History’s Gatekeeper

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By helping to preserve Sea Island’s past, archivist Mimi Rogers is keeping history alive.

By Jenn Thornton

Cloister_B&W

While some may brush aside old albums of black-and-white photos and frayed newspaper clippings as dull pieces of the past, Mimi Rogers, Sea Island archivist, sees these historical objects as treasures, each telling colorful stories about a place and how it came to be.

“History is basically about people, so how can it be boring?” asks Rogers, genuinely bemused by the notion. Most people, however, probably don’t have ties to storied Sea Island, where the past is ever-present and Rogers has served as archivist since 1999. Rogers’ own history, which dates back to an upbringing in Monroe, Ga., is heavily informed by her college history major mother’s proclivities for the past, as well as her aunt’s tales of earlier times. Together, these influences would intrigue and compel Rogers to pursue history as a passion before a profession—although, in the end, she would do both.

History in the Making

“I was greatly influenced by my mother’s love of history,” Rogers remembers. “She instilled in her children a love of American history in particular.” Rogers says she has very vivid memories of family trips to Jamestown, Williamsburg and Monticello in Virginia and to Washington, D.C. Eventually, Rogers would leave her formative years’ stomping grounds for Durham, N.C., and the hallowed halls of Duke University, where she pursued and earned an undergraduate degree in zoology. But the budding archivist’s ardor for bygone eras remained, so Rogers enrolled in a museum studies graduate program jointly administered by Parsons School of Design and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City. Scholarship rewarded her with a master’s degree in history, focused on decorative arts.

Rogers then served as chief curator for the museums and historic preservation division of Jekyll Island Authority. There, she managed the archives related to the Jekyll Island Historic District, a playground for Gilded Age elite, like tycoon J.P. Morgan and various Rockefellers.

But after marrying and starting a family, Rogers abandoned her full-time post and did some consulting before landing in Sea Island. The appointment proved fitting: Rogers’ own parents had visited The Cloister the year they were married. And, her family would vacation at Sea Island over the years.
Remnants of the Past.

Original_Cloister_Main_Entrance
The Cloister, designed by architect Addison Mizner, opened in 1928.

Charged with maintaining Sea Island’s archival collection, Rogers preserves documents, photographs and artifacts that, cumulatively, tell the sprawling narrative of a place coastal Native Americans called Fifth Creek Island. Taking many detours en route to finding its footing as a now buzzing beach resort, this crown jewel of the Georgia coast once was under the rule of King George III of England. He, in turn, passed it on as a land grant to a holder who did little with it. Later, Sea Island was owned by cotton planters (its neighbor, St. Simons Island, lay claim to roughly a dozen cotton plantations before the Civil War). It was used as a pastureland and for hunting until the 1920s.

Though difficult to imagine present-day Sea Island as anything less than the setting for an idyllic holiday, holdovers of its less illustrious beginnings are everywhere. Rogers points out the site of Sea Island Golf Club on nearby St. Simons Island—one of the courses was originally designed by Walter Travis, the first player from America to win the British Amateur Championship in 1904—as a particular point of historical interest for visitors because of its previous incarnation as a 19th-century cotton plantation named Retreat. “Retreat Plantation was, While some may brush aside old albums of black-and-white photos and frayed newspaper clippings as dull pieces of the past, Mimi Rogers, Sea Island archivist, sees these historical objects as treasures, each telling colorful stories about a place and how it came to be.
“History is basically about people, so how can it be boring?” asks Rogers, genuinely bemused by the notion. Most people, however, probably don’t have ties to storied Sea Island, where the past is ever-present and Rogers has served as archivist since 1999. Rogers’ own history, which dates back to an upbringing in Monroe, Ga., is heavily informed by her college history major mother’s proclivities for the past, as well as her aunt’s tales of earlier times. Together, these influences would intrigue and compel Rogers to pursue history as a passion before a profession—although, in the end, she would do both.

