Jekyll Island is only one of the state’s barrier islands, but its history and carefully preserved eco-system has been drawing sun-starved tourists for decades. And now a Carrollton woman, who has loved the place since girlhood, has created a guidebook with all the information anyone would need to plot a fun escape from cold winds and grey skies.
“There’s a revitalization of the island going on,” said Dr. Jody Butler. “I thought there was a need for the book to introduce people who have never been to the island before, and to educate visitors about the ecosystems on the island.”
Jekyll measures only 7 miles long by 1.8 miles wide, with 8 miles of beaches pounded by the surf of the Atlantic Ocean. It has always drawn people, from the native Americans called Guale by 16th Century Spanish missionaries, to the Gilded Age millionaires from the upper east coast who came there to “rough it” in 18-room cottages.
The island had gone into a sort of decline in recent years as its state-run governing board, the Jekyll Island Authority, tried to live up to its mandate of making the island self-sustaining, while coping with aging tourist accommodations. But Butler says the island has made a roaring comeback in the past decade, with a revived historic district and a new convention center.
Butler, author of “Jekyll Journey: A Family Guide to Georgia’s Jewel,” has been traveling to the island from her home in Carrollton since she was a little girl. She and her family stayed at a condominium they owned at the time, and Butler, who taught school in the city and county system for 26 years, still maintains a home there.
Over the years, she has gotten to know Jekyll in all its aspects, especially the wilderness areas which are carefully maintained by the Authority. While teaching, she led many field trips to the University of Georgia-run 4-H Center, where each year more than 13,000 students learn about the sensitive environment of Jekyll and other barrier islands; an eco-system vital to Georgia’s shrimp and fish industries.
The sand dunes, birds and other wildlife that inhabit the island is a major tourist draw, but Butler acknowledged that many Jekyll visitors are interested in what remains of the Jekyll Island Club, a colony for an elite group of millionaire financiers, industrialists and others who wanted to spend the winter in a place warmer than their homes in Rhode Island and New York.
“A lot of people like the historic district, where the Macy family and the Rockefellers built what they called ‘cottages,’” she said. “They came there for many years, up until World War II. Now most of the cottages have been restored and are open to the public.”
The centerpiece of the Jekyll Island Club was its massive clubhouse, built in 1888, and it was the focus of social life on the island at the turn of the 20th Century.
“The individual cottages, for the most part, did not have kitchens, so (the millionaires) took all their meals at the clubhouse.
When they had guests – whom they called strangers to the island; they could only stay a couple of weeks – that was where they stayed.”
Many former tourists to Jekyll might remember the clubhouse as a huge, slightly ramshackle building. But in recent years the building has been thoroughly restored and is now known as the elegant Jekyll Island Club Hotel. Guests of the hotel can dine in the elegant dining room and soak up some of the same ambiance that existed back in the 1900s.
State law mandates that only 35 percent of the island can be developed. This fact, along with the island’s need to be self-sufficient through tourism and conventions, creates a never-ending tension between developers and those who want to maintain the sensitive environment of the island. Butler belongs to a group called the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, and for the most part, she said, the island has managed to strike a balance between business and nature.
“What we’ve done is tear down some of the older hotels that were in really bad shape and (replaced) them with newer ones.”
In this same old-for-new swap, the island’s old convention center was replaced with a newer facility.
Butler said it’s very important that the rest of the barrier island remain undeveloped – and not just because the wild wetlands draw so many tourists.
“You go to Florida and you see what has happened. Daytona Beach is actually a barrier island and you look at it now, with high rises. There is nothing natural about it at all.”
“Shrimp, blue crab – quite a few species of fish – all use (the marsh) as a nursery. It’s also a habitat and resting spot for migrating birds. Quite a few endangered species of birds rely on the marsh as well.
“Barrier islands are just that – barriers. They protect the mainland from hurricanes; they help soak up excess rainfall from big storms. It’s very important.”
Butler’s book has proved to be very popular and is entering its second printing. It is available at Horton’s Bookstore in Carrollton and several locations on Jekyll.