The only thing constant is change.
I’m slow to embrace it. I am a 20th century man caught in the 21st century.
This first week in April I am reminded of how change saddens me because this is the traditional week of spring break, and I am stuck here in the North Georgia Piedmont, which is a drastic change from the 30 or so consecutive spring breaks my family and I spent camping on Jekyll Island, Georgia’s vacation playground that was once the vacation home for the richest and most influential men in America, which meant the world.
Maybe you know the story or maybe you don’t. Either way, I’ll either teach you something new or refresh your memory.
The late 1800s was the age of the “Robber Barons,” industrialists who made great profits for themselves and became incredibly rich — most said by squeezing every penny of profit they could out of consumers and immoral amounts of labor out of their workers, which they paid practically nothing. We are talking J.P. Morgan, Marshall Field, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and their ilk. These guys were so intent on making money, and so suspicious of their competitors, that they weren’t willing to take a break and enjoy their fortunes for fear that a competitor would gain an advantage while they were unawares.
So they decided to vacation together. They formed a “club” and bought Jekyll Island, off the coast of southeast Georgia, for their playground. I ain’t making this up. They bought the whole island — for $125,000 and built themselves “cottages,” which we would call mansions, a golf course, a wharf for their yachts, Faith Chapel, with stained glass windows by Tiffany, an indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, and a luxurious clubhouse, for the guests who wouldn’t fit into their 30-room cottages.
At one time the members of the Jekyll Island Club controlled one-sixth of the world’s wealth. Right there in the southeast corner of Georgia, among the live oaks, alligators, wild boars and pine trees. One-sixth of every dollar in the world. Someone once asked J.P. Morgan how much his personal pleasure craft, The Corsair, cost. He famously replied, “If you have to ask what something costs, you can’t afford it.” The Federal Reserve System was created at a Jekyll Island meeting. The first trans-continental telephone call originated from there.
Eventually the older generation of millionaires began to die out, and the Millionaire’s Club lost a bit of its luster. During World War II, German submarines were spotted in the area and the U.S. government, fearing the Germans might attempt to come ashore and kidnap the island’s wealthy inhabitants, ordered everyone away.
They never returned, and in 1947 the state of Georgia reclaimed the property at the bargain price of $675,000. The Jekyll Island Authority was created with the charge to perpetuate a vacation spot that would remain accessible to “regular Georgians.”
That’s where we came in, because I was as regular a Georgian as there ever was, and I married into the great tradition of camping at Jekyll Island during spring break. It was wonderful. For decades there were five, six, even seven families that would camp together. Our primary activity was riding bicycles along the miles and miles of bike trails, along the marsh, beneath the Spanish moss hanging down from the live oaks, through the woods beside the alligator pond and along the ocean, sometimes dipping down on the beach itself. Sometimes there would be 25 bikes or more, all from our group, stretched out along those paths.
We would also cook fish and shrimp in the evening that had swam in the ocean that morning, compete in the Mother of All miniature golf tournaments each year, and sit by the campfire at night, sharing old memories and creating new ones as generations of children outgrew having time off in the spring and were replaced by a new crew.
Reading Uncle Remus stories aloud to my children around a Jekyll campfire will always remain one of my fondest memories. I hope it is, collectively, one of theirs.
But that devil change would not leave us alone. The elders grew old and most of the men who started the tradition are now spending spring break with the Lord. The most recent generation of young people is now grown with jobs that prohibit them from taking off the first week in April. And some of us have gotten soft and prefer a “campsite” in the St. Regis when we go on vacation instead of a tent, and prefer dinner at Commander’s Palace or some other fine restaurant, where you don’t have to fight off gnats and no-seeums to enjoy a meal.
But my grandson, Sir Henley, is 4 and loves to listen to his Papa read to him about the adventures of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and Brer Bear and deserves to hear them read properly, around a Jekyll Island campfire. Next year his tiny legs will be able to pedal a bicycle around that island and his little hands will be able to wield a putter in the Jekyll Spring Break Miniature Golf Classic.
Next year, spring break at Jekyll Island. Somebody please hold me to it.