Life on a Barrier Island

For a generational Dauphin Islander like Phil Savage Sr., time on the island is divided into two parts: “before the bridge” and “after the bridge.”

vintage photograph of dauphin island water tower

A midcentury sign welcomes visitors to the island. 

Before the Bridge

Phil’s story starts with his father, JT Savage, a “before the bridge” guy. Exhausted from work in the coal mines in North Alabama, JT was looking for a career change. So, in 1941, he and his wife, Mildred, along with their three children, took a trip south en route to Pascagoula for shipman and welding jobs. They stopped in Mobile to visit some friends who were quick to point out that the same jobs JT sought in Mississippi could be found right there in Mobile. The rest is history.  

Over the phone, Phil, now 85 years old, humors me and starts at the beginning. “Back in the late ‘40s, my dad would use his time off to drive from Mobile down a long road paved with oyster shells to Cedar Point, the very last spot on the map before you hit the water, where he rented wooden bay boats to fish or explore Dauphin Island.”

On one such trip, Phil and his dad, along with another father-and-son duo, set off in their rental boat and were about halfway to the island when thunder sounded in the distance. They looked back toward Mobile and saw nothing but black skies. “Rain started pelting the water,” Phil recalls, “and Daddy made the call to head for dry land on the west end.”

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Luckily, JT was an experienced boater and always carried a canvas tarp in the boat for unexpected weather. When they reached the island, they pulled the boat up to shore, threw out the cement block anchor and ran for the highest point. JT covered everyone with the canvas tarp and they hunkered down to wait out the storm. “It was like being in a little tent with no poles,” Phil tells me, and even through the phone, I can almost feel his shoulders mimicking the memory. “I remember trying to look out at the storm from a small hole in the canvas, and sand about knocked my eye out. When the storm passed and we finally took the canvas off, we were surrounded by water.”

With no way to call for help, they built a fire on the west end and stayed the night on the island. The next morning, there was an article in the newspaper about the storm, which turned out to be quite a big one: Hurricane Baker. The article confirmed that all the boat rentals at Cedar Point had returned safe and sound — all except for one. “My poor mom saw the paper that morning, and she almost died of a heart attack,” Phil laughs. Later that morning, someone reported having seen a fire out on the west end. Rescuers went to the island, and sure enough, Phil, his dad and their friends were there, alive and well, if not a little wet and sandy. 

During other fishing expeditions and adventures on the island, JT met the hardworking villagers who called Dauphin Island home.

“Daddy was a helper,” Phil explains, “and he was always willing to do what he could when someone was in need. In exchange for his services, he was often given grapefruit grown on the island. He became good friends with the villagers, the fishermen, the shrimpers — they all loved my daddy.”

JT Savage on the top deck of the Dauphin Island ferry. A promotional brochure describes Dauphin Island as “the Gem of the Ocean.” Image courtesy Cartledge Blackwell. JT Savage and business friends with one of their many catches on the Gravely Cutter.

One such shrimper came across a treasure in the water one day, and there was only one man he thought worthy to retrieve it. As Phil remembers, “My dad got a call from a shrimper that he spotted a giant anchor resting beneath the water, so he and his friends headed out there and managed to haul it up out of the water and into my dad’s boat. The anchor was over 100 years old and weighed 1,000 pounds. He took it home and displayed it proudly in the front yard until we donated it years and years later to the campground he helped create on the island. It still stands there today with a plaque commemorating Daddy and his generosity.”

Some 70-odd years after those stories took place, I meet Phil in person at his home in Fairhope over the Bay from his old stomping grounds on Dauphin Island. Before Fairhope, Phil and his wife lived on Fort Morgan, which he describes as “real nice, but I would have rather been at the island.”

We sit across from each other at a small glass table while he carefully sorts through a stack of old photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings, as if he’s delicately touching the memories themselves. He spots one particular photo in the pile and his eyes light up, just like the sun when it hits the surface of the water. He holds up a small photo of a young man with an ear-to-ear grin on his face, his legs balancing on wooden skis as he’s pulled behind a boat in open water. He pauses for the questions he must see charging across my face.  

