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Wild Horses Couldn’t Keep Me Away

By Carol Antman for The Island Eye News 

Tabby fence in front of Stafford House on Cumberland Island.

Snubs, cultural differences and misunderstandings are the backstories of Cumberland Island and St. Marys Georgia. The misguided Seal sisters for example were just waving their handkerchiefs good-bye as the Yankees finally abandoned the occupation of their town.

Wild horse in front of Plum Orchard house on Cumberland Island.

Captain Higginson, the commanding officer, saw it differently. “They’re sending a signal to the Confederates to return,” he thought.

So he made a U-turn and burned down the town. Oops.

In 1814, the British Vice Admiral William Cochran invited anyone who wanted to leave the country to board his ship. Hundreds of slaves went to live a free life in Bermuda and Nova Scotia.

Aaron Burr expected a friendly reception from Catherine Green Miller on Cumberland Island. But “She could not receive as a guest one whose hands were “crimsoned” with (Hamilton’s) blood,” according to author Elizabeth Ellet. She left him stranded.

Ferry boat to Cumberland Island.

 And then there was the shocking case of Thomas Carnegie being snubbed by the Millionaire’s Club. He and his brother Andrew seemed like naturals for the exclusive group of rich industrialists that summered on Jekyll Island in the 1880s. But the Carnegies were too nouveau riche for the group somehow. So they did what nouveau riche millionaires do: they bought a large portion of nearby Cumberland Island where their descendents still own vacation mansions today.

Today, St. Marys prides itself on being one of the safest small towns in America. It’s full of Victorian houses and 35 churches bordering a quiet coastline. After watching the short film “Simple Pleasure of Small Town America” at the Visitor’s Center, we took the handy self-guided walking tour leaflet to stroll to picturesque parks, a cemetery and historic buildings. The park has free bike fixing tools. Light hearted signs remind visitors: “Practice Civility Every Day,” “Stupidity is not a handicap. Park somewhere Else!”

Several B&B’s offer charming overnight stays for the 60,000 people a year who visit Cumberland Island National Seashore. Our Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara room at Goodbread House featured a huge bathroom and beaucoup memorabilia. The porch swing on the sunny porch was especially nice. At Spencer House Inn, where guests have been hosted since 1872, the breakfast buffet and packed lunches fueled us bountifully for our bike riding on Cumberland.

 “It’s like a time warp. I can just see the buggies and horses,” Babs Kall, another day tripper, remarked as we docked after a 45-minute ferry ride. Those heading to the upscale Greyfield Inn on the island take a private launch.

There are no stores and limited drinking water on its 18 miles.

Trash must be hauled off. Campers schlepped bungee-corded wagons of gear a half mile to the closest beach campground. Some folks rented beach cruiser bikes.

Some picnicked. Once on the dirt trails, we had to keep stopping to admire the wild horses that nonchalantly grazed along the path. But we kept our distance as the ranger had warned.

We cruised past the still-occupied Stafford House with peacocks strutting behind tabby walls topped with animal skulls and a private plane landing in the yard. After about an hour and a half, we came to Plum Orchard built for the Carnegies’ son George and his wife in 1898 and donated to the National Park Foundation in 1971. Tours of the Georgian Revival house are available.

Fifteen minutes south of the dock are the ruins of Dungeness. It’s a shell today after being gutted by fire in 1959, reputedly set by a poacher. But when Catherine Green Miller built it in 1800, it featured 6-foot thick walls, 16 fireplaces, a pool, golf course and room for 200 servants. Gala parties and extravagance filled the house until the Depression when the family abandoned it to decay.

Turning some of the island from a refuge for the rich into a National Seashore was a long, complicated process. It took years of wrangling, lawyering, politics and acts of Congress. The efforts continue.

 A new debate began last year when the Camden County Planning Commission approved a hardship variance that would allow construction of a 10-home subdivision on the federally protected island.

Environmental groups and local citizens have been engaged in a contentious process to balance property rights and conservation.

Alex Kearns, chair of St. Marys Earthkeepers, was quoted in the Brunswick News: “I believe that there is a middle-ground and that if the NPS, the environmental organizations, and the property owners come to a position of accord and unity, the future of the Island will be secured.” The group is working towards an agreement that respects mutual interests and lasts for over 100 years. Being among the carefully regulated number of visitors to come to this special place is an experience to value and must be protected.

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.

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