Friday, September 11, 2015

Jekyll Island: From Millionaires to the Masses

Over the past two summers Russell Library intern Kaylynn Washnock assisted in curating the new exhibit, “Seeing Georgia: Changing Visions of Tourism in the Modern South” opening September 18th in the Russell Library’s Harrison Feature Gallery. The exhibit investigates how the state transformed itself from a way station along the route to Florida into a tourist destination during the twentieth century. It addition to highlighting six popular destinations in Georgia the exhibit considers questions of access, preservation, and economics – who could go, how they got there, and what motivated them to visit different attractions. The exhibit also explores the professionalization of the tourism industry and the roles of modern amenities in shaping the modern tourist experience. This post is one in a series where Kaylynn offers a preview of the exhibition.   

Ephemera Collection, Russell Library. 
Once called the richest, most exclusive, club in the world, Jekyll Island was a playground for northern capitalists during America’s Gilded Age. Between 1888 and 1928, the likes of the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts made up the original 53 members of the Jekyll Island Club.  During the Club Era, according to a 1955 booklet, “Jekyll was not only the greatest of the country’s social islands but one so legendary in prestige that in its hey dey the claim was made that its clientele controlled one-sixth of the world’s wealth.” The Great Depression and onset of World War II caused memberships to dwindle and 1942 marked the Club’s final season.

Governor Ellis Arnall soon thereafter appointed a commission to investigate the purchase of the coastal islands for use as state parks. Georgians largely supported the proposal for the state to purchase Jekyll, eager to enjoy an accessible in-state beach within reach of the average vacationer. Though some politicians opposed the purchase, questioning whether the state belonged in the beach resort business, others hoped to capture tourist traffic headed further south.

Governor M.E. Thompson
and his wife Ann on Jekyll,
ca. 1947-48.
M.E. Thompson Papers,
Russell Library
As state revenue commission, M.E. Thompson recommended the purchase of Jekyll Island. Acting as governor he moved forward with the state acquisition of the island on October 7, 1947 for $675,000, renaming the property Jekyll Island State Park. Although taunted by his political foe Herman Talmadge, who dubbed the project “Thompson’s Folly,” Thompson refused to give up on the creation of a state beach park for the “plain people of Georgia.”  In recognition of this work on the project, the Jekyll Island Bridge was named in his honor in 1989.

Although Jekyll is now a “fabulous family vacation spot, open to all,” the Jekyll Island Authority continues to capitalize on the island's high-class history to entice tourists. As one pamphlet advertising “Prime Ocean Front Resort Lots” noted, “Jekyll’s potential is far from being realized” yet it has “a unique identity—one that gives it an edge in the competition with other seacoast resorts.” Although the Jekyll Island Authority promoted resort type development and leased lots to increase profits and make the island economically self-sufficient by 1972 , the state legislature stipulated that no more than half of the property could be developed.

Want to find out more about Georgia Tourism? Visit Seeing Georgia: Changing Visions of Tourism in the New South on display in the Harrison Feature Gallery in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries from September 18, 2015 through July 30, 2016. The Russell Library gallery is free and open to the public weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. For more information, email or call 706-542-5788

Note: All the uncaptioned images in this blog post were obtained from the Georgiana Ephemera Collection, courtesy of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

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