Monday, March 10, 2014

The Jekyll Island Club

On Thursday March 13, 2014 at 7:00pm, Executive Director and Curator William Tyre will present a lecture in the museum coach house entitled “Glessner Travelogue 1889 – Florida and Cuba.”  Exactly 125 years ago, the Glessner family escaped the Chicago winter and embarked on a month long journey to Florida and Cuba.  In this lecture, attendees will retrace their steps using Frances Glessner’s detailed and often humorous account of the trip, accompanied by period photographs and illustrations.  Tickets are $10 per person and $8 for museum members.  For more details, or to make reservations, call 312.326.1480. 

During the Glessners’ journey back to Chicago, they stopped for three nights at the Jekyll Island Club, located off the Georgia coast at Brunswick.  The legendary club was one of the most exclusive ever constructed in the United States, with members including the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and J. P. Morgan. 

The Club was founded in 1886 by a group of New York businessmen who purchased the island for $125,000.  Shares were sold and membership was strictly limited to 100 families, with the largest number of members coming from New York.  Chicago ranked second in membership; early members included Prairie Avenue neighborhood residents Marshall Field, Norman Ream, Nathaniel Fairbank, Colonel John Mason Loomis, Samuel Allerton, John Wesley Doane, and Wirt Dexter.  George Pullman was elected to membership in 1888 but never officially joined.

Attorney Wirt Dexter, who resided at 1721 S. Prairie Avenue, was especially prominent in the affairs of the club and was named chairman of the building committee.  Fellow Chicago attorney Ezra McCagg served as chairman of the committee on landscape engineering.  Dexter’s committee selected Charles A. Alexander, a well-known Chicago architect, to design the club house, and McCagg’s committee chose H.W.S. Cleveland to lay out the grounds.  (Cleveland had been hired by Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery to undertake significant improvements to the landscape, so was also well known in the city).  The clubhouse was completed in January 1888 at which time the Club officially opened and the first guests arrived. 

The Club was family oriented and activities included hunting, riding and camping – and ladies were encouraged to participate.  A gamekeeper was hired to keep the island stocked with deer, turkeys, pheasants, and quails.  Many of the families built large “cottages” and a large golf course was laid out.  The Club thrived through the 1920s but the Depression caused significant changes and resulted in the creation of a new level of associate membership to attract younger members and keep operations afloat.  But it was World War II that ultimate sounded the death knell of the club, and the island was purchased by the State of Georgia in 1947.  It operated for many years as a public resort and in 1985 opened as the Radisson Jekyll Island Club Hotel.  It still operates as a hotel today, although no longer under the management of Radisson.

During their 1889 visit, the Glessners were the guests of Murry Nelson, a Chicago neighbor who resided at 1623 S. Indiana Avenue.  Nelson had arrived in Chicago in 1856 and established a grain commission and shipping business, Murry Nelson & Co.  Prominent in politics, he was the “doorkeeper” of the 1860 Republican convention held in Chicago that nominated Lincoln for president, served as a member of the Cook County board of commissioners, and was the first president of the county drainage board. 

The Glessners arrived on Friday March 22, 1889.  Following are several excerpts written by Frances Glessner in her journal:

We met Mrs. Pearsall of New York at Jekyl Island, and Mr. Renwick, architect of the New York Cathedral, Mr. and Mrs. Woodruff of Toronto and a few others.  I arranged my things in my room – and after dinner we sat in the parlor.  Going over in the boat from Brunswick, Mrs. Schley, wife of the manager of the Club, came and sat by me and told me about the different points of interest.

Saturday morning we drove on the beach in a one horse wagon with seats for four persons.  We first drove through the woods and visited the old (Horton) house.  It is a very interesting old ruin built of “Tabby” or coquina made of oyster shells and cement.  There was a large fig tree near by and plum or cherry trees – large tress have grown up inside the house – on the hearth stone and crowding the fireplace a large tree came, and all was overgrown by vines and foliage.  The game keeper showed us the pheasants and quail.

The beach is twelve miles long, very hard and broad when the tide is low.  We drove over in high tide.  We picked up shells and drove home the shell road.  At Jekyl the guests breakfast very late, lunch at two or half past, and dine between seven and eight.

In the afternoon Saturday we (John and I) walked to the beach with Mr. Nelson – we walked about four miles.  In the evening we sat in the parlor and talked.  Sunday we walked in the morning, and in the afternoon drove again to the beach.  We sat in the hall in the evening.

The Glessners' daughter Fanny celebrated her eleventh birthday on March 25.  A special cake was presented during her birthday breakfast in the club dining room and the following poem, written by her father, was read:

Here’s a sweet little girl aged 11
Who thinks Jekyl Island a heaven
Till her 12th birthday
She’ll continue to say –
This dear little maid of 11 –
That Jekyl Island is best
For a birthday breakfast
And she’ll want to come back to the heaven.
She’s careless of freckles
Our dear friends at Jekyl’s
Have made us at home on the isle of the sea
To celebrate here this 11th anniversaree.

To learn more about the Jekyll Island Club, see The Jekyll Island Club: Southern Haven for America’s Millionaires by William Barton McCash and June Hall McCash (The University of Georgia Press, 1989).

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