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Millionaires’ Island

July 2024
5min read

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.”

Not surprisingly, furniture, clothing that had been stored and forgotten, and books and documents disappeared at a rapid rate. Vandals did their work; people cruised by on the river and stopped for souvenirs; antiques dealers appeared from Atlanta and left with booty. Charlie Lynch, a local librarian, did manage to save fortytwo boxes of the club’s hotel registers and checkbooks, which form the heart of the present-day archives.

Since Tallu Fish took up residence in William Rockefeller’s Indian Mound, its rooms have probably remained more intact than others. She opened a small museum there and charged admission to support herself and her work. When, in 1969, the state decided to start real restoration of the properties, it was at the Rockefeller cottage that work began. In a letter announcing her retirement that year, Tallu wrote: “For fifteen years, I have gathered material, archives, stories, data, and pictures pertaining to Jekyll. Nobody has these facts but me.” Since then many of her “facts” have been questioned, and her book on the island’s history isn’t considered reliable, yet nobody doubts Tallu’s contributions to what has become the Jekyll Island Historic District.

With evident energy and pleasure, many of the residents still give their time to maintaining the houses. A woman on duty at the DuBignon house proudly pointed to a stairwell where she had scraped away five coats of green paint. The eleven remaining houses, plus outbuildings, servants’ quarters, and the lovely little Faith Chapel, display a variety of styles: a tropical adaptation of a Flemish roof line here, Spanish tiled roofs and stucco walls there, across the road a cedar-shingled cottage with a wrap-around porch. With little private land they stand almost in neighborly discourse in a parklike setting of massive live oaks, beautifully articulated palms, and groves of pine. Few of the houses have kitchens. This is because everyone would gather for meals at the sprawling, turreted clubhouse that was—and happily is again—the sparkling centerpiece of the whole enterprise.

In 1904 a magazine called it the most exclusive playground in the United States; forty years later, it was condemned.

The state’s attempt to run the club as a hotel in the 1960s proved disastrous. A metal service elevator replaced the massive central staircase, with its fine hand-turned oak railings. Walls of delicate gold leaf were slapped with thick white paint. Nowvaluable iron beds and wicker chairs were put up for sale or carted away. Floorboards were rotting and the roof was leaking just five years ago when a local reporter saw “the massive Corinthian columns of the formal dining room … shrouded with cobwebs and mildew.”

Still, the clubhouse was fundamentally sound, and several years ago the state looked for someone to save it. A package of tax incentives, bond financing, and private funding was arranged by a Denver developer, who took the hotel on a fifty-year lease, since all land on Jekyll Island remains under state ownership. Somehow the immaculate restoration was completed in 1987, just in time to celebrate the structure’s hundredth anniversary.

To the Millionaires this was a retreat of simple comforts; to the modern eye the clubhouse stands for the curiously accessible amplitude of their lives at the end of the last century. Most of us wouldn’t have lived so well, but in this place it’s not beyond imagining. Wandering the broad verandas of the hotel, enjoying its river views, I thought of Tallu Fish. “I always knew that some day, somehow,” she told a reporter, “I was going to finally unpack right here.”

—Carla Davidson

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