By Melanie Pollard
Wild horses and wild women have ruled Cumberland Island, Georgia for years. There’s an old saying on the island that if you’re a man, move somewhere else. Men don’t last long on this island. Many unlucky men have met their demise here, but that’s another story for another time.
The Spirit of Cumberland Island
Of all the islands we visited off the coast of Georgia and Florida, Cumberland was my favorite of the islands. Cumberland has a spiritual quality to it, a oneness with nature that I have not found on the other islands in the area. Its transformation abilities will be different for each person who visits. For me, it allows me to take a deeper breath and know that this place has magical healing powers for my soul.
The island is still untouched by humans for the most part with its feral horses and hogs, deer, bobcats, armadillos, raccoon, opossum, snakes, lizards, alligators, and many different species of birds. The people here are outnumbered.
How to get there
You don’t take a “last-minute trip” to this island. You must plan far ahead to get to the Cumberland Island National Seashore. First, make a reservation to get a seat on the ferry. Then travel to St. Mary’s, Georgia, and catch the ferry over to the island. There are no bridges to this magical place. The National Park Service only allows 300 people per day on the island.
As we began to load The Cumberland Lady, we found it packed with young and old alike. Some ferry riders had a backpack for several days’ camping there. To keep the island in its natural state, everyone carries a backpack or bag with food, water, and necessities. You will not find concessions on the island — and no gift shop for your trinkets. It’s “pack in/pack out.”
The National Park Service wants you to know the following before you arrive: Plan to carry your trash off the island and plan on walking or riding a bicycle. Or you can reserve a spot on the Land and Legacies Tour, the only tour on the island (see future blog). For Cumberland is a “wild” island in almost every sense of the word.
Where to stay
You will need a permit to camp, (click here), and prepare for the basics only. I hear only cold showers are available, and this old gran’s body has long passed its time to sleep on the ground — I know my limitations.
Greyfield Inn is the only hotel accommodation on Cumberland Island. To stay at Greyfield Inn, you will catch the ferry, Lucy R Ferguson, from Fernandina Beach, FL on Amelia Island. Make your reservations ahead of time here.
On our first day at Cumberland Island, we traveled with a group of about 33 people, ages 55 and older, through the Road Scholar Program. Read about my Road Scholar experience here. With bug spray, sunblock, lunch and several bottles of water in hand, we unloaded the ferry and met our guide.
The bewitching, alluring horses that roam freely on Cumberland are called “feral” horses, because their origin is from domesticated horses brought to the island. They have reverted to their wild state and have adapted to living on the island without the help of people. Some say their origin is from the Spaniards from the 1700s, and some say they originated from the settlers from the 1800s. Regardless of their emergence, the horses of Cumberland are a fascinating sight to behold.
They don’t seem to have any fear at all, as they came wandering through the back of our photo on the beach.
The horses are romantic to view in their wild state with their manes blowing in the wind when they run down the barren beaches. But there is much dispute among the locals and the park service whether or not horses should remain on the island, as some say they suffer needlessly without care and harm the island’s sea oats which play an important role in maintaining the dunes.
When I refer to the women of Cumberland Island as “wild women,” I’m not indicating they are hard-drinking women of immoral character. The wild women of Cumberland are more wild spirits, free and unencumbered. They have adventurous souls and an ability to live beyond society’s rules — free-thinking, strong women who know what they want and go after it. Every woman dreams of being that type of wild, I think.
The most recent wild woman of Cumberland, and one we had hoped to catch a glimpse of while on the island –which we did not –is Carol Ruckdeschel. Carol is a naturalist, biologist, and environmental activist. As a resident of the island, she was instrumental in the Cumberland Island National Seashore.
The book, “Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island,” tells about Carol’s life. It’s available both in print and on audio. This book was a most enjoyable read. While imparting the unique past of Carol, it also gave me an insight into the island,the Carnegie family (who owned most of the island), the island’s diverse past, and the fight to keep it in its wild and present state, free from development.
