Our friends Tony & Amy Gillette swept us away for three days to this place that can only be described as a combination of the island in the television series "Lost" and the Garden of Eden. Mere mortals can only walk or bike this island, but the Gillettes had the good fortune to grow up in this veritable Eden.
Most of the island was given to the National Park Service in the 1960's by the Rockefeller family who along with the Carnegies have called Cumberland home for several generations. It lies pristine just as if it were uninhabited.
This is the place where JFK, Jr chose to make his vows to Carolyn Bessette. The place where Lucy Carnegie Ferguson (who could live anywhere on earth) chose to make her home for almost seventy years. A place where water oaks and Georgia pines seem to have been growing before creation. A place where feral horses and alligators share twenty-one miles of sun and solitude on a beach bereft of human footprints. A place where the sunsets are fiery orange and the surf silver at morning light. A place of dreams and unexpected gifts.
The Main Road composed of sand is over 200 years old and the island holds a vacant 22,000 square foot single-family historic mansion called Plum Orchard built by one of America's most influential families, the Carnegies, in 1898. I am one of few people in the world fortunate enough to walk these Neo-Classical hallways and touch the Tiffany designed wallpaper. It is an extraordinary residence that is just now being restored. Because of the island's unfortunate "wilderness" designation, and the grueling sixteen mile round trip walk or bike ride through sugar sand, the home is virtually inaccessible to the public.
Only a handful of the original residents remain on the island and various agreements stipulate that at the end of the next generation Cumberland will become a uninhabited National Park with the exception of one private parcel that belongs to the Rockefeller family in perpetuity. The few storied families that remain love and care for the island with a fervor I have rarely witnessed.
We celebrated the beginning of our 30th anniversary by frolicking on the miles of isolated beach (designated as a nudist beach - which is unique - except there are absolutely no people, nude or otherwise), hunting for sea shells and watching the horses and alligators play in the surf. We traveled the sandy roads in the morning and evening light and witnessed lovely Whitney Lake, High Point, the African Church where the Kennedy's were married and stepped on the northernmost tip of the island. All places that most visitors will never witness.
Inhabitants as varied as the early American Indians to the crusty 87 year old "Doc" Jenkins have made this island home from time immemorial. It is an island rich in human character and legacy. Cumberland Island’s human history spans nearly 4000 years and features
time periods including early native peoples, the Colonial expansion,
the Plantation Era, the Gilded Age through the few residents that remain today.
The only Carnegie-owned home that has been in continuous use is Greyfield, which Carnegie descendants opened as an inn in 1962. Part-owner Janet “Gogo” Ferguson, who coordinated the Kennedy wedding, says she is disappointed that NPS has not followed a balanced management plan for the island’s resources.
“My family donated this land, but not at the demise, expense and eradication of the human history on the island,” Ms. Ferguson says. “We are encouraged because of the private sector—the love and dedication of family members with the incredible support of The Georgia Trust, the National Trust and preservationists like Rep. Jack Kingston, who understand the importance of human underlay on Cumberland Island.”
Cumberland is a beautiful, unspoiled island free of concentrated development – because its owners took measures to preserve their island from development. Without their foresight, chances are that Cumberland would be indistinguishable from its developed neighbors, St. Simons and Jekyll Island.
“Cumberland is often depicted as a ‘pristine wilderness’ that we have to save,” Ms. Ferguson says. “But it has always been inhabited by people. It is the people who have preserved Cumberland Island. We have to find a way to balance both the cultural resources and natural resources on the island.”