Stories from the Deep South Immerse Tourists in History; Mansions, Slavery, Evading Law All Part of Cumberland

Article excerpt

Byline: Terry Dickson

CUMBERLAND ISLAND A couple of new park rangers at Cumberland Island National Seashore have a double task: to drive visitors along about 16 miles of dirt road from near the island's south end to its north and to tell the island's story as they go.

Sarah Cote, who just came to work for the National Park Service recently, acknowledged that with so many historical figures it is a daunting task to tell a story accurately, especially from memory. And Alexander Altvater, who came from Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, N.J., has experience relating history.

The stories could start with Robert Stafford, who owned a plantation, and the people who planted and tended his crops, run through the millionaire Carnegies, who built huge houses on the island, and end with the trolley that carried guests from the former Cumberland Jekyll Wharf to the big hotel that is now a private getaway.

The stories are told on the six-hour Lands and Legacies Tour along dirt roads to the houses and natural areas.

Maggie Tyler, chief of interpretation and education for Cumberland Island, knows what the former residents did, but she leaves their motivation for visitors to decide.

She portrays Stafford, who died in 1877 and is buried on the island, as a man who figured his way around a law requiring that land abandoned after the Civil War be given to freed slaves. When they tried to take Stafford's property, he seized on the word abandoned, Tyler said.

"He said, 'Oh, no you're not,'" Tyler said. "'I never left.'"

Then there's the matter of what Tyler calls "enslaved individuals."

Married with children, Stafford fathered children by a mixed-race woman. He sent them north for their education but did not provide for them in his will, instead leaving his property to his white descendants.

A lot of the stories are gone from Plum Orchard, the huge Georgian Revival mansion that Thomas and Lucy Carnegie built in 1898 for their son, George, and his wife, Margaret Thaw. Much of the house is furnished, but some of the furniture likely came from other Carnegie houses.

There is no explaining, for example, the piano in a big room on the eastern wing of the home. Tyler figures the piano came from another house because the Carnegie children said the room "always smelled of bourbon and gun oil."

The house has one of the few remaining squash tennis courts in the nation, a 9 1/2-foot-deep indoor pool and Tiffany lamps.

The servants who worked there and for the other Carnegies had quarters in the big houses and homes on the north end in The Settlement where First African Baptist Church was built in the 1930s.

"A lot of people would come up for Sunday services even if they were working for the Carnegies way down south," Tyler said. …

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