RJ Reynolds Mansion Holiday Tours

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SapeloStory imagesMeet five women of the non-profit, volunteer organization Friends of Sapelo (FOS)—three decorators, a volunteer coordinator and the group’s publicist—all in LOVE with Sapelo Island, Georgia for its treasured past and promising future.

The ladies range from eight to 21 years as organization members and are proud of the many woman-hours they have worked as volunteers. For Linda Daniels, Sapelo Island is where “you take a natural step back in time.” Kaye Traer said, “Sapelo Island must be preserved.” Tonya Lam, agreed. Woodra Clontz said, “Sapelo is where we must preserve and protect our heritage.” Pat Tippins' favorite Sapelo Island site is the RJ Reynolds Mansion where FOS gets to put a beautiful Christmas face on a beautiful mansion each holiday season.

Seated around a large table at the Wine Bar at Waterfront Wine and Gourmet in Darien, Ga., these five dedicated women explained their organization’s devotion to year-round preservation on Sapelo Island. Formed in 1994, the 100-plus members help support research, education and the outreach mission of Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, Sapelo’s Georgia DNR wildlife management program, University of Georgia Marine Institute, and Georgia State Park Lodge: Reynolds Mansion. They also volunteer with Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS), which includes the Geechee/Gullah Hogg Hummock (Hog Hammock) community.

Since 1998, FOS volunteers have been decorating the mansion for holiday tours, helping to raise its awareness as a destination and cultural experience center. “Our member Lucy Lea was first to ask to decorate the mansion. Back then, we decorated au naturel right from the island, but it was a lot of work cutting it all, and it all had to last three weeks. Ten years ago, up in the mansion’s circus room, we touched a tree and all the needles fell off. So, for a safer more-lovely look, we now use silks and artificial design,” said Kaye.  Woodra added, “We also want returning guests each year. So we refresh our décor each time with new things to give people new ideas."  

This month 50 FOS volunteer “worker bees” will ferry over to Sapelo to transform the mansion’s main rooms into holiday magnificence in preparation for this year’s 23 days of holiday tours beginning December 1. Twelve months of dutiful planning, buying, collecting and creating décor have been carefully toted in small batches by ferry and placed into plastic storage in the mansion’s basement. “I can’t wait to start decorating all over again!” said Pat. Kaye added, “The trees will be coming out of the basement and everybody works so well together; it’s our labor of love.”

Many organization members play significant holiday décor roles throughout the year. Member Phyllis and a crew help raise funds for displays. Linda is the volunteer coordinator and Tonya is the public relations sage. Kay is the group’s ring leader. Their goal is to be comparable to other renowned, regional sophisticated holiday tours but with their own Sapelo flair. Everyone agrees that Pat, the groups’ stylish decorator, has put class and elegance into holiday mansion decorations. “Woodra does the circus room; she makes it wonderful. This year Kay is doing the library; I’m doing the great room, dining room and some of the solarium. And another FOS decorator, Jody Martin, will be adorning a 13-foot Christmas tree in the solarium with hundreds of abalone seashells accented with rhinestones and pearls,” Pat said.

Pat also described their adoration for the Reynolds Mansion: “It’s wonderful! As you catch the ferry over you feel like you are stepping back in time. The mansion has beautiful grounds, a fantastic pool out front and the trees, it’s beautiful as you enter the great room. The mansion staff is happy to have it all decorated, as visitors marvel at the holiday décor so many hands have set into motion.”

SapeloStory images2Jeanne Leonard, FOS volunteer, will organize and coordinate docent tour guides. “Hosting up to 36 people per day, guests will receive a room by room historical mansion tour all the way back to the Thomas Spaulding family, who sold it to Howard Coffin, who sold to R.J. Reynolds, Jr. in the 1930s during the depression and left it to the state at some point in time,” Pat explained. Linda has a Christmas name for docent helpers, “Our shepherds keep holiday tour groups moving so they aren’t lost, too far ahead, or lagging behind.

“The interesting thing is you are not in a museum. You can touch and appreciate the mansion; it’s like you are having brunch with RJ Reynolds. You even get to sit in the chairs!” said Woodra. “Brunch is prepared by the state park chefs and cooks in the mansion’s big kitchen with old time large stove and butler’s pantry. Everyone raves about Sapelo cuisine. For each holiday tour, brunch will be served at midway point—don’t miss it!” Pat added.

Funds collected for holiday tours go to the Reynolds Mansion State Park Lodge and transportation ferry money to Georgia DNR for fuel and maintenance. “We receive no money for the holiday tours; we are complete volunteers,” Linda smiled.

Kaye added, “And anyone can join FOS anywhere in the world. We have members from all 50 states; most come to help when they are here. Others volunteer year-round. Selling memberships funds our projects. We do beach sweeps, a crab and shrimp boil, public tours, plantings, beach erosion, accretion monitoring and more. The comradery within our group is fantastic.”

Now is the time to make reservations to tour the RJ Reynolds Mansion on Sapelo Island as popular tour dates fill up fast. Experience this unique holiday gift for your friends, family and especially, yourself.

RJ Renoldys Mansion Sapelo Island - Georgia State Park & Historic Sit Lodge - 2016 Holiday Celebration Tour: December 1st - December 23rd

Call between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Tuesday - Friday: 912-485-2299, RJ Reynolds Mansion State Park. $35 per person payment due for mansion/brunch holiday tour. (Credit card over the phone or check: non-refundable). You can leave a voice mail message. Ask about tour times; longer tours available on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Weekday ferry boats depart the mainland at 8:30 a.m., Saturdays at 9 a.m. Arrive no later than 30 minutes ahead to allow time to park and purchase and pick up your $15 ferry ticket at Visitors Center the morning of your tour.

Each tour accommodates up to 36 people.

Cameras are welcome.

"New" for 2016 tours: R.J. Reynolds signature bookmark souvenirs for sale - $5.

For additional information: Call 912-485-2299

Nearby Lodging: Blue Heron Inn Bed and Breakfast, 1346 Blue Heron Lane, Darien, Ga. 912-437-4304. www.blueheroninngacoast.com

Join FOS: Learn more about Friends of Sapelo at www.sapelonerr.org