Jekyll celebrates a rich history
The Brunswick News
April 13, 2012

Rising boldly among live oaks, its expansive silhouette has been a silent witness to history.

Since the 1880s, the Jekyll Island Club building has stood fast through historic moments, including World War I, the Great Depression and more recent events like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

As the landmark, which is now a public hotel, marks its 125th anniversary, those who have marveled at its presence pause to reflect on its past.

John Hunter, director of historic resources for the Jekyll Island Authority that operates the island state park, certainly knows the story of what was the club building for the island's millionaires during its golden era.

"After so many years working here and researching the history of the club and the island, what fascinates me most is how much impact the people who were here are still having on the world today," he said.

"I can regularly read news headlines and stories and connect them with the people who were here, their companies, their philanthropic legacies, government policies they created or impacted. No other place I have encountered can relate to so many stories and people."

The story of the club's Gilded Age beginnings started in the 1880s, when the DuBignon family who had owned Jekyll Island since about 1800 began looking for other options for its land after agriculture was no longer viable. That's when an enterprising DuBignon in-law stepped in.

"His name was Newton Finney, and he had moved to New York to start an import-export company. He knew that there were a lot of wealthy New Yorkers who were starting to spend their winters in southeast Georgia. It was about that same time the Carnegies bought Cumberland Island," Hunter said.

"Finney talked to (his brother-in-law) John Eugene DuBignon, and they decided to start a hunting club and sell it off to rich people. Finney used his contacts in New York to find investors. It was sold to a 53-member group that was called the Jekyll Island Club."

The individual investment was $125,000, a fortune in the 1880s. The money, though, was nothing to the group of investors - the likes of such financial magnates as insurance company founder Henry Hyde, retailer Marshall Field, financier John Pierpont Morgan, newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer and businessman William H. Vanderbilt.

Members of the newly formed club bought shares in it and lots on the island for construction of vacation homes.

"The immediate first step was to create a place to stay. They used the money from the sale of the stock to build the original portion of the clubhouse," Hunter said.

While the term "clubhouse" may call to mind a child's play thing, this was anything but. Designed by Chicago architect Charles Alexander, the building took shape in the Queen Anne style, which included a turret that dominates the roof line, extensive verandas and bay windows. Inside the club, the details were equally impressive. It included an elaborate dining room, 12- to 15-foot-high ceilings and ornate fireplaces.

The club opened in 1887 and became an instant success with its wealthy owners.

"It's been estimated that at the peak of the club season - January through the end of March or early April - one-sixth of the world's wealthiest people would be at the club," Hunter said.

A few of the club members built their own homes, or cottages as they have come to be known. Others opted not to build and stayed at the clubhouse during visits.

While cloistered at their private retreat, club members enjoyed many of the same activities available through the hotel today. The families would bike, play golf and have picnics. Hunting was also a popular pastime. The club and its members continued to enjoy their private activities until the 1930s. That's when the gilded age of the Jekyll Island Club started to fade.

"The club started going into decline. It was essentially the second generation who had come of age, and they were not interested in Jekyll Island. Palm Beach was the new hot spot, and a number of members started going down there," Hunter said.

After World War II, the club was in financial trouble, and the state of Georgia purchased the island for $675,000 as a park and historic site.

During a Founders' Day celebration today for the club, visitors will be able to pretend they are part of the former elite club.

The event, hosted by the Jekyll Island Authority to commemorate the club's 125th anniversary, will include a progressive dinner through the historic district, stopping at cottages for a taste of gourmet dishes. Guides in period attire will lead attendees through Moss Cottage for appetizers, followed by Indian Mound Cottage for dinner. The event's final stop will be the Morgan Center for dessert and dancing.

The food will be prepared by the chefs at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. Each course will be designed to reflect dishes similar to those popular during the millionaires' time at the club.

"The menu includes oyster cocktail, canape caviar, roast pheasant, sea scallops, roast ribs of prime beef, asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, Boulangere potatoes, and Boston cream pie," said Beth Burnsed, special events coordinator for the Jekyll Island Authority.

"This is a unique opportunity to step back in time and dine as the club millionaires did. The historic setting, riverfront views and delicious food make for a wonderful evening that guests cannot get anywhere else."

Hunter says this type of tangible connection to the past is a major appeal of Jekyll Island, not just on Founders' Day but every day.

"I think people enjoy being able to recreate the lifestyle of the club. You can stay in their clubhouse or eat in their grand dining room," he said.