BY KATE MATTHEWS
I arrived on Fort George Island near midnight on an early summer’s eve under a bright half-moon. There was a feeling of being submerged in the hot, liquid air while the narrow, sharply curving road pulled me through tunnels of oak hammocks draped with thick Spanish moss. A glimpse of coquina ruins shimmered on my left, followed by silhouettes of palm trees to the right, framing marshland and the Fort George River.
I have since learned that every islander I have met had a similar, often nearly mystical, moment of falling in love with Fort George. I found myself living atop Mount Cornelia (said to be the highest point along the Atlantic coast below North Carolina) in a rather massive Tudor home that had been lovingly restored in the 60s by my husband’s family and nicknamed The Castle by locals. Without the Dames Point Bridge, only the St. Johns River Ferry connected the people to the Beaches and Southside, and it was a long drive to Downtown. The island’s inhabitants lived in splendid isolation—and still do.
Embraced by the Timucuan Ecological Preserve and the Fort George River, which flows directly into the Atlantic, Fort George has changed little in the past decades. Although the island is known for the Kingsley Plantation and the Ribault Club, locals generally go to them only when family or friends visit, acting as proud docents privileged to live alongside such rich history. Walking past ancient middens and slave quarters made of tabby, one feels the presence of the island’s ancestors.
The people drawn to the island seem not to care a whit whether your home is a grand one on the water or one more humble. There is an easy flow of daily life with occasional oyster roasts, a weekly women’s group gathering in various homes, and fishing from backyard docks. People often use the term “island time” to describe the laid-back approach to schedules and plans. As we drive the island, we break for the bands of peacocks that roam free and keep an eye out for tourists who invariably have trouble navigating twisting, thin Fort George Road. Much of the Fort George fellowship has centered on the lovely Carpenter Gothic Fort George Episcopal Church since it was completed in 1882. While many residents attend services, others join in the church’s many social events such as the annual Cuba Fiesta. The church is the cohesive force of the neighbor-helping-neighbor ethos that has become an ingrained trait of the people living here.
What is considered the Fort George Community actually consists of inhabitants of a group of islands connected by Heckscher Drive and their love of island life. Going to the Jetties or pristine Little Talbot Island beach for a walk is routine. The scent of saltmarsh and ocean are constant companions and become as essential to our life as breath to our bodies. Fort George is in our blood. We are residents of a great city, but that city seems as far, far away on this bright morning, as it always has.