The soft, salty wind blows across the shoreline’s huge ivory dunes, moving through the remnants of former cotton plantations, mansions from the Gilded Age, and old slave settlements and graveyards. Cumberland Island grabs my heart from the first moment my foot steps off the dock, and it never lets go.
Located off the coast of Georgia, the barrier island is a 45-minute drive from the Golden Isles to St. Marys and another 45-minute ferry ride to its shores. On a Thursday in April, day-trippers and campers climb aboard the Cumberland ferry and slowly cruise through golden marshes, lit by the early morning sun, and travel along a winding river to the banks of Sea Camp, the public dock.
After disembarking, a group of us board the “Land and Legacies” van that will take us along the island’s single road that leads from the tropical south side to the island’s wild and unbroken north end. The six-hour tour is advertised as the only practical way to cover the entire island in one day; it is that, and so much more.
Tour guide Mike Fulford — a born storyteller whose hoarse, gravelly voice is mixed with a Southern drawl and sounds remarkably like Bill Clinton — brings the island’s past to life for those lucky enough to secure a spot in his van.
For years, Fulford split his time working in insurance during the week and spending his weekends on Cumberland Island, where he captained the ferry boat or worked one side job or another. Now retired from the insurance industry, he is a full-time tour guide spinning tales of plantation owner Robert Stafford; Gilded Age heiress Lucy Coleman Carnegie; and the prized island legacy her family turned over to the National Park Service in 1972.
Like any good storyteller, Fulford may expound, exaggerate, or “take poetic license” here and there, he says; but the gist of his yarns is embedded in history, fact mixed with a little historical gossip. His tales are fascinating, and he rarely comes up for air.
We travel to our first tour stop along a dirt road called Grand Avenue, its grandness evidenced by the lush canopy of live oaks that sculpt the avenue’s landscape. A deep throng of palmettos surrounds the oaks that are smothered in Spanish moss.
We stop at the plantation fields, once owned by Robert Stafford, that now stand empty. We are captivated at our first peek of the island’s feral horses, the offspring of equines left on the island by Spanish inhabitants nearly 400 years before. The horses wander the island as they please and live and die in the “circle of life,” Fulford says.
Stafford was an unconventional leader of his time, Fulford explains. He used slaves to power his farm, but he went against the laws of the land — and the recommendations of his peers — by educating his workers.
He allowed them to earn and save money. He also armed each male slave and taught them to hunt, fish, and farm vegetables — skills that helped them become self-sufficient after emancipation.
As we visit Stafford’s gravesite, Fulford says the life enjoyed by Stafford, his family — never married, he raised six children with a slave, Elizabeth Zabette; and two daughters with another slave, Juda — and his workers continued until the end of the Civil War, when the agricultural era on Cumberland abruptly ended. Cumberland then entered into its Gilded Age, a period that lasted from the late 19th through the early 20th century.
Lucy Carnegie and her husband, Pittsburgh steel magnate Thomas Carnegie, were snubbed by the millionaires on Jekyll Island “because their blood was not blue enough,” Fulford says. That snub brought them to Cumberland. While riding a horse and buggy down the same Grand Avenue of trees that welcomed us to the island, Lucy came upon the ruins of the Dungeness property and fell in love at first site. As Fulford tells it, she turned to her husband and said, “I must have it ... you must buy it for me.”
Even with gobs of money earned from U.S. Steel, it was not an easy purchase. The property was owned by William Davis, first cousin to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and William Davis did not want to sell to a Yankee.
It took Carnegie many months of continual requests before he acquired his wife’s desire. For the next 50 years, from the early 1880s to the early 1930s, the island was dominated by the Carnegies: Lucy, Robert, their nine children, their children’s spouses, their grandchildren, and the 300 or so servants who made sure their lives were enriched with luxury and elegance.
In addition to the 78,000-square-foot rebuilt Dungeness mansion, Lucy added several other “starter” homes for her children — the most prominent being Plum Orchard, built for her fifth son, George Carnegie, and his young wife, Margaret. As Fulford drives his van to the mansion, now owned by the National Park Service, he captivates me with stories of George’s 19-year-old wife, who in taking her first look at Plum Orchard, exclaimed, “This is not big enough for me.” They would go on to add two wings to the home.
If you love “Downton Abbey,” you will love Plum Orchard. As we toured the mansion, Fulford shared how Margaret was bathed, dressed, and coiffed each day by her personal servants, similar to the ladies of “Downton.” The house also features a system with servants living in one area of the house and visitors and residents in another. The separate servants’ area was marked with Carnegie gold paint, so if anyone in the house wandered into the servant area, they knew right away they were on the wrong side of the house.
