Living the Gilded Life: Snowbirds’ Retreat
Unless one has been completely out of touch for the last few years, one is surely aware of the PBS phenom, Downton Abbey, written by master storyteller Julian Fellowes. The story line begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and extends through the late 1920’s. 1910-1912 is marked by many sources as the last gasp of the Edwardian Era and its American counterpart, the Gilded Age. The period leading up to WWI is a fascinating one that is often overshadowed by the events of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
In my upcoming posts, I intend to explore some of the social and political circumstances that gave the eras their names. When I am able, I will share items of interest that may not be as well known as the great figures of the period. No matter on which side of the Atlantic one found oneself, the period was marked by the stark contrasts between astounding wealth and extreme poverty. The vestiges of wealth still exist today in places like Newport, New York, and Asheville. Some of these, like Biltmore Estate (America’s Largest Castle), can be visited for a not insubstantial fee. One can even plan a vacation stay at one of them.
While the cottages (read mansions) of Newport may be the first Gilded Age vacation homes one might think of, there is one located far to the south on one of Georgia’s fabled Golden Isles where visitors today can experience Gilded Age glamor during a stay in one of its 157 rooms. Built as a winter vacation playground for the likes of Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Pulitzers, Morgans, and Astors, the Jekyll Island Club is operated today as an exclusive resort. In deed, exclusivity has been a hallmark of the property since the beginning of European habitation.
The rich soil and waters of the Georgia coast and barrier islands have provided food and shelter for human inhabitants since Pre-Columbian times. Ancient Native Americans hunted, fished, and inhabited the region from about 6000 years ago. The primary tribes who enjoyed the areas riches were the Mocama and the Guale. Although there is insufficient archeological evidence of habitation on Jekyll, there is much indicating that local tribes hunted and fished on the island. The first Europeans to arrive were the French in 1562 but did not stay long enough to establish a permanent settlement. That job fell to the Spanish who built the first of a series of forts south of present-day Savannah. In 1663, the British reasserted their claim to the region and by the 1680’s had managed to drive the Spanish from South Carolina and Georgia back down into Florida.
In 1733, George II granted the lands between the Savannah and Altamaha rivers to General James Oglethorpe and a group of trustees. Oglethorpe named the new colony Georgia in the monarch’s honor and named Jekyll Island after Sir Joseph Jekyll, one his financial backers. Between 1733 and 1792, Jekyll was bought and sold several times until it was purchased by Christophe Poulain DuBignon. The DuBignon family established a successful plantation that grew the famous Sea Island cotton for nearly 100 years, but DuBignon’s great grandson eschewed agriculture in favor of developing and marketing the island as being perfect for a hunting club. In 1886, the Jekyll Island Club purchased the island in its entirety and established what Munsey’s Magazine called “the richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible club in the world. . . .”.
The aforementioned industrialists, robber barons, and financiers of the Gilded Age built the elegant clubhouse and the “cottages” that make up the resort as an escape from northern winters and to partake of what visitors to the island have enjoyed for the past 6000 years. The clubhouse was built in the American Queen Anne design. The interiors featured Ionic columns, fifteen foot ceilings, oak wainscoting, leaded-art glass, and distinctive fireplaces. The furnishings were the most elegant and comfortable that could be bought at the time. The Jekyll Island Club stood in stark contrast to its nearest neighbors on the mainland where rural south Georgia was in the depths of a series of agricultural depressions. The club members were the original snowbirds and Jekyll Island was their gilded roost. In addition to hunting and fishing, golf, tennis, and other sports came to the island. The resorts’ amenities, including Great Dunes Golf Course (est. 1928), can still be enjoyed today.
Like so many Gilded Age examples of excess, the Jekyll Island Club experienced leaner times in the 2oth century and was eventually bought by the state of Georgia in 1947 for $675,000 through condemnation proceedings. Much of the island became a state park. After extensive renovation, Jekyll Island Club opened as a hotel in 1986 allowing us more ordinary folks a taste of what Vanderbilts and Rockefeller’s once enjoyed.
Historical Fiction set in the Jekyll Island Club
Gallery of Vintage Photos
Above: Crane Cottage on the left and Cherokee Cottage on the right. Cottages built by the uber-wealthy had 6000 sq ft or more under roof.
Contemporary Photo Gallery
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.