Next time we complain about the heat, the crowded restaurants, the new motels going up or the crush of tourist traffic that made us late for yoga class, let us look back to those heady of summers of the ‘80s.
No, not those ‘80s. The 1880s.
St. Simons Island had found new life as a lumber and sawmill boomtown by then, reinventing itself as a more rough-hewn and egalitarian community after the fall of the island’s antebellum plantation society with the Civil War’s end.
But they sensed a new industry awaiting in the not-too-distant future. In fact, those 19th Century islanders might be pleased to see just how well tourism has taken root here in the Golden Isles.
They knew we could do it.
“St. Simons needs a hotel,” R.J. Massey bluntly stated in the July 1, 1881 edition of the Brunswick Advertiser and Appeal, the paper of record back then. R.J. Massey was the newspaper’s island correspondent, as well as a practicing physician. During “slow news days” Massey was not above such blatant boosterism. “One (motel) of one hundred rooms near the beach could be filled with visitors from the interior in the summer and the Florida travel from the north would make the enterprise profitable during the winter months.”
Dr. Massey was indeed ahead of his time. By far the biggest business preoccupation back then centered around the goings-on at Gascoigne Bluff on the Frederica River. Ships from up and down the east coast, as well as Europe, regularly docked there to load up on lumber: cut from tall pines in the state’s interior, rafted down the Altamaha and milled at the many lumber concerns on the bluff.
But even then, they were turning their attentions to the beach for summer leisure, not to mention romance, Massey assures us.
“After passing through the business hours on these long, hot days, a ride on St. Simons beach, in full enjoyment of the sea-breeze, with your sweetheart, is simply splendid. So say the boys,” he wrote in the July 3, 1880 edition of the Advertiser and Appeal.
The real talk of the island leading up to Independence Day that year was of Dart, Casey, Stevens and Gould. These four young men were the captains in the island’s much-anticipated rowing regatta. For reasons unexplained, the island celebrated the Fourth on the 5th that year.
“By far the principal feature of interest on Monday, the 5th, celebrated as the 4th on the island, was the regatta gotten up by the young gentlemen of our community,” Massey wrote in the July 10 edition. “There were four entries for a purse of $20, to be awarded to the foremost boat in a rowing contest of one and one-half miles.”
The contestants were: J.B. Dart, rowing the Sea Gull; C.L. Casey in the Phone; George Stevens in the Minnie; and J.G. Gould in the Maggie. The four entries were about 15 feet long each. All were apparently homemade, each manned by an oarsman and two scullers. The racers would start at the St. Simons Mills and row out to the brig Mary T. Kimball, anchored in the Frederica River, then back across to the Gascoigne Mills; from there it was back to the Kimball and then to the finish line back at the St. Simons Mills.
“From the outset, it was evident that the spirit of the race concentered in a test between the Minni and the Maggie … “ Massey wrote. “The Minnie, however, soon led by just enough distance to make it interesting and exciting in the extreme to all who witnessed the contest. Upon reaching the brig, the Minnie turned two seconds in advance of the Maggie, which advantage she kept, almost without variation, till her return to the Judges’ stand.”
Young George Stevens, we are told, engaged in the 19th century version of a crossfit workout the day before the big race. All the 18-year-old did that day was work his full shift on the planing machine at the St. Simons Mills, then “conceived the design and built the Minnie before retiring at 12 c’clock (midnight),” Massey writes. Good sports all, his race rivals, J.B. Dart and C.L. Casey, stayed up to help him complete it.
“Her model is perfect beauty,” Massey described the Minnie.
Air conditioning was a distant pipe dream at the time, but the islanders were not above bemoaning the lack of cooling comforts on blistering summer days. “For several days during this torrid weather we have had no ice on the island,” Massey wrote on July 19 of 1884. And also grateful for it. “Thanks to Mr. Brewster, we now have a plentiful supply.”
Quality entertainment for those warm summer evenings was a valued commodity. Then, as now, the island could boast of attracting some of the best musicians around. “The pleasure-loving portion of our community owe Mr. J.K.P. Keaton a debt of gratitude for bringing upon the island Sam Branham, the best fiddler in southern Georgia,” Massey wrote on July 7, 1883. “Sam has many years’ experience in conducting dances, polkas schottisches, etc.”
In the end, the primary ingredients of fond summer memories have changed but little over the centuries.
“Weather very warm, but refreshing showers visit us occasionally, rendering the nights delicious,” he wrote on July 21 of ’83. “The sea breeze is splendid and the surf bathing these moonlight nights are simply incomparable.”