Jekyll Island

Rich in History, Nature and Flavor

written and photographed by BROOKS METZLER

EVERY SUMMER, TOURISTS FLOCK TO JEKYLL ISLAND – one of the fifteen major barrier islands that make up Georgia’s 100-mile coastline known as the Golden Isles. Specifically, they head for serene Driftwood Beach, the magical allure of the Gilded Age Jekyll Island Club Hotel and cottages, 21-miles of biking trails and Summer Waves, one of the only water parks between Savannah and Jacksonville. But what loyal visitors or first-timers may not realize is the valuable lesson in history and nature that comes with a stay on the island, as well as with a sampling of some pretty delicious fare at the end of the beach season. 

Decades of Decadence

The history of this barrier island goes much further back than when James Oglethorpe founded the Georgia colony in 1733. Before English occupation, the Spanish had claimed the island as early as 1510. In 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault laid claim to the island. And even before the Europeans, the island was inhabited by tribes from the Creek Nation who cultivated vegetables, sunflowers, corn and tobacco leaves. 

But the story of modern-day Jekyll Island starts with James Horton. “Horton was Oglethorpe’s right-hand man,” said Bruce Piatek, director of historic resources for the Jekyll Island Authority. (Remains of Horton’s tabby home now make a compelling wedding backdrop on the north end of the Island.) Oglethorpe sent Horton to create a military post on Jekyll Island, one that would back up Fort Frederica on Saint Simons Island. In addition to running a military post, Horton also set up permanent residence and ran a plantation that supplied food to the troops at Frederica, as well as indigo and barley.

After Horton died in 1749, the property passed through many hands, eventually landing in those of John Eugene Du Bignon, one of the only surviving family members after the Civil War. He teamed up with his brother-in-law Newton Finney in the early 1880s. Their plan: sell the now-disused island plantation to wealthy northern businessmen as a winter vacation resort.

Their plan worked seamlessly, with names like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan and Pulitzer among the first to gain membership, which remained capped at 100 members until 1933, when the limit was raised to 150. 

One-sixth of the world’s wealth was represented every winter, starting in 1888. Here, the most powerful families in the United States could remain relatively “off-the-grid.” 

“In Newport and the Hamptons, you couldn’t expect much privacy during that time,” said Piatek, speaking on the popular summer destinations along the New England coast. But here, “[Guests] weren’t too concerned with who was seeing them.” 

Women rode bicycles around the island and went on hunting expeditions at a time when women still didn’t have the right to vote. Because hunting was most likely the sport of choice, during the Jekyll Island Club’s gilded age, from 1888 to the late 1920s, a full-time taxidermist lived on the island and guests’ game would appear on the menu at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel dining room nightly.

Though most club members stayed at the hotel during their visits, several members built elaborate cottages and facilities around the property. Indian Mound, once the winter home of oil executive William Rockefeller and his family, was one of the first cottages built there in 1892. Totaling 25 bedrooms, this home overlooking the hotel and the inland marsh featured an elevator and a cedar-lined safe. 

An Authority to Save Jekyll

1942 would be the last season for the Jekyll Island Club. The Great Depression holds a bit of the blame for the decline in membership. More of that decline could be credited to changing tastes. America’s wealthiest families didn’t want to sit around at a country club for the winter, now that air travel unlocked destinations in Europe, and with the onset of World War II, the club received its final blow. 

During the war years, the island sat nearly vacant and, in 1947, the state of Georgia purchased the island and all of its assets for $675,000. The state saw that the only viable option for its future would be to operate Jekyll Island as a state park. 

This is where Piatek and the Jekyll Island Authority come in. Jekyll is something of a unique case, since it’s a state-owned park, but must depend on its own revenue to stay running.

“We have to look at everything we do with an entrepreneurial eye,” said Piatek. The Jekyll Island Authority saw that the only way the island could survive was if it was transformed into a year-round destination, while also retaining the natural environment that drew visitors here in the first place. 

In 1951, the Jekyll Island Authority approved its first master plan for development. It outlined the creation of roads, commercial buildings and residences. At that time, the law prohibited more than “one-half of the highland portion of Jekyll Island” from being developed, but by 1970, concern had risen regarding the potential overdevelopment of the island. In 1971, the law was amended. This time, it provided guidelines that no more than 35% of the island’s total land area (counted as land that sits above water at high tide) shall be developed. 

