Jekyll Island History by Tyler E. Bagwell
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Barney Whitaker, Jekyll Island, Georgia
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Barney B. Whitaker and the 1949 Leasing of Jekyll Island

By Tyler E. Bagwell

Following the defeat of Melvin E. Thompson in the Georgia Governor's election of 1948, Jekyll Island was in a state of limbo. The new Governor Herman Talmadge was hesitant about the State of Georgia owning an island and decided in February of 1949 to appoint a committee to determine the long-term fate of Jekyll as well as lease the island to someone in the interim period.

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Jekyll Historic Marina
To find a lessee, the Talmadge committee accepted bids through the State's purchasing office to operate Jekyll as a public resort from May 10, 1949 to January 15, 1951. Barney B. Whitaker, a highly accomplished hotel owner, was selected to lease Jekyll from the submitted proposals.

Mr. Whitaker and his family successfully owned and managed several hotels including the Clarendon Hotel in Augusta, Georgia. The leasing of Jekyll called for Barney Whitaker to maintain the island structures and pay the State Parks Department 20% of gross receipts.

In late May of 1949 approximately twenty-five students from Richmond Academy, an all-male school in Augusta, were hired to work on Jekyll for the summer. The young men performed tasks such as bell hopping, lifeguarding, and serving food in the dining room.

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Jekyll Island Club Main Dining Room
During the summer of 1949 Mr. Whitaker worked hard to promote the island. Billboards advertising Jekyll were placed on several roads and a plane hired to fly around the state with a banner proclaiming "See Beautiful Jekyll Island."

Mr. Whitaker felt the community should have an opportunity to meet him and his family and on June 15th a large barbecue, complete with a band from the University of Georgia, was held on the front lawns of the then called the Jekyll Island Hotel. Numerous civic organizations, clubs, and politicians were invited to attend.

Transportation to the island was primarily by boat until 1954. In 1949 the Robert E. Lee sternwheeler initially transported passengers back and forth from Brunswick and Jekyll. However, possibly due to a disagreement with the Brunswick Port Authority, the Robert E. Lee left the area July 7, 1949 and began operating on the Savannah River. Two Fort Lauderdale ships: the Seven-Eleven, a former Navy torpedo boat, and the Dragon, a smaller deep sea fishing vessel, immediately took over the Brunswick to Jekyll route.

State Trooper Dudley W. Gay policed the island and lived with his wife Nell and their four children in the Crane Cottage. During the winter of 1950 the Gay family made plans to transfer to the Clark Cottage, a home built in 1901 for Jekyll Island Club employees James and Minnie Clark.

A refrigerator, several appliances, and most of their clothing were relocated to the dwelling. Unfortunately, before the move an electrical fire burned the home to the ground on Feb. 9, 1950. The blaze was so intense that a hotel awning caught fire. The Gay's possessions were completely destroyed, along with numerous pieces of Club-era furniture.

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Aerial of Jekyll Island Club Grounds
Another fire occurred June 18, 1950 at the Gould Playhouse. The Playhouse, leased to Nell Gay and operated as a recreation hall, was discovered burning around midnight. Guests and employees attempted to extinguish the fire, but only the tennis court was saved. That evening prior to the fire, movies had been shown somewhere outdoors adjacent the structure and the equipment stored afterwards inside the Gould Playhouse. In 1957 the Gould tennis court was turned into a small meeting hall and dubbed the Gould Casino Auditorium.

In February of 1950, the second year of the Whitakers' island lease, Gov. Talmadge formed the Jekyll Island State Park Authority. Through a legislative act the Authority was sanctioned to manage and carefully develop the island into a resort. In 1950 the Jekyll Island State Park Authority made plans, following the conclusion of Barney Whitaker's lease, to erect a drawbridge and raze many of the dilapidated buildings.

The Whitaker family would eventually lose between $25,000 and $30,000 of their own money keeping Jekyll Island open to the public. While at times the island was busy with visitors and conventions, the number of people vacationing did not compare to the 1948 summer when the State Parks Department operated Jekyll.

During the period of the lease signing, it was predicted that by spring of 1950 the Jekyll causeway would be competed and a dock placed along the roadway to reduce travel time to the island. This expectation never materialized.

After completing the Jekyll lease, The Whitakers returned to Augusta and opened a cafeteria, named the B&W, and a Clarendon Hotel. By 1952 the cafeteria was a $200,000 a year operation.

More information about the Whitaker family and the creation of the Jekyll Island State Park Authority is available in the book Jekyll Island, A State Park.


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