OldGolfLodge
The resort’s original golf clubhouse

History in the Making

“I was greatly influenced by my mother’s love of history,” Rogers remembers. “She instilled in her children a love of American history in particular.” Rogers says she has very vivid memories of family trips to Jamestown, Williamsburg and Monticello in Virginia and to Washington, D.C. Eventually, Rogers would leave her formative years’ stomping grounds for Durham, N.C., and the hallowed halls of Duke University, where she pursued and earned an undergraduate degree in zoology. But the budding archivist’s ardor for bygone eras remained, so Rogers enrolled in a museum studies graduate program jointly administered by Parsons School of Design and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City. Scholarship rewarded her with a master’s degree in history, focused on decorative arts.

Rogers then served as chief curator for the museums and historic preservation division of Jekyll Island Authority. There, she managed the archives related to the Jekyll Island Historic District, a playground for Gilded Age elite, like tycoon J.P. Morgan and various Rockefellers.

But after marrying and starting a family, Rogers abandoned her full-time post and did some consulting before landing in Sea Island. The appointment proved fitting: Rogers’ own parents had visited The Cloister the year they were married. And, her family would vacation at Sea Island over the years.

Remnants of the PastCharged with maintaining Sea Island’s archival collection, Rogers preserves documents, photographs and artifacts that, cumulatively, tell the sprawling narrative of a place coastal Native Americans called Fifth Creek Island. Taking many detours en route to finding its footing as a now buzzing beach resort, this crown jewel of the Georgia coast once was under the rule of King George III of England. He, in turn, passed it on as a land grant to a holder who did little with it. Later, Sea Island was owned by cotton planters (its neighbor, St. Simons Island, lay claim to roughly a dozen cotton plantations before the Civil War). It was used as a pastureland and for hunting until the 1920s.

Though difficult to imagine present-day Sea Island as anything less than the setting for an idyllic holiday, holdovers of its less illustrious beginnings are everywhere.

Rogers points out the site of Sea Island Golf Club on nearby St. Simons Island—one of the courses was originally designed by Walter Travis, the first player from America to win the British Amateur Championship in 1904—as a particular point of historical interest for visitors because of its previous incarnation as a 19th-century cotton plantation named Retreat. “Retreat Plantation was, for the most part, managed by a woman, Anna Matilda King, while her husband, Thomas Butler King, pursued a political career in Washington and beyond,” she notes. “When Sea Island founder Howard Coffin decided to build a golf course there, he preserved the ruins of the plantation buildings, and guests can see them today.”

Howard Coffin, Sea Island founder
Howard Coffin, Sea Island founder

In turn, Rogers is helping to reserve the legacy of the resort’s founder. “I am fascinated by [Coffin’s] personality and vision,” she says of Sea Island’s celebrated forefather. “His dynamic, upbeat personality is apparent in his photographs. He is usually smiling and enjoying the people and activities around him.” And, given his track record, describing Coffin as the “embodiment of the American dream” is not hyperbole.

A Midwestern farm boy who made good, Coffin was irrepressibly driven from the start. Though his father died young, his mother stepped in to see her gifted son get a good education, which, along with his vision, flair for engineering and passion for new invention—specifically, the automobile—he would put his education to good use, becoming a young millionaire as a founder of Hudson Motor Car Co., the first to mass-produce cars selling for less than $1,000.

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The original motor entrance

Auto racing drew Coffin to Georgia, where he purchased Sapelo Island in 1912, followed by large tracts of land on St. Simons in 1926, while envisioning the way automobiles could change leisure travel. A causeway opened in 1924 between the mainland and St. Simons that helped pave the way for tourism on the islands. His company next bought nearby Long Island, which he briefly called Glynn Isle before settling on the name Sea Island. Coffin then financed repairs to the causeway, linking St. Simons and Sea Island. Upon completion of this enterprise, Coffin’s prediction proved true and, with scores of visitors, would come glory days.