“We see ourselves as stewards of the island,” said Piatek, who previously headed the Florida Agricultural Museum for 19 years and earned a Master’s of Archaeology from Florida State University. “We have to think about our relationship to the landscape,” said Piatek. It’s also important, he said, to consider smart reuse projects for the many historically significant buildings on the island. “Vacant buildings are inherently at more risk than buildings that are being used. If a pipe bursts and no one’s been in the house for two weeks, that leads to more damage,” he added. 

The Jekyll Island Club Hotel and surrounding cottages have been transformed in a variety of different adaptive reuse projects. Sans Souci, one of the first condominiums in the United States, is an annex to the hotel, providing four guest rooms. Crane Cottage is a popular spot for weddings and has a restaurant serving breakfast and lunch. At Goodyear Cottage, the Jekyll Island Arts Association houses a gallery and several artists’ studios. Even the service buildings have been transformed into restaurants and gift shops. 

Piatek says every decision is made with regards to how it impacts the entire island. And here, every decision made will impact something else. 

“There are only so many accommodations on the island and when those fill up, we’re essentially full,” said Jessica Scott, marketing communications manager for the Jekyll Island Authority. And, she said, there’s just enough space and available activities to spread people out and keep the balance with nature.

Sea Turtle Sanctuary

Speaking of nature, summer coincides with the mating season of the Diamondback Terrapin, a turtle species that lives in the marshes surrounding the Jekyll Island Causeway. To nest, these turtles often must cross the road during peak traffic times. In 2012, 130 Diamondback Terrapins were killed on the causeway, prompting an initiative to install Turtle Crossing signs with lights that will flash during peak traffic times.

Injured turtles throughout southeast Georgia are sent to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center for rehabilitation.  Housed in Jekyll Island’s 1903 power plant building, the center is a fully functioning marine hospital whose staff of veterinarians, zoologists and Jekyll Island natives seeks to rehabilitate injured turtles while educating visitors.

“Most sea turtles are injured by boat strikes,” said John Marr, director of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. In these cases, boat propellers hit and damage a turtle’s shell, a structure its backbone and ribs are fused to. To treat these injuries, Marr said, it’s necessary to first disinfect the wound. Surprisingly, this is done with honey. “We use medical grade honey, which is a natural disinfectant,” said Marr. The enzymes in this medical grade honey, he says, create hydrogen peroxide.

Other injuries include earlier mentioned road strikes, but turtles are also treated for debilitated turtle syndrome, which can result from excess barnacle growth on the turtle’s shell. Also common for sea turtles is fishing net entanglement and ingestion of marine debris.

Once a turtle has been stabilized, it moves to the rehabilitation pavilion. Here, large tanks contain sea and marsh turtles, and visitors can view the patients through a series of mirrors and platforms.

From June to July, sea turtle nesting season, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center leads evening Turtle Walks. Here, visitors are led on a guided beach tour in search of a nesting mother. Numbers of nests found have varied widely over the past fifteen years, with a low of 367 and a high of over 1500.  

Education is paramount in preventing turtle injuries and death, said Marr. In coastal areas from Florida to Maine, it’s important for residents and visitors to turn off all beach lights during nesting season. This artificial light, according to Marr, can cause a nesting sea turtle to leave the beach without laying her eggs, or disorient her before or after nesting. Hatchlings have even more trouble, as they can easily be led away from the ocean by artificial light as far as a quarter-mile away.  

On the Horizon

Perhaps you’ll earn yourself quite an appetite tracking turtles, and if you’re here at the tail end of the summer doing so, Jekyll Island’s Shrimp and Grits festival, held in the Jekyll Island Historic District, happens in September. It is one of the largest yearly events on the island. Each fall cooking competitions and local chefs converge to share some of the finest seafood in the south. Last year, an estimated 50,000 attended, so get there early. 

Guests are encouraged to be good stewards themselves, and you get the feeling you’re playing a key role in keeping Jekyll Island as a sort of sanctuary. Maybe that’s why folks keep coming back year after year, a stretch of holiday makers from Georgia to Canada. With the help of JIA, the Sea Turtle Center and responsible visitors, Jekyll will remain the jewel in Georgia’s Golden Isles.

Jekyll Island Home Page

Georgia Sea Turtle Center

2017 Shrimp & Grits Festival