An impromptu trip to the Georgia island led to the West Virginia-born author relocating and writing her first book there.
by Kathleen Walls
Eugenia Price made me fall in love with St. Simons Island long before I ever visited it. I was a young woman living in New Orleans when I discovered Price’s “Lighthouse” trilogy. Before I finished the first book, I knew two things: I was a lifelong fan, and I was going to visit St. Simons one day.
Born June 22, 1916, in Charleston, West Virginia, Price was a person who made total turnarounds in her life. At the age of 16, she left home for Ohio University to study writing but never earned her college degree. Instead, became quite successful writing radio shows. In 1939, she was hired by NBC to work one of their radio series. In 1942, she left NBC and moved on to write shows for Procter & Gamble. In 1945, she formed her own production company called “Eugenia Price Productions.” She was a complete atheist. Then, in 1949, she suddenly became a Christian. She left her radio career and began writing Christian inspirational books.
The next huge turnaround for Price was when she visited St. Simons Island in 1961. It was almost accidental. She and longtime companion and best friend Joyce Blackburn were going to a book signing in Jacksonville and found they had extra time. It is said that Blackburn had seen a sign for Fort Frederica and was intrigued. Nevertheless, it was a fateful moment.
They spent the night at the King and Prince Golf and Beach Resort and began exploring the next day. When they visited Christ Church Cemetery, Price found a challenge. She saw the graves of Anson Greene Phelps Dodge Jr., his two wives and his young child. She became intrigued by his story, and St. Simons had another convert. She cut her ties in Chicago, moved to St. Simons and wrote The Beloved Invader.
It was a new direction for her and became the first book written—but last in timeframe—of her “St. Simons” trilogy. Her chronologically second book, Lighthouse tells of how James Gould visited the island and became enthralled with it. He remained to build the first St. Simons Lighthouse. Her final book in the series, New Moon Rising, tells the story of James Gould’s son Horace.
In her “Georgia” trilogy, Price continues with stories of St. Simons and its people. Bright Captivity, Where Shadows Go and Beauty From Ashes follow two families, the Coupers and the Frasers. Along with them are the many cousins, friends and neighbors, like the Hamiltons and the Kings, that called St. Simons home.
Each of Price’s books has a true history story. She researched meticulously and in the process created a new genre. A good friend of Price’s, Cap Fendig, who runs the island’s trolley and boat tours, said she once told him, “There were two big things that changed her life and stood above everything. One was in 1949 when she became a Christian and the other was her visit to St. Simons.”
Her house is not open to the public, but you can drive out to the end of Stevens Road and view it. Eugenia Price died on May 28, 1996, just before her 80th birthday. Her lifetime companion, Joyce Blackburn, died in 2009. They are buried next to each other in Christ Church Cemetery.
You can retrace Eugenia Price’s footsteps on a visit to St. Simons. Stay at the King and Prince Resort and, if possible, ask for a room in the historic building. It faces the ocean and has a beautiful view. This was the original hotel built in 1936, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Fort Fredrica, mentioned in Where Shadows Go, was established in 1736 by George Oglethorpe to protect the English settlements from the Spanish entrenched just about 50 miles away at St. Augustine. The fort was named in honor of the Prince of Wales Fredrick Louis. The most notable battle there was the Battle of Bloody Marsh, where the English defeated the Spanish in 1742. Little of the original structures remain, but there are re-creations, archeological remnants and a good video telling the history of the fort and settlement in the visitors center.
Christ Church is the epicenter of Price’s books and the island’s early life. Most of her characters are buried in its cemetery. The original church was built on the site in 1820. It was desecrated and almost destroyed during the Civil War by Union troops. This is where the protagonist of Price’s The Beloved Invader, Anson Greene Phelps Dodge Jr., enters the picture.
Dodge was an interesting young man. At barely 18, he eloped with his 16-year-old first cousin, Ellen Ada Dodge. The teens were stopped before they could get married but were permitted to marry two years later. While planning their honeymoon, Dodge was in St. Simons visiting his father’s lumber mill located on the former Hamilton plantation, one of the settings in Price’s Where Shadows Go. He came across the remnants of the old church and was captivated. He decided that after their honeymoon, he would become a minister and return to St. Simons.
While on their honeymoon trip around the world, Ellen died of cholera in India. Heartbroken, Dodge brought her body back to St. Simons and had her buried in the church cemetery. He returned to New York to attend seminary and then returned to St. Simons. He built the present church in 1884 and had Ellen’s body reburied beneath the altar so he could be near her while he preached.
Dodge eventually remarried an island woman, Anna Gould. She was the granddaughter of James Gould, who built the island’s first lighthouse and is the protagonist of Price’s Lighthouse. And Anna’s father, Horace Bunch Gould, is the protagonist of New Moon Rising.
Dodge and Anna had one son, Anson Greene Phelps Dodge III. You would think Dodge was finally destined for happiness, but truth is often stranger than fiction. His young son scrambled into a buggy parked by their home and was killed when the horse hitched to it bolted and ran throwing the child to his death. Dodge died at only 38 in 1898. Anna had Ellen’s body removed from the altar and buried in a joint tomb with him. Anna, their child and Dodge’s mother share the Dodge family plot.
Hamilton Plantation, where Dodge Sr. had his lumber mill, is no longer there. You can visit and view the two remaining tabby slave cabins. They are just a few blocks down Arthur J. Moore Drive from Gascoigne Bluff Park.
Retreat Plantation, part of Where Shadows Go, is no longer there, but you can ride part of the way in and see the magnificent rows of live oaks Anna Matilda King planted there. If the light is just right, you might catch a glimpse of the ruins of the slave hospital as well. In violation of the law, Anna Matilda taught some of the family slaves to read and write. Henry Lord (Lordie) King, Anna Matilda’s third son, was killed during the Civil War at the battle of Fredericksburg. His slave and boyhood companion, Neptune Small, who had accompanied Lordie, managed to find his master on a dangerous battlefield, build a pine coffin, procure a wagon and bring Lordie’s body back to Savannah. Small then accompanied another of the King brothers back to the battlefields and remained to protect him.
After the war, Lordie’s body was brought home and buried in Christ Church Cemetery. The grateful King family deeded several acres of land to Neptune Small as a thank you. That land today is Neptune Park, one of the most valuable pieces of real estate on the island. There is a bronze stature by Kevin Pullen commemorating Neptune Small at the park.
James Gould’s lighthouse is no longer standing. During the Civil War, it was deliberately destroyed to keep Union forces from using it to aid in the blockade of the South’s coastline. The new lighthouse is worth a visit. In the keeper’s cottage, Eugenia Price’s Underwood typewriter sits in tribute to her love for St. Simons.
Beware, you might notice a trend after visiting the island, which seems to weave a magic spell. People, like Eugenia Price, come to St. Simons and never leave.
Photo credits, from top: Golden Isles marsh and Fort Frederica courtesy of Golden Isles Georgia; all other photos by Kathleen Walls.
Kathleen Walls, former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, Georgia, is publisher/writer for American Roads and Global Highways. She is the author of travel books Georgia’s Ghostly Getaways, Finding Florida’s Phantoms, Hosts With Ghosts and Wild About Florida series. Her articles have appeared in Food Wine Travel Magazine, Family Motor Coaching Association, Weekender Extended, Travel World International, Georgia Magazine and others. She is a photographer with many of her original photographs appearing in her travel ezine and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @katywalls.