Carol is now in her 70s and still lives on the island. She is a self-taught scientist whose life is devoted to the sea turtles and saving them. Carol lives off the land and has been known to eat roadkill, ride the wild horses and sea turtles, and she prefers the company of animals to people. She guards her privacy, so don’t go seeking her out. Visit her site wildcumberland.org to find out more about her work.
Another great woman of Cumberland Island was Lucy Coleman Carnegie, (1847-1916), the gracious host of Dungeness. Lucy was only five feet tall but wielded a much larger presence. Lucy arrived on Cumberland after she married Tom Carnegie, the younger brother of the two famous Carnegie brothers. The brothers came to America from Scotland as penniless teenagers and made their fortune in the steel industry. They bought Dungeness ruins on Cumberland as a winter home and built their own Dungeness estate.
Tom was one of the unlucky men of Cumberland, who, unfortunately, caught pneumonia at the age of 43 and died, leaving Lucy a wealthy heiress. It is rumored that Tom and Lucy were turned away from membership in Jekyll Island Club. Then Lucy was determined not to be outdone by the wealthy elite of Jekyll Island.
Lucy enlarged the Dungeness mansion to 59 rooms in a turreted Scottish castle style. The rooms were all very grandiose and palatial. The matriarch ran her beloved estate flawlessly and doted on her nine children, eventually building homes on the island for them, including Stafford Mansion, Plum Orchard, and Greyfield. (See future blog.)
She knew how to keep her children close, and she wanted them to appreciate her beloved island as she did. She overindulged her children and would grant them almost anything they wanted, especially the boys in the family. None of her six sons ever held a job.
It was rumored that the boys would travel to the mainland and bring back girls — not the kind you would “bring home to momma.” So Lucy built the “recreation center,” with an indoor pool for their entertainment. The girls were housed in the rooms nearby, as they were not welcome in the main house.
Lucy employed a staff of more than 200 to keep up her grand estate. They had a farm that raised food, along with cattle, hogs, and poultry. The estate is now in ruins due to a reputed arsonist’s fire.
The old ice house still stands today. Ships would travel to the Great Lakes and bring back large chunks of ice carved for the ice house.
Two other notable women of Cumberland were Lucy Carnegie Ricketson Ferguson, (1899-1989), granddaughter of Lucy Coleman Carnegie, and her granddaughter, Janet (Gogo) Ferguson.
Lucy C. Ferguson, a Carnegie heir, was the owner of Greyfield Inn, now a B&B (and the only place to have a real bed on the island). She was the widow of Robert Weeks Ferguson, a state representative.
Gogo Ferguson, who is now a famous jewelry designer, tells Coastal Magazine of her grandmother, Lucy, “Everything I know about Cumberland Island, I learned from my grandmother,” Gogo says. “She used her buck knife to kill the rattlesnakes that invaded her chicken coop.” Lucy taught the young Gogo how to skin a snake, rub it clean with coarse cornmeal, slather it with Pond’s cold cream, and mount it on a piece of wood.
“Being with my grandmother was like spending time with Peter Pan,” says Gogo. “From the moment my two brothers and I woke up, she had us hiking, horseback riding, or learning how to recognize the footprints of an alligator or of a bird on the dunes. She took us out at night to watch the loggerhead sea turtles lay their eggs. She filled us with such a sense of wonder; she was like a mother owl who taught us how to really see nature.”
Gogo now uses those nature skills as inspiration to design her jewelry. Gogo designed the rings for the Bessette-Kennedy secret wedding that took place in the tiny African church on the island. (See future blog.)
The island is rich in nature and history. I found much inspiration from my visit here. These wild women of Cumberland and their legacies of preserving nature for future generations continues to live on and inspire most everyone who visits this unique, enchanting island.
Yes, Cumberland Island is a spellbinding and mystical place and a place that I want my children and grandchildren to experience. Don’t miss an opportunity to see one of the last wild islands in the U.S. while you still can.