First owners of St. George Island
The only permanent residents on St. George Island before 1910 were lighthouse keepers’ families. After the hurricane of 1837 separated the eastern two-thirds of the island from Cape St. George and the lighthouse, big St. George had no residents. It was owned by the Apalachicola Land Company, which was slowly going bankrupt. Citizens of the county freely visited St. George to fish, hunt and picnic, but few people were interested in owning the island for a very good reason.
Owners were required to pay annual land taxes of up to $230 for the main island, and ways to earn that amount were very limited. The hurricane of 1851 may have destroyed most of the mature pine trees on the barrier islands, making it unprofitable to produce saw timber or naval stores. With no development on the horizon, raising livestock was the means most owners chose.
In 1866, George Sinclair obtained the title to about one-third of St. George Island from George Hawkins, the bankrupt land company’s legal receiver. Sinclair owned a wharf lot in Apalachicola and ran a draying (teamster) service that hauled shipped goods from the docks to their destinations.
The economy was so bad Sinclair declared bankruptcy, and his third of St. George Island was sold at auction to his half-brother William for $20. When George Sinclair’s business improved, he bought another third of the island at auction for $25 from Sheriff Robert Knickmeyer. George paid $500 to his brother to obtain title to two-thirds of the island, but then died with no heirs. When William also died, the island was sold at probate by Commissioner W. T. Orman. At an auction in 1881, Horace Humphries bought 4,980 acres of St. George Island for $21.
Horace’s parents, Henry and Mary Elizabeth Humphries, listed as Umphries in the census and working as farmers or butchers in 1885, already owned 1,600 acres. Together with Horace, the family controlled most of the island by 1882. But when the senior Henry Humphries died without a will in 1886, his wife and sons could not agree about how to divide the property.
The family asked local farmer Stephen E. Rice to negotiate their differences, and decided to sell their island property at an auction. In Sept. 1889, Rice and C. H. Smith purchased 1,600 acres of St. George from the four Humphries brothers for $1, and on the same day sold them their own holdings for $1.
Cattle and hogs
In 1889, Horace Humphries decided to earn income from his land, and made an agreement with William Neel to transport 100 head of cattle to St. George Island. Half of the cattle were given to Humphries, and in exchange, Neel received half of St. George Island! With no permanent residents on the island, the cattle were free to roam and forage on the sparse vegetation.
Apparently, Neel also released hogs on the island, because in 1893, he sold his interest along with all the cattle and hogs to the Humphries families for $2,500 plus 80 percent of any income received from sale of the livestock. Because the Humphries could not pay that much cash to Neel, they issued a mortgage to be paid over time.
Unfortunately for the Humphries families, the South entered an economic recession, and they were unable to pay off the mortgage before it came due. Neel brought a lawsuit to reclaim the additional $1,331, and forced the property to be sold at auction. As luck would have it, Neel’s brother Daniel was the highest bidder at $500. The Humphries lost most of their island holdings, and, on Dec.24, 1900, Daniel Neel sold St. George Island to Paul and Steppie King for $507. Mr. King was a dry goods merchant from northern Alabama.
The first home
The Kings leased the island to a city policeman named George McCormack, who planned to fish, harvest oysters, and raise hogs, goats and sheep. However, Paul and Steppie King had trouble paying their mortgage and sold the island to Capt. Walter F. Farley and William E. Montgomery for $3,500 in 1905. Montgomery was a marine carpenter who lived in Apalachicola with his wife, Henrietta and six children. Farley’s occupation in 1900 was marine engineer, but in 1910 was listed as raising livestock, no doubt on St. George Island.
Farley and Montgomery may have been the first people to own the entire island, east of New Inlet. They cleared the title to St. George Island by making small payments to several members of the Humphries family. Captain Farley bought a motorboat that he called The Cowboy, and also built an airboat that used an airplane propeller to run in shallow water.
Walter Farley’s wife Frannie Witherspoon was the daughter of Thompson Witherspoon, an Apalachicola policeman and Civil War veteran. Prior to 1910, the couple built a home near Nick’s Hole that may have been the first private residence on big St. George Island. In 1920, Farley was working as a ship’s carpenter. He died in 1943 and is buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
Captain Andy Wing and George Saxon
Residents of Apalachicola and Eastpoint enjoyed visiting St. George Island to swim in the surf, fish, and hunt, and there is no record the owners complained. To accommodate the visitors, Capt. Andy Wing built a wharf on the bay side of St. George Island in 1901 when Paul and Steppie King owned the island. Wing’s crews repaired the dock each summer so he could ferry visitors to the island on the Crescent City steamer twice a week.
In 1902, Wing’s men built a boardwalk from the wharf across the island. A dock shown on the 1930 and 1940 navigation charts, was located near the present-day Regatta Park about Ninth Street West.
