Little Charles Berolzheimer could scarcely contain himself in a letter home to his mom about the myriad natural wonders competing for his attention on a tiny island off the Georgia Coast
“Dear Mother,” the 12-year-old New York City lad wrote, “I am having a fine time down here. I will tell you what we did each day.”
From there the letter skips about in youthful exuberance. Charles scribbles with ants-in-his-pants excitement about fishing and swimming and exploring and catching a baby gator, “which I kept for a pet and named Jimmie.”
The letter is dated June 7, 1914, well over 100 years ago. But I get it, Charles. I totally get it. Truth be told, there’s not much difference between the Little St. Simons that Charles described in his letter and the island I visited on Thursday. My sweetheart Wylie and I spent the day there, immersed in Coastal Georgia at its natural best.
Little St. Simons is about the size of nearby Jekyll Island, but it happily lacks pavement, gift shops or restaurants. There is a timeless old lodge where really good meals are served, and a few adjacent cabins with a capacity for a couple dozen overnight guests.
Dirt paths the width of tire tracks bend through the island’s interior. Antique oaks draped in Spanish moss that hasn’t been touched for centuries rise above palmetto scrub along the island’s interior. Freshwater ponds loaded with unlimited ducks are scattered throughout. After lunch we walked a beach that was awash in seashells and shorebirds and framed by uncluttered horizons.
How does such a pristine piece of oceanfront property survive into the 21st century without so much as a putting green on it? We have Hank and Wendy Paulson to thank for that.
Also, coastal Georgia cedar makes for lousy pencils. True story.
Reducing pristine Little St. Simons Island into pencil fodder was just one of several money-making ventures that never quite took off on this piece of paradise. But we’ll get back to that.
Little St. Simons Island has been in private hands since 1760, when the British crown awarded it to Samuel Ougspourger, a Swiss colonist living in Savannah. By this time, the colonial settlement at Fort Frederica on adjacent St. Simons Island had dwindled to a handful of planters and homesteaders.
Brothers James and John Graham purchased the island several years later, intent on establishing a farm there. But the Grahams were staunch British loyalists, high-tailing it back to London at the earliest stirrings of the Revolutionary War.
Around 1774, the island was acquired by Maj. Pierce Butler, one of the nation’s wealthiest men who oversaw thriving plantations on St. Simons Island and Butler Island near Darien. The Irish immigrant and patriot hoped Sea Island cotton grown on Little St. Simons Island would add to his riches.
Though some cotton eventually sprouted on the island’s north end, Butler profited but little from the venture there, according to New Georgia Encyclopedia. But Little St. Simons Island later drew the curiosity of Fanny Kemble, the abolitionist-minded actress who married Butler’s grandson, Pierce Mease Butler. She described a visit to the island in her journal (which would later result in divorce from Mease and a best-selling expose on the miseries of slavery).
“It is a wild little sand heap, covered with thick forest growth,” Kemble wrote in 1839.
Yes, Ms. Kemble, that pretty much describes the place Wylie and I so thoroughly enjoyed visiting just the other day.
Cattle and other livestock were introduced over the decades, but not much in the way of a profitable enterprise ever arose from the little island. It was abandoned during the Civil War, and remained so until the turn of the 20th century.
Enter O.F. Chichester, a timber procurer for the pencil-making Berolzheimer family. While on a fishing trip to the Golden Isles, Chichester stumbled upon Little St. Simons Island’s untouched cedar groves and saw profits for the Berolzheimer’s Eagle Pencil Company. Eagle bought the land in 1908 for $12,500 from Frances Butler Leigh, the daughter of Pierce Mease and Fanny.
With a timber mill already running nearby at Gascoigne Bluff on St. Simons Island, Chichester’s crew went to work felling cedar trees on Little St. Simons Island. But those lumbermen at the mill soon had bad news for Eagle, which was good news for us.
Those cedars on Little St. Simons Island were too bent and twisted by coastal winds to be of much use in the making of straight-and-narrow pencils. Over the next several years, Philip Berolzheimer grew more and more smitten by this untamed little island on the Georgia coast. By 1912, Emil Berolzheimer was happy to deed it entirely to his nature-loving sibling.
Little St. Simons Island remained in the hands of a succession of Berolzheimer offspring, who entertained family and friends in relatively modest lodges built for the sporting pursuits of hunting and fishing. The family turned the island into into a lodge and ecotourist destination in 1979.
Hank and Wendy Paulson bought the island in 2003, continuing its role as a destination for those who prefer the wild side. Hank was CEO at Goldman Sachs and a former U.S. Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush. In 2015, the Paulsons entered into an agreement to establish the 11,000-acre island as a permanent conservation area of the Nature Conservancy.
Check it out for yourself some day. It is all pretty much just the way little Charles Berholzheimer described it to his mom back in 1914.