the South was utterly destroyed. Those returning to their homes pretty much came back to nothing and had to start over from scratch (think of the iconic “I’ll never be hungry again!” scene from Gone with the Wind). However, since our area was mostly spared from widespread destruction, life in the Golden Isles quickly returned to a new normal.
Many of the freed slaves refused to go back to work in their former plantation fields. Several plantation owners were able to negotiate contracts with their former slaves and establish a sharecropping relationship. The rice plantations continued for about 30 years following the war, but agriculture was never able to return to the same level it had been prior to the war.
Since several of the plantations were no longer in operation, a new source of industry was needed in the Golden Isles. Many years prior, Urbanus Dart and his sons opened a lumber mill on St. Simons Island at present day Gascoigne Bluff. They eventually sold the mill to the Dodge family, who helped revive the lumber industry after the Civil War. As it turns out, southeast Georgia and northeast Florida had the greatest concentration of yellow pine in the country, and business began to flourish.
While everywhere else was struggling for survival, St. Simons Island and the Golden Isles were experiencing an economic boom during Reconstruction. Ships were coming from all over the world to purchase the harvested yellow pine and many men were commuting to the island to work in the mills. By 1900, a record number of 112 million feet of timber were shipped from the mills in Darien and St. Simons.
In the summer months, families would come to St. Simons while their husbands worked in the mills. Many built summer homes and the island’s first hotel was built in the 1880s. Tourism had officially made its start! A daily steamboat service transported people from Brunswick to St. Simons (remember, this is before the present day F.J. Torras Causeway). Once visitors arrived at the St. Simons Pier, a trolley would take them to the St. Simons Hotel or to the mills for work.
Here’s a fun tidbit for you: Oftentimes you’ll hear locals reminisce about “The Emmeline” and “The Hessie” steamboats, but in actuality the first steamboat was named “The Ruby” and was operated by Captain Barney Dart in the 1870s.
The St. Simons Lighthouse was rebuilt and completed in 1872 and still stands to this day. Christ Church was also rebuilt in 1884 by Anson Dodge, who also served as the church’s first rector. Here’s another fun tidbit: Contrary to popular belief, Christ Church is not the oldest standing church on St. Simons Island. Although it was originally constructed in 1820, it was destroyed by Union forces during the Civil War. Built in 1880, Lovely Lane Chapel, located at Epworth by the Sea, is the oldest standing church on the island. But wait… it gets better – the Dodge family also built Lovely Lane Chapel.
Back to the lumber mills. Unfortunately, the lumber mill owners and operators weren’t as forward-thinking as we are today. By 1900, the mills’ outputs were declining since they weren’t replanting trees as quickly as they were cutting them down. The mill on St. Simons closed in 1909 and Darien’s mill closed in 1915. Of course, by this time World War I was in the works and international demand for the lumber had ceased.
While the working class was experiencing their newfound industry, another group was staking claim to nearby Jekyll Island. John DuBignon, grandson of Jekyll’s owner Christopher DuBignon, sold the island to a group of astute gentlemen up north who had formed a charter to purchase an island for an exclusive club. Want to guess how much the group purchased the island for? Millions? Billions? No, a mere $125,000.
The Jekyll Island Club was built by 1887 and opened its doors to the Pulitzers, Rockefellers, Goodyears, Morgans and the like. The rich and famous enjoyed Jekyll Island each year from Christmas to Easter. Every now and again, they would even stay at the Oglethorpe Hotel in Historic Downtown Brunswick when they first arrived in town. The Club lasted until World War II and was eventually deserted for fear of German ships offshore. Jekyll Island was sold to the state of Georgia in 1946 and remains under their ownership.
Week Six: 20th Century
The start of the 20th Century brought many of the industries and infrastructures that we still see today. In 1910, Homer Yaryan constructed a manufacturing plant in Brunswick that extracted materials such as rosin from tree stumps leftover from the lumber days. A decade later, Yaryan’s plant was bought out by Hercules Power Company from Wilmington, Delaware. The plant, now called Pinova, still operates and contributes to our local economy.
The Golden Isles also saw the birth of Sea Island Resorts during the Roaring 20’s. A man named Howard Coffin, an automotive designer who started the Hudson Motor Car Company, first visited Coastal Georgia with his wife in 1910. He fell in love with the area and purchased Sapelo Island near Darien, which he used as a seasonal home during the winter months.
A true visionary for the coast of Georgia, Coffin worked to establish the area as a resort destination. He purchased Sea Island in 1926 and together with Bill Jones, enlisted Addison Mizner to design and build The Cloister. Sea Island opened its doors to its first visitors in 1928.
Of course, by this time the present day F.J. Torras Causeway was open and fully functional. I’ll give you one guess as to who was the engineer of the causeway. (Hint: The causeway is named after him.) Did you know: There are 15 major barrier islands along the Georgia coast and only four are accessible by car. Three of those four islands are in the Golden Isles - St. Simons Island, Sea Island and Jekyll Island. Lucky us!
Fast forward a couple of decades to World War II. The Golden Isles played a vital role in the war with the construction of liberty ships and airships in Brunswick. The hangars built at Glynco (now FLETC) were the largest in the world at the time. These airships were used to look for German U-boats stationed off the coast of Georgia. Even the King and Prince Resort served as a naval outpost and training facility during the war.
Liberty ships were being built in Brunswick by the J.A. Jones Shipbuilding Company beginning in 1942. This was a huge operation as the company employed tens of thousands of workers during the war – 17,000 Brunswick residents alone worked in the shipyards. Many workers came from all over southeast Georgia to contribute to the war efforts. 99 ships were built, and mostly by women and older men as the young, able-bodied men were all off at war.
Another industry took sail following World War 2 – shrimping. (See what we did there?) Insert popular Bubba Gump shrimping quote here… Shrimping really began in the 1930s and 1940s, but took off once men returned home from the war. Brunswick was at the forefront of the shrimping industry and was even referred to as the Seafood Capital of the World. By 1960, more than 16 million pounds of shrimp were harvested in Coastal Georgia. Nowadays, annual harvests average at about 1.5 million pounds due to farm-raised shrimp overseas and policies that resulted from legislature like the Marsh Protection Act. Many of our restaurants in the Golden Isles serve locally-caught Wild Georgia Shrimp. We even celebrate local shrimpers and fishermen at the Blessing of the Fleet each Mother’s Day, and one of our favorite low country dishes at the annual Jekyll Island Shrimp & Grits Festival.
The Golden Isles certainly boasts a rich history, one that is still being made today. Visit our many historical attractions and let your footsteps follow those who came before you.
To learn more about the Coastal Georgia Historical Society and their events, click here.
A special thank you to Buddy Sullivan for providing several of the images in this post.