Jekyll Island 4H Center to be torn down, replaced
Site of new youth conference center was a hotel for African-Americans in segregated 1950s
September 1, 2013
By Terry Dickson
JEKYLL ISLAND | As Roosevelt Turner brushed fresh paint on bare and soiled spots on the Jekyll Island 4H Center walls, director Donna Stewart said she’ll be glad when the replacement is built.
But she’ll also be sad to see the old one go.
“I lived here three years, right there in that end room,’’ she said, pointing toward a corner door. “You get attached. I think the fact that it was beat up and torn up made it more endearing.”
The center was built in the 1950s as an oceanfront hotel but the ocean is now at the end of a boardwalk through dunes that the ocean and wind piled up.
It will be replaced by a youth conference center although the timing is uncertain. The Jekyll Island State Park Authority, which owns the building and the island, doesn’t have an architect yet so that means there’s no time line.
At some point, the Jekyll Island Authority said during a meeting next week, it may become necessary for the 4H Center to move out because it may not be good to mix bulldozers and students. That would be the termination of the 4H Center’s lease and there may never be another one, said Jones Hooks, the executive director of the authority.
Because it would operate like the Jekyll Island Convention Center, albeit for youth groups, there would be other booking arrangements, Hooks said.
Authority board Chairman Richard Royal said the authority has done all it can to protect the integrity of 4H on the island.
“They are going to get a new $12 million building,’’ although it will be open to other groups, he said.
And Royal gave this assurance: “Their role will not be diminished in any way.”
Always positive, Stewart said it sounds good to her. She told the authority that about 80 school groups have called and that the facility’s rooms are already 40 percent full for the 2014-15 school year. She told the Times-Union, however, she has not given a contract to any of them given the uncertainty.
The center hosts week-long environmental education sessions for middle-school groups from all over Georgia and beyond. They seine on the beach, walk through the salt marsh and spend time in the classroom.
“I’m not from Georgia, but from doing this job so long, I can name all 159 counties,’’ Stewart said.
“We have a group coming from Missouri, Wydown [Middle School],’’ she said. “They’ll bring 200.”
She was working on arrangements for Normal Park Middle School from Tennessee and Calhoun Middle School from north of Atlanta. They’ll arrive Sept. 8 and will be the first groups.
The center was built in the 1950s as the Dolphin Inn, the designated hotel for African-Americans on Jekyll Island. The center’s dining hall was once the only restaurant on Jekyll Island where blacks could eat and it’s second floor was a bar.
“This was a happening place,” Stewart said.
Some African-American groups would stay in the hotel and meet in the conference center on the grounds while others would come over from the mainland and hold functions in the bar area.
But segregation faded away and so did the Dolphin Inn until the 4H took over the building and began holding educational programs there in 1983.
Stewart came in January 1989 as a program coordinator, left six years for another 4H job and came back in 2008 as center director.
Most of the activity is out in nature.
Wood is stacked beside a fire ring for night gatherings and off a pavilion there are classrooms with resident snakes, turtles, a whelk, fish and other animals.
The big, ugly toad fish is Big Bapa and the pine snake is Walter.
Pulling the whelk from a shallow aquarium, Stewart began pointing out body and shell parts on the big marine snail that was tiny when it first became a teaching aid.
“I teach every chance I get,’’ she said. “It reminds me of why I came here.”
“Ah Cookie, you messed up your pen,’’ she said to a blind hognose snake as she straightened out its habitat.
Cookie is like a lot of the animals, “a throwaway” that wouldn’t survive in nature, but Stewart said, “I hate to take a healthy animal out of the wild.”
As she walked the grounds, James Nobles whipped back and forth across field on a riding lawn mower.
Kelly Services sent Nobles out to help build a boardwalk years ago, Stewart said.
“He’s a really good carpenter,’’ she said, “so we hired him.”
And Butler came in 2003 as a cook who is among the best and fastest painters she’s seen, Stewart said.
Employees have their main jobs and then they do whatever is needed. They were working feverishly to make things right because they won’t get a chance to do much until the last group of kids leave in late spring.
Things do come up during the year, she said.
“They did a major upgrade in 2002, but they didn’t have money to fix the plumbing. And sometimes ...’’ she said waving a hand without finishing the sentence.
Most of the students don’t care that it’s not a four-star hotel. For some, it’s the trip of a lifetime.
“There are kids who have never been to the beach before. There’s nothing more rewarding than showing a kid the ocean for the first time,’’ she said. “They say things like, ‘I didn’t know it was so big,’ or they didn’t know it was salty. I tell them to taste it.”
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