Cumberland Island is the southernmost barrier island on the Georgia coast. It is the size of the island of Manhattan. In the mid-sixties and early seventies, when I was lucky enough to spend considerable time on the island, there were only a dozen or so full-time residents.
The following is from my memory of the island 40 and 50 years ago. A lot has changed in the past fifty years. Mainly, because it has become a National Seashore managed by the National Park Service. Its beauty has been protected, but as often happens with government involvement, more has been destroyed than saved.
There is no way I can do justice to my experiences or the wonders of Cumberland Island in the short articles I write. I will pick and choose memories and see where this goes.
The recorded history of Cumberland goes back to the Native American Timucua tribe in the 16th and 17th centuries. After being claimed by several countries, changing hands many times, and going through the plantation era, and a civil war, the Thomas Carnegie family purchased 90% of the island in the late eighteen hundreds.
My first discovery and love of Cumberland came over a century later and could be seen as a strange coincidence. The chef at The Ponte Vedra Inn, where I worked, wanted to add quail to the menu. I found out a Ms. Ferguson was raising quail for sale on Cumberland. My boss, Ebbie LeMaster, thought it would be fun to take his yacht up the Intercoastal Waterway for us to visit Cumberland and check out the quail.
Ms. Ferguson, Thomas Carnegie’s granddaughter and his last living direct descendant, was at that time in her late seventies and very hard of hearing. She had lived on the island all her life.
Over the years, Thomas and Lucy Carnegie built Dungeness, a mansion on the island’s south end. In 1958, a couple of deer poachers from Fernandina were apprehended. Several nights later, they returned to set fire to the main house.
A sand road wound from Dungeness through a tunnel of live oaks and over the dunes to the hard-packed sand beach. Just past the carriage house was a small graveyard. Harry Lee II, General Light Horse Harry’s father, was buried there.
The beach was wide even at high tide. The dunes, over the centuries, had built up to heights over 30 feet, pretty much the entire length of the island — some 18 miles. There were only three or four places where even a four-wheeler could make it over the dunes.
Over the years, the Carnegie land was divided among descendants such as Ms. Ferguson, or sold. The Rockefeller family also ended up owning much of the land.
I will return to this time and the many visits I enjoyed with Miss Lucy — one of the most fascinating people I have ever met. Right now, I will jump forward to the second coincidence that brought me back to Cumberland.
In the early 1970s, I went to work for The Sea Pines Company as Resort Manager. I was to establish resort operations for a new golf/beach community on Amelia Island, the first barrier island in Florida, just across the St. Mary’s River south of Cumberland.
By that time, The Sea Pines Company had also purchased 10,000 acres on Cumberland, including a dock on the river and miles of beach. I hadn’t mentioned there was no bridge to the island, and there will never be.
The plan was to develop the 10,000 acres into an exclusive golf/beach resort similar to Hilton Head Plantation in South Carolina. Access would only be by boat or plane. This became very controversial and was put on hold. To make some use of the land, I was given responsibility for establishing an Executive Retreat to be used by the company higher-ups and for entertaining.
I was back to Cumberland — a dream come true.
There are probably dozens of books about Cumberland. If this article intrigues you and you want to learn more, pick up several and enjoy. Also, much information can be found on the Cumberland Island National Seashore website.
If you haven’t gotten your shot do it. The world will be a better place!
Bill Minus is a storyteller who lives in Chestertown and writes about observations and memories.