Look deep enough into Bill Brown’s eyes and you will see what a giddy child saw on his very first ride over the brand new causeway to St. Simons Island — July 11, 1924.
Oh, yeah, he was there.
Those eyes even gazed across the rippling waters of the St. Simons Sound from aboard the ferryboat Emmeline on a more leisurely crossing, before automobiles could drive to the island. Born Dec. 3, 1918, the childlike wonder of it all still shines in Bill’s eyes well into the 21st Century.
Come out today (Saturday) and see for yourself. A 100th birthday bash will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, 1400 Norwich St. in Brunswick. We are all invited. No presents, please. But a fond memory or anecdote concerning the local living legend would be most welcome.
Your recollections of meeting with Bill over the years will certainly include a chuckle or two. If he did not make you laugh, it was not for lack of trying.
“My philosophy is, I believe laughter is the best medicine,” Bill told me when I first met him for an article in The News in 2015. “That about says it all.”
Hardly. Sorry, Bill, but I beg to differ. He is always good for a laugh, but Bill’s significance to this community is much more ingrained. Live to be 100 — his official birthday is Monday — and a person deservedly becomes a historic monument of sorts. But the Brunswick native’s legacy to the Golden Isles eclipses simply attaining the status of centenarian.
Never mind that he was born into one of Brunswick’s founding families, the Darts, whose local roots trace back to the arrival of Revolutionary War veteran Cyrus Dart. He also stood witness to perhaps the Golden Isles’ finest hour, working alongside thousands of other men and women at the shipyards that turned out Liberty Ships and other boats for the war effort during World War II. And throughout a 60-year real estate career in Brunswick, Bill had a bird’s-eye view to the community’s growing pains, transformations, setbacks and fortunes.
But Bill also holds an abiding respect for local history, as well as our place within it. He has made painstaking efforts to document the past he has witnessed, as well as much of the local history that preceded him. Bill’s apartment at Magnolia Manor on St. Simons Island looks more like the office of an absent-minded professor — historical documents, faded-yellow news clippings and books typically cover most flat spaces, or bulge from overstuffed cabinets.
On Tuesday, I asked Bill to jot down some of his favorite recollections from 100 years of life in the Golden Isles. He stayed up late, filling out 18 handwritten pages. It is a treasure that will join my growing library of local history.
Here is a glimpse at some of his more insightful and, of course, humorous reflections.
In the 1920s, a New York outfit platted the Windsor Park area of Brunswick for an ambitious subdivision. That is how Palmetto Street and Sycamore Avenue came to see its dirt roads paved. But the development tanked with the 1927 stock market crash. Some folks picked up the empty lots at a bankruptcy auction for as little as $25 each, Bill recalled. Not all the lots found buyers, even at that price.
“The unsold lots lay fallow, serving as pasturage for the cows of Captain John Hotch’s small dairy farm, located behind his home, which faced Lee Street,” Bill recalls.
But there was more shaking around these parts than just cow tails.
“Windsor Park also was courting grounds for couples,” Bill writes. “A few fellows, fortunate enough to have access to cars, used to ride through the park at night shining their lights on the couples. This continued until one irate fellow got out of his car and broke the windshield of the other car, with the jack handle of his wheel jack.”
One local man spent $25 each on three of the bankrupt lots, which occupied the corner of Pine and Oak avenues. This would prove fortuitous for Bill.
“Twenty years later, my wife and I bought this corner lot from the original owner for $1,500,” he wrote. There Bill and his wife Margaret raised their two children, Mary and William III. The couple established a successful business renting commercial real estate in Brunswick.
Bill married Margaret in 1946, shortly after his job as a timekeeper at the shipyards ended along with the war. He went into the real estate business with his father. Simon Hadley Brown arrived here from Camden County and married Ethel Gray Dart, raising Bill and his four siblings in the historic Dart house that overlooked the marsh at 4 Glynn Avenue from 1876 to 2017.
Bill dabbled briefly in life insurance sales, only to learn the hard way that real estate had a much broader market. “It appeared to me that the older person who could afford life insurance couldn’t qualify,” he writes. “And the younger person, who could qualify, couldn’t afford it. In the real estate business, if a person has a down payment and good credit, I didn’t have to worry about his health.”
There was a time when downtown Brunswick bustled with motels and restaurants, catering briskly to northern vacationers on their way to Florida. This was no accident, Bill said. When the feds built the Atlantic Coastal Highway from Maine to Florida in 1920s, some shrewd locals made darn certain this ribbon of roadway did not let tourists out of Brunswick without a good look around.
They finagled it so the highway took a hard right on Newcastle Street from U.S. Highway 17; it then toured parts of G and Newcastle streets before turning back north on Norwich and finally veering in the general direction of Florida on the outskirts of town. “It remained the same route until the first Sidney Lanier Bridge opened (1956) and U.S. 17 was routed over the Brunswick River, taking the tourist through-traffic out of downtown Brunswick,” Brown laments.
The stately, 70-year-old Oglethorpe Hotel held on until 1958, when it was demolished after the steam boiler that heated the rooms conked out. Owner Howard Dayton was simply not generating enough traffic to repair it. “He faced a dilemma,” Bill wrote. “With no income from overnight guests, there was no need to install a new steam boiler. So he had the hotel demolished.”
This column will share more of Bill’s keen insights at a later date. I am honored to be Bill’s friend, although this status does not exactly put me in an elite crowd. In his 100 years, it is hard to believe Bill met any among us whom he did not consider a friend. Come on out to First United Methodist Church today and find out why.