Lexington author writes about family's connection to Georgia island

Cumberland Island was in the news when John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette eluded paparazzi and were married on the remote barrier island in 1996 in the tiny First African Baptist Church.

But Cumberland did not need a celebrity wedding to establish its reputation as a notable site.

The 17-mile-long island off the coast of southern Georgia has a long human history. Archeologists found evidence Native Americans hunted there 4,000 years ago.

Lexington has a special connection to the island where wild horses roam the sand dunes, sea turtles nest on the beaches and alligators lurk in freshwater ponds.

A branch of Thomas Carnegie's family lives in Central Kentucky. Carnegie, younger brother of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, bought 1,891 acres of the island in 1881 as a gift for his wife, Lucy.

In time, the family owned 90 percent of Cumberland.

Lexington businessman Joe Graves is a great-grandson of Thomas and Lucy Carnegie.

In a newly published book, Cumberland Island Saved, How the Carnegies Helped Preserve a National Treasure, Graves, 79, details the family's history with the island.

He focuses on the period between 1955 and 1972, when "Cumberland's future was in jeopardy. That is when the island's destiny could have gone another way."

While Thomas and Lucy Carnegie's descendants became a far-flung family, the loyalty to Cumberland remained with all of them.

"People talk about how the Carnegies owned Cumberland Island," Graves said, with a catch in his voice. "But really, Cumberland owned us."

In 1969, Hilton Head developer Charles Fraser proposed a similar resort on Cumberland. He had bought two tracts of land from heirs. When construction of a 5,000-foot-long runway started, a huge movement involving conservation groups, the media and politicians in Georgia began to save the island.

In 1972, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, working with the Carnegie family and the federal government, bought most of the private land and donated it to the National Park Foundation for what became Cumberland Island National Seashore.

The National Park Service and the Carnegie heirs struck a deal so they could retain some of their houses on Cumberland for a number of years.

Graves and his sister, Nancy Graves Talbott of Lexington, have rented their houses to friends over the years, giving numerous Lexingtonians a chance to vacation on Cumberland.

Lexington photographer Sally Dodd goes every year with friends. Several contemporary photographs in Graves' book were taken by Dodd and Mary Lloyd Ireland, a local orthopedic surgeon.

Dodd recalled one year when a grove of trees by a freshwater pond were full of egrets, little blue herons and ibises, of all ages. "There were old ones, juveniles and babies. In the pond under the trees were alligators, waiting for any babies to drop."