In 1910, Tallahassee businessman George Saxon purchased St. George Island for a down payment of $10 and a mortgage of $19,600. He founded an investment group called the St. George Island Company that in 1911 built a small hotel called the Club House at the end of Wing's boardwalk.
The company’s ambitions of building hotels, bathhouses, a bowling alley and poolroom supplied by roads, a water works and electric company were never realized. It did lease the island to Homer Oliver for turpentine production, but otherwise lost money. Needing time to run his bank and several other business concerns, Saxon never could be single-minded about developing St. George Island, unlike promoter William Lee Popham, who first saw St. George Island in 1916.
William Popham, poet and promoter
In 1917, Saxon allowed Popham to sell lots on the condition the funds would be kept in an account in Saxon’s Capital City Bank. With that understanding, Popham sold 1,000 acres including the Club House Hotel and boardwalk to investors from Lakeland who formed the St. George Company. The hotel was renamed The Breakers in hopes of attracting tourists to swim in the surf on the island's famous white sand beaches. However, World War I interrupted the plans.
Popham’s original idea was to sell subscriptions valued at $200 to at least 500 people, which would easily raise enough money to buy the island. Investors would have rights to build cottages on the island and share in any proceeds the company enterprises brought in. He and his associates began advertising in major newspapers across the South, and checks began to pour in to the Apalachicola Post Office.
In about 1920, Popham learned he could lease oyster bottoms from the state of Florida, and decided to promote land sales by promising future income from oyster harvests. He and his wife Maude formed the Oyster Growers Co-Operative Association, and quickly sold 1,000 shares. With the proceeds, he paid $22,224 to Saxon in 1921 and became sole owner of the island east of the former New Inlet.
To promote land sales on the island, in 1922 Popham published a full-color map depicting his concept of how St. George Island would be developed. The promotional brochure depicts a docked steamboat, a boardwalk, and a five-story hotel (Figure 3). No such hotel was built, but the dock and boardwalk were real.
Popham's map suggests New Inlet, the pass gouged out by an 1837 hurricane, had filled in by 1922, as corroborated by Pearl Porter Marshall. She recalled she and her husband, Herbert Marshall, could ride horses from East Pass to Little St. George in order to dip cattle for ticks.
Popham’s brochures promised income from oyster harvest would begin in two years. Accordingly, he purchased a 500-acre lease his associate, William Roat, had obtained from the state and began planting oyster shells obtained from the Acme Packing Company. In 1923, he contracted with Adolph Maddox to build the Popham Oyster Factory No. 1, which still stands north of the Apalachicola Bridge (See May 30, 2019 Times “What became of Popham’s ‘oyster factory’”}
Popham was a superb promoter but had little business experience outside of real estate. His advertisements suggested oyster harvests and sales could increase five-fold indefinitely. Unfortunately for him, the Internal Revenue Service sued him for income tax evasion and blocked use of his bank accounts. He was also sued for mail fraud; the postal service blocked his ability to receive checks through the mail.
Popham was sent to the Atlanta penitentiary for two years, but retained ownership of St. George Island until 1936. In an attempt to raise money, he leased turpentine rights to C.C. Land during the ‘30s. Although he was exonerated after a second indictment, he had no money to pay his lawyers. Ironically, Highway 98 and the John Gorrie Bridge to Apalachicola were both constructed just as the developer transferred ownership of St. George Island to his lawyers and left the area in 1936.
Bill Wilson and Clyde Atkinson obtained the title to St. George Island from Popham and continued leasing it to C. C. Land for turpentine and livestock. However, the U.S. Army leased the island from Wilson in 1942 to train troops for aerial gunnery practice and amphibious landings. Whether through disuse or destruction during maneuvers, the old wharf, boardwalk and hotel that Wing, Saxon and Popham had built did not survive the war.
In truth, development of St. George Island became a community decision in 1951 when State Representative Bryant Patton and the voters of Franklin County approved funding of bridge construction through local use of a state gasoline tax. A combination of county, state and federal funding was used to initiate ferry service, dredge the Sikes shipping channel, and plan for the bridge that was completed in 1965. Fresh water from deep wells in Eastpoint was piped through supply lines bolted underneath the bridge, and an overhead power cable on pilings was constructed by 1966.
Wilson and Atkinson formed a company named St. George Island Gulf Beaches, surveyed the island and drew up a plat. Roads were bulldozed immediately after the bridge was completed. When Wilson died in 1969, Atkinson and his company continued developing the island. The east and west sections of the island were sold to a developer from Alabama named John Stocks. He sold the land that became Dr. Julian Bruce St. George Island State Park to the state in 1973 and used the proceeds to develop the Plantation with partner Gene Brown, an attorney from Tallahassee. The men also developed the water company that supplies the entire island.
Building a “City by the Sea” as Popham had finally required decades of effort, approval by voters of Franklin County, and a permanent bridge from the mainland.