The restored Classical Revival home opens into a beautiful grand hall, featuring an arched alcove, fireplace, and an authentic Tiffany Lamp hanging over a huge center table. The walls are covered in hand-painted burlap wallpaper. The hall flows into a Ladies’ Library, with a huge bookcase (containing a copy of “Sexual Behavior of Human Males,” which may be why Lucy had nine children, observed one tour-goer).
The standout of the house is a 12-foot-deep, heated, white-tiled swimming pool located nearby the mansion’s squash court, which features an observation deck where the women watched the men play. The women did everything the men did outside the home, Fulford says. They rode horses, hunted, fished, played polo and golf, and even “fought in the mud if they wanted.” However, once they entered the house, they assumed their roles as ladies and “not a drop of perspiration” was to show, he adds.
The beautiful grounds of Plum Orchard provide an idyllic backdrop to a bring-your-own picnic lunch. Some of the group sits at the foot of a wide swing that still hangs from the mansion’s porch ceiling. It had been used by servants to gently rock Plum Orchard visitors as they napped and enjoyed the breezes from the nearby river.
Once lunch is over, we continue along the most arduous part of the trip, a rugged and uneven thoroughfare leading to the far north end of the island. It’s a bumpy, jerky ride, along a road that is rarely traveled. Fulford warns his tour-goers in the beginning about the difficult journey; however, he makes the ride pleasant by continuing to weave colorful stories about the wild side of the island.
After the Civil War, most of Stafford’s slaves moved to the north end of the island and formed a settlement there, which led to the construction of a small, wooden African American church. The church, beautiful in its simplicity, became famous in 1996, when John F. Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Bessette there in a secret candlelit ceremony.
During our visit to the church, the wedding is brought to life again through a serendipitous experience. A gospel singer, visiting the island for the first time since the famous pair’s wedding, performs an a cappella rendering of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the same tune he sang as Kennedy and his bride exited the one-room church. It was a moving moment for him as well as us. The song brings home the tragedy of the young couple, whose lives started so brightly and ended so tragically.
The church stands in stark contrast to the neighboring cluster of ramshackle, weathered buildings where environmentalist Carol Ruckdeschel lives. Ruckdeschel was absent the day we visit, but Fulford describes her as an island character. Now in her 70s, she rides the island’s beaches and single road on a four-wheeler. Her braids flying in the wind, she is typically dressed in jeans, long-sleeved flannel shirts, and white rubber boots favored by fishermen. She has lived on the island for almost 50 years and is one of its strongest voices against development.
As we leave the encampment and begin the long journey back to the south end of the island, Fulford details how the playground of the Carnegie family became mostly public land. It’s a story as fascinating as the others we hear that day. Fulford tells us of Carnegie family members who fought and argued and tried to find a way the island could retain its beauty, preserve its history, and continue to be their playground.
Once the last of Lucy’s children passed away, it was the grandchildren who were charged with determining the future of the island. Some of them, facing difficult financial times, sold their property to a Hilton Head developer. The developer planned a very different life for Cumberland than what it is today.
Fulford says the park service wanted to purchase and designate the island as a national seashore, but funding was an issue. Once the property purchase was secured by money provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the family and the developer agreed to sell. Today, almost 10,000 of the island’s 36,000 acres are designated wilderness.
Fulford winds up his spiel on how the island retains its pristine seashore and wild beauty just at the moment the van pulls up to the most achingly beautiful stop on the tour: the ruins of Dungeness. The mansion burned in 1959, according to Fulford, by a fire believed to be deliberately set by a poacher.
Only stone skeleton ruins, giant brick chimneys, and a single dry brick fountain remain. The ruins of Dungeness perfectly reflect the essence that is Cumberland, the island’s rich historical history combined with its wild and natural state.
It’s It’s another favorite spot for the island’s feral horse population, and you are guaranteed to see them dotting the landscape of the uninhabited property.
As the tour comes to an end, it is evident Fulford loves the island. He tells us delivering the same tour five days a week does not tire him. He often returns to the island by personal boat on his days off to wander through the ruins and along the property. The draw, he says, is the fact it still looks the same as it did on his first visit, 30 years before, but he “always manages to find or see something new. What is here today are the ruins of a lifestyle, the elegant lives lived by people we never met,” he says.
It’s these compelling stories that reel me in and leave me wanting more, eager to plan my next trip to Cumberland.
Join Fulford and other guides from Lang’s Seafood Inc., the park concessioner who operates the Land and Legacies Tour, can be contacted through Cumberland Island Ferry at 877-860-6787 or cumberlandislandferry.com