Coffin ushered in a proper modernization of Sea Island and its coastal sibling, installing telephone service, an electric power plant and a water system. He commissioned noted resort architect of the day, Addison Mizner, to design the original Cloister—built in a Spanish style popular at the time—which would spawn the building of other recreational facilities. The hotel was named after the Cloister Inn, which Mizner had constructed in 1926 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Umbrella
Amphitrite, a floating hotel docked at the original Sea Island Yacht Club, 1928

During construction of the hotel, a place was needed for golf club guests to stay. Coffin purchased a refurbished warship, the Amphitrite, which was outfitted to serve as a “floating hotel.” The multistory, 72-room ship, docked in the Frederica River at Sea Island Yacht Club, accommodated guests on St. Simons Island throughout the summer of 1928.

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As Sea Island development continued and a cottage colony was established, Coffin handed over management of Sea Island Co. to his cousin, Alfred W. Jones. Thus began a long legacy of family ownership that would successfully shepherd Sea Island through the Great Depression. In fact, members of the Jones family would host a reception for the 1949 impromptu wedding ceremony of Sarah Churchill, daughter of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and widely considered incorrigible, to photographer Anthony Beauchamp, on Sea Island—without her famous father’s approval.

Maintaining this historical record and all it entails is, of course, a great responsibility, but one that Rogers relishes. “The most important attribute [of an archivist] is a deep respect for the value of preserving our history and passing down knowledge and tangible remnants of that history to subsequent generations,” she explains. “It is important for others to understand that who we are today is related to what took place in the past.” With this in mind, she devotes her time to protecting the story of Sea Island and sharing it with others.

Footnotes of this story greatly consider both community and tradition—the latter an especially timeless presence on Sea Island. Rogers explains, “Heritage is very important. If you look at the big picture, Sea Island has been part of our nation’s cultural heritage for 85 years. The year the original Cloister opened, President Calvin Coolidge and the first lady visited and planted a commemorative oak tree, which still stands. Golfing great Bobby Jones played here during the year of his historic grand slam. Six additional presidents have visited, and one of America’s most important playwrights, Eugene O’Neill, built a vacation home here.”

presidential_oak_scan
Calvin Coolidge planting a commemorative live oak tree

A Place for World Leaders

In more recent history, Sea Island hosted 2004’s G8 Summit—marking its 10th anniversary this June—which brought together leaders of the world’s largest industrial powerhouses, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; former French President Jacques Chirac; Russian President Vladimir Putin; and delegations from both the Middle East and Africa to discuss pressing political and economic issues. When it came to selecting a site for the conference, then-U.S. President George W. Bush viewed Sea Island as the perfect candidate: It was a secure setting for a high-profile assembly that, coincidentally, also had hosted his parents’ honeymoon (and served as George H. W. and Barbara Bush’s occasional retreat from the White House).

Giving Sea Island one of its most impressive historical inheritances to date, the G8 was an “amazingly complex” undertaking, Rogers says. “[It] produced a record number of shared commitments dealing with world health initiatives, weapons control, economic aid and issues of the Middle East and Africa,” she adds. While it took months to prepare for the event, former Sea Island Co. Chairman Bill Jones III says accolades from the leaders and the media reflect Sea Island’s success. “We had, and continue to have, simply the best staff in the industry,” he says. “Our reputation for service and excellence in all that we do was put on stage for all the world to see, and we came through with flying colors.”

If history indeed repeats itself, look for similar watershed moments for Sea Island in the future. Rogers herself, however, is quite content to mine the past. “Digging into the history of a place is very stimulating,” she says. “Sometimes, it is like putting together a puzzle.” For Sea Island, Rogers is a very important piece in keeping that picture of the past assembled for all to see and learn about the resort’s long legacy.

1 COMMENT

  1. I am working on a state park panel for Sapelo Island. I would like permission to use photo of Howard Coffin holding rifle and his dog. Thank you for your consideration. If permission is granted, please email me with how credit should read: Photo courtesy of…website or collections of.

    Thank you.

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