Jekyll Island History by Tyler E. Bagwell
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Jekyll Island, Georgia
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The Jekyll Island Club

By Tyler E. Bagwell

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Club House, Jekyl Island, Georgia
The 1880s were a time of extraordinary economic changes in the United States. The working landscape was transforming from agrarian to industrial, new inventions were making everyday life easier, and travel vacations were on the cusp of becoming a standard pastime for families. For those willing to pursue the entrepreneurial "American Dream," these changes offered opportunities for great wealth and success. However, with this affluence, great amounts of tension and anxiety often followed.

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Oglethorpe Road
In 1886 a group of prosperous industrialists, desiring a place to escape from the busy and hectic life of the city, formed a hunting retreat on Jekyll Island, Georgia. This retreat, dubbed the Jekyll Island Club, included on the roster business leaders such as George F. Baker, Marshall Field, J. P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, William Rockefeller, and William K. Vanderbilt. Over the 54-year lifespan of the club, simplicity and family oriented activities would guide all leisure and pastime events on the island. A 1904 Munsey Magazine article concerning the Jekyll Island Club declared, "The world of industry and commerce, of railroads and factories, of trusts, mergers, and monopolies, is something wholly apart from this island paradise." 

Although an escape from the urban lifestyle, the Jekyll Island Club became an important player in historical events. The club would boast visits from President William McKinley and other political dignitaries, it would be the location for a meeting that created the Federal Reserve Banking System, and it would actively participate in the ceremonial opening of the first transcontinental telephone line across the United States. According to a letter written by the daughter of a member, club president Dr. Walter B. James stated, "The real core of life in Jekyl [Jekyll] Island's great days was to be found in the men's after-dinner talks. It was always of great things, of visions and developing. If they didn't have a map of the United States or World before them, they had a map of industrial or financial empires in their minds."

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Leaving Brunswick for Jekyl Island, Georgia.
Jekyll Island, virtually unspoiled by development, was an ideal location for a winter resort. The surrounding waters of the Atlantic Ocean offered seafood such as shrimp and oysters. Pristine beaches expanded at low tide and formed hard sand-packed roadways, perfect for moonlit horse and carriage rides. The island's Spanish moss-draped live oaks and fallow cotton fields from the South's plantation years, provided habitat for deer, turkeys, raccoons, and songbirds. Scattered ponds housed wild ducks, terrapin, and alligators.

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Shell Road
By 1888 a clubhouse was constructed on the island and ready for occupancy. Eventually, some of the members built mansion-sized cottages near the clubhouse. In the early years hunting was the favorite activity, but in time, other sports such as bicycling, golf, lawn bowling, and tennis became popular. Evenings were spent in the clubhouse dining on elaborate multi-course meals. Afterwards, members and guests enjoyed billiards, cards, dancing, or fireside chats. By the 1910s many of the founding members had died and new members such as economic leaders Vincent Astor, Richard T. Crane, and Theodore N. Vail were recruited.

Not only was the Jekyll Island Club a haven for successful entrepreneurs, but it was also a refuge for club workers. Earl Hill, a 1920s golf caddy for the club, asserted, "It was only three months out of the year that [the members were] there, the rest of the year, why only the employees had the use of the island. That's where I got my jump in golf, because the millionaires would use the golf course three months out of the year, the other nine months I would use it." Mr. Hill, a man of African-descent, would eventually organize and host a professional golf tournament as well as become owner of several profitable businesses.

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Riverside Road
The Jekyll Island Club's final season was in 1942. The drafting during World War II of some members and employees as well as the rationing of commodities by the government prompted the decision to close. Following the war, the state of Georgia through condemnation proceedings purchased the island. Club treasurer Dudley H. Mills reminisced over the club's demise in a letter written in 1983. He wrote, "Mr. [J.P.] Morgan [Jr] died during the 2nd World War and after the war was over the directors and officers tried to open the Club...The roads were all covered with palmetto roots which had made a shambles of the principal roads. The Club house and the power house needed extensive repairs. While the directors and officers were discussing these problems as well as the problem of securing some new members, as treasurer, I suddenly received a check from the State of Georgia...and in their letter I was told that the state was taking over Jekyll Island as a state park...and that was the end of the Jekyll Island Club." For some of the remaining members the sale was a relief, as taxes were mounting and the only source of revenue for the club was an island timber-cutting contract. For others, it was a disappointment. Some desired to revamp the Victorian-style club and construct a bridge to the island.

On June 2, 1947 Georgia Governor Melvin E. Thompson purchased Jekyll through condemnation proceedings for $675,000. Considered a bargain, the island was designated a state park. The Georgia State Parks Department took possession of the island on October 7, 1947 and the Jekyll Island Club formally dissolved in late January 1948.

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