Millionaires’ Island

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At Christmastime, when dusk comes early to Jekyll Island and festive white lights shimmer on the branch of a live oak tree, the place seems to hold its secrets close. This former Gilded Age enclave off the coast of Georgia has a tantalizing way of slipping in and out of focus, of moving around in time.

Jekyll’s best-known period began in 1886, when a group of wealthy men bought the seven-mile-long island from the families that had for years run it as a plantation. We all know the buyers’ names—Morgan, Lorillard, Gould, Pulitzer, Rockefeller—and it’s easy to envision the lives they and their families led in the South’s gentle winter months. There were rounds of golf, picnics, cycling, and tracking the plentiful grouse, boar, deer, and pheasant through the marshes and woods of their private hunting preserve. They picked the place for its wild beauty and its location, far from the pressures of their business lives but no farther than twenty-four hours by rail from New York City. The men formed the Jekyll Island Club and planned a brick Queen Anne-style clubhouse with sixty guest rooms to live in until they built their own houses.

“The richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible” of playgrounds Munsey’s Magazine called it in 1904. The Millionaires, as they are cordially known by the island’s present residents, have been gone since the mid194Os, when they sold the island to the state of Georgia for $675,000. By then even some of the sturdiest fortunes had succumbed to the Depression, and for many the attractions of the place had simply tailed off. When the state condemned and bought the property in order to turn it into a public park, it was with the approval of most of the remaining members of the club.

Today’s visitor can stroll the 240acre National Historic District where the Millionaires built cottages that were modest by the standards of their day. You can visit four or five of the imaginatively restored houses and admire the intricacy of carved ceilings or be mildly shocked by the historically accurate but pungent shades of aqua and orchid on Victorian bedroom walls. Most likely you’ll think about the implications of an era when a home—like William Rockefeller’s Indian Mound—held four bedrooms for the family and eight for servants. The weeks before Christmas are a good time to do this. The weather is usually mild, the houses are decorated for the holidays, inside and out, and there is an agreeable program of concerts, caroling, and craft shows.

What you have basically is a former resort for the very rich, different in many details from the Court of Versailles at Newport but familiar enough in the general outlines. We learn, on a nighttime tram tour of the island, that when all the owners were in place, their combined personal and corporate holdings constituted one-sixth or one-seventh (depending on who’s telling the story) of the world’s wealth. Yet it wasn’t the romance of the Millionaires but the later lesser-known history of the island that eventually got its grip on me.

On a tour through the houses 1 first heard the wonderful name of Tallu Fish. “Ah, Tallu Fish,” said Terry Persse, our guide, as she ushered us into the Rockefeller cottage. “The lady had guts.” Exactly what the Georgiaborn woman did is not generally agreed upon, as is the case with much of the island’s more recent past—the State Era. It is known that as a widow in 1954 she appeared at the island and marched into the Rockefeller cottage. (During that period not much at Jekyll was locked.) She took up residence there and started a new life as selfappointed curator of the portion of Jekyll that was historically the richest yet of the least appeal to the Georgia officials who supervised the place.

The Millionaires had set their homes and clubhouse along the western edge of the island, fronting the Jekyll River, now the Intracoastal Waterway, with a fine view of the low, silvery Marshes of Glenn. They could sail their yachts right up the river and dock practically at their front lawns. The beaches of the Atlantic Ocean, on the eastern side, didn’t interest them much. However, it was just the sweep of sandy beach and the unspoiled wilderness backing it that the state was after in 1947 when it bought the island and, in a burst of populism, decided it was time to open the gates of this famously exclusive retreat.

In our day, when preservation appears to be gaining ground, it’s almost impossible to imagine a government agency turning its back on the gift of a millionaires’ village, all of a piece—left, furnishings and all, just as it had been when the last person turned off the last light. Still, the state can be thanked for insisting at the time of purchase that only 35 percent of the island could be leased. Forty years later this covenant has been kept.

Tallu Fish once revealed in a newspaper interview that as a child she had become fascinated by Jekyll Island because her uncle had installed telephones there and would come home to Waycross, Georgia, and tell her about the fancy people and their fine houses. When she finally got there, “she kept the history alive at a time when no one else was interested,” recalls a docent at the Goodyear Cottage. During the early years of the State Era, “the houses were wide open,” says Pam Meister, the present archivist. “You could just push on the door and walk in.”