The only way to arrive on the shores of Cumberland Island is by boat. Once you step off the dock, you have entered into a living history book. Tangled branches overhead lock antiquity and mystery into the fabric of the island. Under Spanish moss tinseled throughout the branches of Southern Live Oaks, and up the well-worn dirt paths laden with prints from horses’ hooves, there is a gracious southern mansion from a bygone era. This was the playground of the Carnegie family and now the legacy lives on as the Greyfield Inn.
Cumberland Island boasts a long lineage of strong women. While most have heard of steel-tycoon Andrew Carnegie and his brother Thomas, as some of the founding men of America, it is less likely that the names of Margaret Carnegie Ricketson and Lucy R. Ferguson ring a bell.
Yet, it is these tenacious women that helped make Cumberland what it is today.
Thomas Carnegie and his wife Lucy came to the island as an escape from the harsh winters in Pittsburgh. This small barrier island off the coast of Georgia, with white sands and wild sea, constitutes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands on the east coast. The 17 miles of untamed beaches served as the backdrop for the Carnegie vacations. The Greyfield estate was built for Thomas and Lucy’s daughter, Margaret. Thomas died in his early forties from pneumonia, which left his wife to raise nine children on her own. Lucy was no shrinking violet; in fact, not only did she raise her children and continue her trips down to Cumberland, but she was also the first woman inducted into the New York Yacht Club with her boat The Dungeness, which she usually sailed down to Cumberland.
Lucy R. Ferguson was a woman outside of time.
Walking up the steps to the wide and gracious front porch, you will find rocking chairs and porch swings overflowing with pillows where guests can nestle in to bird watch or read. If you are in need of reading material, the Inn has an awe-inspiring library. The chestnut-brown study is lined with bookshelves bending under the weight of first editions from the Carnegie family’s personal collection. The room smells of leather and the only sound is the soft crinkle of pages as you sink into the velvet couch cushions and turn pages written by the likes of Faulkner and Kipling.
After Margaret Carnegie Ricketson passed away, she left Greyfield to her daughter, Lucy R. Ferguson. There is a striking portrait of Lucy from 1926 in the living room: she is staring ahead with bold, brown eyes, seemingly into the soul of the viewer. She has wrapped her hair in a long pink scarf and her hand is placed on the machete tied around her waist. Lucy R. Ferguson was a woman outside of time. Not only was she responsible for turning the Greyfield estate into an Inn, but she is also to thank for keeping it in the family name and not selling the property during a time when many other family members had sold their properties to the State Park System. With the help of her son, Rick, and other family members, Greyfield became an Inn around 1962.
During the 1970s and 80s, Lucy’s grandchildren took turns caring for and running the Inn. Her granddaughter, Janet “Gogo” Ferguson, not only ran the Inn with flair, but also capitalized on the wildlife around her through jewelry making. Gogo is renowned artist and you can find her collecting starfish and rattlesnake bones to cast into a striking bracelet and a pair of gorgeous silver earrings. Her work has been displayed far and wide, in fine-art jewelry stores and museums.
Currently, Lucy R. Ferguson’s grandson, Mitty Ferguson and his wife, Mary live on the island and run daily operations at Greyfield. Mary said that one thing guests love about Greyfield is the warmness and the feeling of home. That is in part due to the continuity and feeling of connectedness, having been passed down from Lucy Carnegie to her daughter, Margaret, to her daughter Lucy R. Ferguson and now to Mary and Mitty Ferguson. Walking through the rooms at Greyfield does indeed feel like walking into someone’s home.
Another thing you will notice when visiting Cumberland is the stillness and calm of the island. There are only 50 residents on the island amid dense forests, uncombed beaches and wild animals. The horse count alone is 140, not to mention the wild boar, armadillos and birds. When riding your bicycle down to the beach it is not uncommon to see wild horses grazing on the grasses around you.
There are only 50 residents on the island amid dense forests, uncombed beaches and wild animals.
An appreciation for the natural beauty and resources of the land translates to the kitchen. Since there are no restaurants on the island, all meals are provided by Greyfield. Mary explained that they had been looking for a chef and when they found Whitney Otawka, it was a perfect fit.
Mary said she is thrilled to have Whitney on board. Not only is she a talented chef, but she is another strong woman in the long history of women at Greyfield. Mary explained that Whitney, “[is] a great presence in the kitchen… she’s such a strong woman and a strong leader. She’s really so capable of running a kitchen in such a positive way – in keeping all of her interests and focus. She’s so dedicated.” As the director of the food program at Greyfield, Whitney has made it a goal to utilize the resources around her. She’s started a garden that’s bursting with peppers, eggplants, mint, rosemary, and fruit trees. She’s also started a sea-salt program (yes, where they literally process salt right from the ocean) as well as an apiary program (a bee-hive/honey program). The island is teeming with life and Chef Whitney wants to put it right on the plate in front of you.
The island is teeming with life and Chef Whitney wants to put it right on the plate in front of you.
After a long day at the beach, or exploring the ruins of Dungeness or the grounds at Plum Orchard, guests make their way back on foot or bicycle to their rooms to get washed up for supper. Cocktail hour starts at 6 o’clock. You can make your way to the “Honest John Bar” and pour yourself a drink, leaving your name on a chit. Then you can venture onto the patio, in an enclave between brick beams, where there is a long wooden table and a fire next to it. Chef Whitney brings in fresh shrimp caught right on the coast and cooks them in a bubbling pot of herbs, spices and lemon. Then she splays the pink shrimp down the middle of the table and pours melted tomato butter into ceramic bowls beside plates and blue dishtowels. This is only hors d’oeuvre hour, and after she chats with guests, she returns inside to cook dinner with fellow chef and fiancé, Ben Wheatley.
One of the best things about Southern hospitality is the pace of it. For generations, southerners have spent their days working the land and then sitting down at the dinner table together every night. It’s rhythmic and it’s steady. These overarching traditions still linger on Cumberland today and they impact those who visit the island. When you visit Greyfield Inn, it’s easy to get the sense of being woven into the middle of a long and beautiful history.
To learn more about the Greyfield Inn, visit: http://greyfieldinn.com/
What do you love about vacationing in the south?
Images via Lyric Lewin