By Carol Antman for Island Eye News
In 1961, popular religious book author Eugenia Price and her companion Joyce Blackburn were exhausted from a Southern promotional tour. Looking for a convenient place to rest, they glanced at a map and changed their lives by heading to St. Simons Island. From their ocean-side room at the King and Prince Hotel, they were so captivated by the Georgia island’s beauty that they were quickly converted from Chicagoans to Southerners. “The two most important days of my life,” Eugenia said, “were the day I converted to Christianity and the day I found the South.”
My book club, The Venuses of Willendorf, often gets inspired to travel by one of the hundreds of books we’ve read together. We visited Savannah for the obligatory “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” tour, discussed Clair Booth Luce’s “The Women” while strolling Mepkin Abbey, relived “Cold Mountain” while soaking in Hot Springs, N.C., and conjured the infamous “Sunset Lodge” and its madam over high tea near Georgetown. This quote, “How could one small strip of sandy land have become so surely home after having lived most of my life in other places?” compelled us to read Price’s “Lighthouse” and discover St. Simons Island.
We began where she had, at the King and Prince Resort. The sprawling ocean-front hotel began as a dance hall in 1935 and is a Historic Hotel of America and on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to a variety of rooms in the historic building, there are several villas and a few resort residences like the 5-bedroom one where we stayed.
We gathered in our enormous living room with Peggy Buchan, who had been a friend of Eugenia’s before the author died in 1996 and still lived nearby. She colorfully described herself, “I was born with a fishing pole in one hand and a gun in the other.” But she and citified Eugenia had bonded quickly anyway.
Peggy and her husband owned a fish camp where the two women bounced along in a pick-up truck to research settings and smoke cigarettes. “It’s unconstitutional what they’re doing to us,” Peggy quoted Eugenia as saying about anti-smoking laws. “From then on, we were fast friends.” Eugenia saw the island’s natural beauty with a newcomer’s eyes. “When God created painted buntings, He used all his leftover paint,” Peggy remembered her saying. One night, Eugenia called to rouse Peggy, insisting that she run outside to confirm whether moss glowed red at sunset. “She opened my eyes to so many things I’d never noticed,” Peggy reminisced.
In “Lighthouse,” the protagonist James Gould also came to the island serendipitously. He was nursing a broken heart in a Massachusetts bar one night when a stranger, Captain Budge, chided him by saying, “He who waits when Cupid whistles could end up in a bed of thistles,” and offered James a job. Impetuously, James moved South and began a career that led to him building the lighthouse in 1810.
Today, the lighthouse is the island’s most prominent attraction and is open for tours.
Teresa Spangler effusively guided our group through it and told stories of Eugenia’s time on the island. We wondered how a brash, lesbian Northerner asking impertinent questions had engendered so much trust and affection among the islanders. “She was an avid researcher…her strength was writing about real people.”
The community responded to her genuine interest by giving her journals and sharing their stories. “She grew a Southern soul,” Teresa said. Among the informative displays at the lighthouse is Eugenia’s manual Underwood typewriter that she cursed and battled with continuously, a fight she called part of her creative process.
Traipsing among the acres of graves at the Gothic Christ Church, through the Spanish moss-draped live oaks and camellias, we searched for James Gould and Eugenia’s final resting spots. His is almost obscured by the trunks of small trees that have grown since his burial in 1852. Hers is on the outskirts of the property next to Joyce. We gathered around it for a photo and to show our respect for the author, who now felt like a friend.
Outside our hotel apartment that night, we built a bonfire and lounged in the cool night air ruminating about serendipity, broken hearts and new beginnings.
Eugenia and James’ stories had become part of our shared history, and we’d fallen in love with the island as Eugenia had.
“Where should our next book club getaway be?” we wondered. Well, our next book is “The Paris Wife.”
Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston, S.C. as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com.