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MTSU students give Jekyll Island’s gilded heritage a dose of reality

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Middle Tennessee State University

In a mere three weeks, some MTSU students have transformed a national historic site.

Their three-week field school took place May 10-31 on Georgia’s Jekyll Island, where the multimillionaire magnates of America’s Gilded Age created a retreat fit for royalty.

The 13 graduate students of MTSU’s Current Issues of Public Policy Practice class were hardly on site to lounge around, however.

Dr. Brenden Martin, the class professor, said curators remarked that MTSU students accomplished more in their first week and a half of work than all other field schools conducted at Jekyll Island combined.

“They’re begging us to come back now,” said Martin. “I think it would be a tremendous opportunity to go there again.”

Participants in the MTSU Jekyll Island National Historic Site field school pose for a photo at Indian Mound Cottage. Shown on the front row, from left, are MTSU students Torren Gaston and Jenna Stout, Dr. Brenden Martin and students Mark Mullen, Caleb Knies, Katie Brammel, Veronica Sales, Kayla Pressley and Aleia Brown. On the back row are, from left, MTSU student Lane Tillner; Dr. June Hall McCash, MTSU professor emerita; MTSU student Lindsay Hager; Jekyll Island Museum program coordinator Andrea Marroquin and curator Gretchen Greminger; and MTSU students Rachel Lewis and Beth Rouse. Not pictured is MTSU student Michael Fletcher. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Brenden Martin)

In the three weeks, the students:

  • set up three exhibit projects.
  • conducted four oral history interviews.
  • developed an interactive multimedia website.
  • developed a booklet interpreting African-Americans’ contributions to local history
  • initiated a records-management training program for new employees.
  • developed an outreach program for schools connecting local history to science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, as well as projects related to archival and records management.

The state of Georgia purchased the island, located off the Atlantic coast some 13 miles from Brunswick and 93 miles from Savannah, in 1947 and is obligated by law to keep 65 percent of it in a mostly natural state. Its uniquely rich history includes Native American and Spanish and English colonial cultures.

In addition, the Du Bignons, a family of French Huguenots who moved there during the French Revolution, established plantations and introduced slavery to the island.

In 1888, the descendants of the original Du Bignons sold the island to a private group of wealthy investors, who established the Jekyll Island Club for their exclusive use.

Martin said the curators’ main interpretive focus has been on the millionaires. His MTSU students instead gave voice to women, servants, children and other marginalized people — the ones who enabled their wealthy employers to relax in their two- and three-story cottages and enjoy what the privileged class called “the simple life.”

On a field visit to a former plantation site, MTSU student Michael Fletcher, left, shows one of several pieces of an historic bottle he found to John Hunter, director of historic resources for the Jekyll Island Authority.

Students Rachel Lewis and Jenna Stout created a tactile, interactive display in Mistletoe Cottage to show tourists what the servants’ lives were like.

“Our goal for the exhibit was to show that, yes, there’s this extravagance that everybody’s attracted to,” said Lewis, “but somebody still has to make the food. Somebody still has to empty the chamber pots.”

Lewis said she and Stout created a table setting based on the rather complicated, detailed instructions the servants had to follow. They also invited tourists to pick up an empty wooden crate, which is heavier than it appears, to given them an idea of the physical burden of carrying those same crates, filled with goods, in the heat and humidity.

Dr. June McCash

The students’ accomplishments are expected to remain part of the Jekyll Island experience for a long time, Martin said, enabling tour guides to learn things they can incorporate into their dialogues with visitors.

Working with curator Gretchen Greminger and Dr. June Hall McCash, MTSU professor emerita and founding director of the University Honors Program, the budding historians added an experience to their resumes that will serve them well in the job market.

“They can sell their time in school as ‘professional work experience,’” Martin said.

“It’s extremely gratifying to be able to see something that you’ve worked very hard on, that your peers have critiqued and have helped you bring to fruition, up on the wall,” Lewis added.

In addition to Lewis and Stout, who are from Evanston, Illinois, and Siler City, North Carolina, respectively, the student team included:

  • Katie Brammel of Clinton, Missouri;
  • Aleia Brown of West Chester, Ohio;
  • Michael Fletcher of Smithville, Tennessee;
  • Torren Gatson of Durham, North Carolina;
  • Lindsay Hager of Nashville, Tennessee;
  • Caleb Knies of Dale, Indiana;
  • Mark Mullen of Higden, Arkansas;
  • Kayla Pressley of Maggie Valley, North Carolina;
  • Beth Rouse of Nolensville, Tennessee;
  • Veronica Sales of Hendersonville, Tennessee; and
  • Lane Tillner of Collierville, Tennessee.

For more information on the project, contact Martin at 615-898-2643 or brenden.martin@mtsu.edu. To sample the students’ work, visit their interactive website at http://jekyllislandmuseum.wix.com/jekyllislandoralhist.

— Gina K. Logue (Gina.Logue@mtsu.edu)

MTSU students Lane Tillner, left, and Caleb Knies stand at the exhibit opening for “Pieces of the Puzzle: Childhood at Jekyll,” the exhibit they conceived, researched, curated, designed, mounted and installed in less than three weeks at Jekyll Island Museum.