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History and Stories Abound on St. Simons Island

By Steve Bergsman Modified: June 28, 2013 at 1:59 pm •  Published: June 28, 2013
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When I was growing up on Long Island, N.Y., I went through junior high and high school with a boy named Ray. After graduation we didn't see each other for 40 years. I moved to Arizona and he to Brunswick, Ga.


    Recently, my wife and I were on St. Simons Island, Ga., and Ray came over the causeway to visit. We all went out to eat at a restaurant called Iguana, and Ray regaled us with local stories. I didn't remember his being so loquacious when we were in school together, but people who live in the South get used to telling gothic tales. It was appropriate here because St. Simons Island is full of stories -- some poignant, some historical, some whimsical.
    Take, for example, the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort on St. Simons Island where my wife and I were staying. Majestically stretching along a quiet beach, the resort is no cookie-cutter chain hotel. The King and Prince has such a good, long, interesting history that it has now been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
    This is its peculiar story.
    In 1935, two local entrepreneurs decided to erect a private dance hall on this particular stretch of beach. One of the entrepreneurs was tall and thin, the other short and fat, and the workers used to joke, "Here come the king and the prince." The name stuck, hence the royal-sounding King and Prince Resort.
    By 1941, the dance hall became a royal-sounding hotel -- just in time for the start of World War II. Almost immediately the hotel became part of the war effort, housing British radar experts. The soldiers of the king and princes of England were housed at a resort with a name that would make them feel less homesick.
    Indeed the King and Prince presents itself royally. In the historic Delegal room, famed for its stained-glass windows, are two large portraits. The first is of King George II of England, which makes some sense since it was he who sent James Oglethorpe to the Americas to found the Georgia colony, which included putting forts on St. Simons Island.
    The second portrait is of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, known in history as Bonnie Prince Charlie. No one I spoke to could explain why there is a portrait of him here, and an even bigger mystery is why his left hand is missing.
    James Oglethorpe had a pretty good story, as well.
    Back in the early 1700s, the British were concerned about the Spanish, who were ensconced in the Florida colony and looking to expand in North America. Rightly so, because in 1742 a small fleet of Spanish ships sailed along the coast of St. Simons Island, bombarded Fort St. Simons and then landed 2,000 men heading toward Fort Frederica. Oglethorpe met them with 200 regular troops and 200 highlanders in the skirmish called the Battle of Bloody Marsh. Only about a dozen Spaniards were killed before they turned back to their ships. Oglethorpe called the incident a miraculous victory, likening it to something out of Greek mythology.
    The real story was that the British fleet was seen off the coast of Georgia and the Spanish fleet didn't want to get boxed in within the tidal waters so they called back the troops, boarded the ships as quickly as possible and hightailed it back to Florida, never to present a challenge to the British again.
    I learned all this when my wife and I decided to take the trolley tour of the island. I had originally disparaged the idea of taking the tour, wondering how much there was there on this small island -- 12 miles long by three miles wide -- that could possibly be interesting. How wrong I was! The trolley tour lasted two hours, and there wasn't one boring moment -- from the pre-Revolutionary history through the plantation years and the Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves and the big effect that has had on development on the island.
    Our tour guide had many stories to tell, such as the tale of Neptune Small, a slave who went to the Civil War with his master, who was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Small brought the body back to St. Simons Island and then went to war again with the master's brother. The family was so grateful that after the war they gave him acreage along the shoreline that turned out to be some of the most valuable land on the island.
    My favorite story involved a storyteller name Eugenia Price, a local author who wrote novels about St. Simons Island and also about Savannah. I didn't know her books, but I understood her to be quite popular in Georgia. She lived on St. Simons Island and wrote her books there, maintaining a fairly reclusive lifestyle with her lifelong friend, the writer Joyce Blackburn. When she died in 1996, they made room for Price and later Blackburn in the crowded cemetery at Christ Church, itself a heritage site.
    My wife and I found Christ Church to be one of the more interesting locations on the island, and we went back later to tour the grounds and look for the gravesites. A guide told us they were at the back of the cemetery, but we still couldn't find them, so I asked a different guide. The response was the same, and when I said I looked in that location twice and didn't see it, she admitted she had never seen it, either.
    "But you know Eugenia Price was so reclusive when she was alive," she added as a way of explanation.
    Apparently she is reclusive in death, as well.
WHEN YOU GO
    We drove to St. Simons Island from Savannah, which can take 90 minutes on the Interstate or a bit longer on scenic coastal Route 17 with a stop in Darien, which also boasts historic sites: www.cityofdarienga.com.
    My wife and I stayed at the historic King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort, which sits on a quiet stretch of beach not far from the little tourist town at St. Simons Pier. A new executive chef, Jason Brumfiel, has livened up the menu: www.kingandprince.com.
    My best recommendations: Take the St. Simons Colonial Island Trolley Tour, which gives a great introduction to the island (www.saintsimonstrolley.com). For a closer look, rent a bike or kayak at Ocean Motion Surf Co. (www.stsimonkayaking.com).
   
    Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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