©Bert Gildart: In my last post I talked about a few of the challenges confronting us on our kayak trip to Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore. In this blog I want to talk about one of the most lavish gifts a mother ever provided a child, and that is the castle-like structure that we saw on our kayak trip. The structure was located about 200 yards from our campsite; and unless you are one of the few remaining island residents, you can only reach the area by kayaking, backpacking or by using a rental bike. We hope access never changes — but fear there’s writing on the wind and that it will soon be blowing Cumberland’s way — despite the wilderness nature of the surrounding area.
Seeing the immense castle-like old home is worth the effort for it dates back to the late 1890s. It exists because Lucy Carnegie decided she would build a mansion for each child who remained on Cumberland Island. For her daughter Retta, she built Greyfield, but she built the most impressive mansion for her son, George Lauder Carnegie. She named it Plum Orchard after an old plantation built along Brickhill River, a river which lured Janie me from our camp in the evening. Here from the banks we’d watch as otters cruised the river and where dozens of white ibis gathered to roost on a huge live oak.
The castle was dedicated October 6, 1898, but one morning as we walked the premises (112 years later!) concluded the secluded old home is still in good shape. The paint looked relatively fresh and horse manure informed us that the park’s “wild” horses’ gravitated to the grasslands surrounding the old home.
STEPPING BACK IN TIME
Those in the know say that the architecture of the home is Greek Revival, but with its tall columns Janie and I were reminded of Scarlet O’Hara’s home Tara in Gone With the Wind. On our warm Georgia day, full of sun and the quiet murmur of Brickhill River running nearby it was a delightful to let the imagination run wild.
L to R: Elaborate staircase; elaborate tiffany lamp back dropped by huge arched fireplace
No one was nearby on this mid November day so we walked to one of the windows and peered in, wishing we could see the interior. Moments later luck intervened in the form of a group of graduate students from Clemson University completing work on park management who had been quietly meandering around themselves. They had befriended us and were now inviting us to join their private park tour.
Victoria Jumper, an intern, was with the group and she provided background history but asked us to please remember that she had just started the program and that she too was learning – but she could have fooled us. She was enthusiastic and said she drew on materials from Cumberland Island: A History, by Mary R. Bullard, something I later did as well.
Victoria said Plum Orchard consisted of 21,724 square feet after additions were made in 1906. The additions included a 9-foot deep swimming pool that was always cold as it derived waters from a deep artesian well. When the Carnegies lived there the pool’s depth challenged the children, and they would attempt to “walk” the length of the bottom without emerging.
As well the mansion included a squash court with viewing balcony, prompting James Nampushi, a student from Kenya, to suggest that Carnegie’s may have been “a little ostentatious.” We both laughed but the evidence was there in the form of size; in the form of a spiral staircase, expensive wall paper, and a mammoth fireplace all graced with dark walnut paneling. Later, we discovered we agreed on many other subjects, particularly on the need to save wilderness with its diminishing wildlife.
Fruit desert fit for a king, or for a Carnegie; Squash Court – and my new friend James Nampushi, a master’s degree student form Kenya, in yellow and black sweater
Despite the home’s relatively good care, conspicuously missing were the home’s elaborate furnishings and their absence tells a story that began with the untimely death of George Carnegie in 1921. Shortly thereafter his wife Margaret married a French count who came to Plum Orchard and took almost all the furniture, chandeliers, and gold bath fixtures, as well as George’s guns, trophies and books. The count shipped all to New York where he placed it on auction. Finally, the Carnegies informed him that he was no longer welcome at Plum Orchard.
After that the mansion began to fall into a state of disrepair, but in 1973 the Park Service took over Plum Orchard. For awhile the mansion functioned as their Island Headquarters. Then, headquarters were changed and today upkeep of the mansion depends on Congressional funding, which can, of course, be capricious.
Still, the castle remains impressive and I hope these images might in some small way help to convey the message that this old structure should be preserved. It is part of America’s history and continues to tell a fascinating story. Management will be the key, and its preservation may well fall to the skills of future conservationists such as James, who now hopes to manage some of the last remnants of wild land back home in Africa.
We’re now heading home and expect it will take us about 10 days to complete the 2,100 mile drive to Montana, something I used to make in about three days when I was in my early twenties. Now we dawdle, preferring to smell the roses.