May 29, 2020
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Exploring Jekyll Island’s ‘rich’ past

Being a naive traveler who leaves the state of Maine only in dire emergency and Red Sox spring training, I thought that I had discovered the wonderful world of Jekyll Island off the Georgia coast last week.

Jefferson Phil had introduced me to its illustrious island neighbor, St. Simon, last year. I decided to check out Jekyll Island this year all by myself. While it was spitting snow in Rockland, the Georgia island was a perfect 65, sunny degrees. It was a fantasyland, the dunes and beaches reminding one of Cape Cod four generations ago before urban sprawl took over.

Apparently everyone in the world knew about the place but me. The best and the brightest, and the richest, discovered it more than a century ago.

If you visit public urinals, like I do, you might notice that the fixtures often bear the name of the Crane Co. It seems that Richard T Crane Jr., whose father, Richard T. Crane Sr., founded the toilet company, also discovered Jekyll Island some time ago. He built a huge Italian villa-style “cottage” there in 1917.

Not only was it the largest private home constructed by the rich group that summered there, but it also had 17 bathrooms. I guess if you get the toilets for free, you make the most of it.

It was in this cottage and the Jekyll Island Club that the present Federal Reserve System was crafted by the old guard of John. D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and some other millionaires you have never heard of.

You may not believe it, but the banks and other financial institutions were in a precarious state at the time. Not like today. So the rich boys secretly boarded a train from New York City to Jekyll Island, dressed as duck hunters. They spent nine days on the island drafting an early bailout program, which became the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. It was estimated at the time that one-quarter of the world’s wealth sat around that table, dressed in duck hunting gear.

Most assume that the Federal Reserve is a government agency. It is not. It is a private, central bank.

It seems that every cottage on Jekyll Island has a tale.

The Indian Mound Cottage was built in 1892 for Gordon McKay, whose claim to fame, and source of great wealth, was his shoe-making machine that brought mass production to the industry. He specialized in providing boots for the military and amassed a fortune estimated at $40 million, a huge sum at the turn of that century.

Not many people could afford such a cottage. But William Rockefeller, brother of Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller, could handle it. It seems that Billy specialized in the export of oil, which even then was insanely profitable. He eventually bought the cottage from McKay.

J.P. Morgan spent so much time on Jekyll Island that the tennis club is named for him today. Morgan was noted more for his girth than tennis skills, but island lore holds that Morgan did very well with the ladies. A few million bucks will do that. Look at Donald Trump.

According to his biographer, Stanley Jackson, J. Pierpont Morgan was a “businessman of the first order. He was a beefy thick-necked financial bully, drunk with wealth and power, who bawls his orders to stock markets, directors, courts, governments and nations.”

Morgan liked to sail to Jekyll Island on one of his immense corsairs which were too big to dock. The ship remained at anchor in the harbor and he and the crew of 69 were ferried ashore. Some island people swear it was here that he remarked when asked the price of the 300-foot vessel, “If you have to consider the cost, you have no business with a yacht.”

Other familiar faces on the island were Cornelius Vanderbilt, a shipping and railroad magnate, and Joseph Pulitzer, who owned newspapers in New York and St. Louis. And whose will created the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1915, the first trans-Atlantic call was made from Jekyll Island with phone company president Theodore Vail on one end and Alexander Graham Bell and President Woodrow Wilson on the other.

And here I thought I discovered the place.

I shall return next year, dressed in duck hunting gear, walk the heavenly beaches and seek more millionaire stories.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.


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