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St. Simon's Island

The Avenue of Oaks that led to Retreat Plantation are still there but now there is a Retreat Golf Course instead

Anyone who has read Eugenia Price's novels (Lighthouse, New Moon Rising, Beloved Invader) has heard of St. Simon's Island off the coast of Georgia. She made the place sound like a bit of Paradise. So we drove over there on our way home several years ago. That day we found our way to Christ Church and back. But mostly we didn't know what we were seeing.

On our Elderhostel trip this spring, we rode bicycles all over St. Simon's Island with talks on its history at the hotel before and on many stops along the way. But even before that I was checking out what grows there. The first thing I found upon arrival was Pittosporum in fragrant bloom. Why do these shrubs, common in Florida, bloom so seldom here? I've been asking but still haven't found an answer.

I was hoping to see some of the spring flowers we don't have here. Instead I found mostly amaryllis and palm trees. I did see a very few daffodils in one churchyard garden and stems that proved one large planting had bloomed earlier at another place. But most of the plants were the same as what we see here. The pansies and snapdragons looked more content with the cooler temperatures than ours did.

The most striking shrub in bloom on the island was an Indian hawthorn, 'Majestic Beauty', that I had never noticed here. It was covered with banks of pink flowers with a heavenly fragrance. (When I got home, I checked and found that it is also grown here, but that it sometimes gets a fungus in our summers.) I brought home cuttings. I'll try it out.

Georgia has 100 miles of coastline but virtually all of these are covered with marshes--1/3 of the marshland on the entire east coast. There are 15 barrier islands, but only four of them are accessible by automobile. The rest you have to get to by boat. Georgia's 11 miles of beach property are all on the barrier islands, and the rest of their borders are surrounded by beautiful marshes as well.

The lighthouse is still active at the southern tip of the island, but it is automatic now, and the keeper's home is part of a museum.

"These marshes, all of smooth cordgrass, are one great maternity ward and nursery for all sorts of fish and turtles," our guide Anne Ditmer told us. She gave a fascinating talk on how a family could live on seafood here and how hers largely does because she married an Ohio farm boy who feels he has to produce food. He is also Director of Horticulture for the Sea Island Company that owns 25% of St. Simon's Island plus much of the smaller Sea Island to the East.

Rog Ditmer uses a net for shrimp and they put 300 to 400 pound of shrimp in the freezer every year. They also enjoy oysters, blue crabs, clams, mussels, sea bass, sea trout, and lobster. "Most of the people who live on the island aren't interested in getting their own food, but many of the people in nearby Brunswick on the mainland do," she said. She showed us all her husband's fishing toys, kept us laughing, and inspired admiration if not imitation.

The history of St. Simon's Island goes back 4000 years starting with the Indians who eventually become known as the Timucuans. After that came the Spanish, who were ousted by the British in 1742 when James Edward Oglethorpe led the battle of Bloody Marsh. From then until the Civil War, twelve plantations on the island grew Sea Island cotton with the help of about two thousand slaves. After the war, the island was the site of the third largest lumber mill in the world, and that gave employment to many of the freed slaves.

We heard stories that linked the names of all the streets to real people and history came alive. Before we left, David and I visited the one nursery on the island. Others shopped elsewhere.

In her novels, Price speaks of the woods turning crimson and gold in late October, riding up the road with the late afternoon sun shining on all that red and yellow, like fire. Of watching for every change that came on in almost every tree with the passing of each day. Of the spring sunlight under the tasseled trees roped with Cherokee roses and grapevines. She says the trees on the ocean side do not have the moss hanging from them as do the ones further from the shore and that there is something growing and blooming there every day of the year.

It was almost as great a place as Florida.

Left: The causeway and bridge are barely visible, but live oaks and cabbage and pindo palms are part of the scenery on St. Simon's Island as they are here
Right: Christ Church was the scene of much of the action and the cemetery behind it was burial place of many of the characters in Eugenia Price's novels about the island.