Life jackets? “Didn’t wear them.” Spotters? “Nope, just the driver. And this was out in open water in the Gulf, too.” And the boat? “My friend and I built it ourselves from a kit. The best boat I ever had.”

My anxiety shoots through the roof, but all the picture triggers for him is one of his favorite memories. “One time, I was out there skiing behind this same boat, that same friend pulling me out in the Gulf. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something jump in the water beside me. And then it jumped again. I looked over and sure enough, dolphins were jumping in the wake right next to me where I was skiing. I started screaming to my friend, but he had already seen it, and more importantly, had seen how scared I was, and he loved it.”

Phil skiing behind a boat with a Buccaneer Outboard motor. The Dauphin Island Bridge that turned a small village into an official city. The Savage family driving a Jeep through blustery seafoam in 1962.

After the Bridge

Phil hands me a stack of papers that look like brochures, and I realize we have entered the second era of island time. 

The quick history lesson reveals that, in 1953, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce developed roads on Dauphin Island and subdivided the land into lots that quickly sold to local buyers who wanted their own piece of paradise. And, in 1955, the state completed the biggest gamechanger: a bridge to Dauphin Island, finally connecting those on the mainland to the 14-mile stretch of land across the water.

With property ownership came a membership to the newly opened Isle Dauphine Country Club, which quickly became a focal point of island life. The club boasted a ballroom, a restaurant, a swimming pool, a golf course and tennis courts. Churches, stores and parks were built, and a school was added for the local kids. 

However, the island’s growth was not seen as a positive by some. The population swelled so much that it soon became time to vote on whether or not Dauphin Island would become its own city. Most of the villagers were opposed, but in the end, the city was established. 

Phil’s parents purchased two lots on Orleans Street, built a modest home that backed up to Salt Creek and became full-time islanders in every sense of the word. They cultivated a large garden that was soon overflowing with produce, set out crab traps and oyster beds in the creek behind the house, raised honeybees, produced wine from the grapes they grew in vines by the creek and, of course, kept multiple boats so JT could continue chasing Spanish and king mackerel and exploring the island.

JT deepened his friendships with the villagers and took personal responsibility for the success of Dauphin Island. He was appointed to be a deputy sheriff, a member of the Sewage and Water Board and a member of the Park and Beach board, among other roles. 

Phil’s parents became the unofficial host and hostess of the island, eventually adding on to the original home so that they could make room for all the family, friends, colleagues and even movie stars who walked through their doors.

“One summer, there was a crew filming a movie on Dauphin Island, ‘Death Ship,’” Phil says. “Of course, Daddy befriended them immediately, and soon Mama was cooking for them at the house.”

JT was always looking for a way to share the island with others, and one summer, he invited a group of businessmen from different states to stay. During one such visit, the men were outside admiring the creek, a low tide revealing a fallen pine limb covered in oysters. Young Phil saw his opportunity, pointed to the log and innocently asked one of the men, “Sir, have you ever seen an oyster tree before?” Dumbfounded, the out-of-towner said no, he had not, and turned back to stare at the phenomenon rising out of the creek. Phil claims that rumor has it there are still folks in Indiana talking about the oyster trees down in Alabama.  

Next, Phil holds up a square picture of a World War II Army Jeep, and we’re swept to memories from his teenage years on the island. Before the bridge, the Jeep stayed busy rescuing trucks at Cedar Point when their tires were swallowed up by the sand. After the bridge was built, the Jeep was still pulling things, but this time, it was Phil and his friends.

“We would take the Jeep over to the Bay side of the island, tie a ski rope to the back and toss the rope to a skier out in the water,” Phil explains. “The Jeep would run the length of the beach, sometimes veering far away from the water to dodge driftwood washed up on the beach, and I would be pulled so far inland that I would have to turn my skis to race out wide, pulling hard on the rope so my skis wouldn’t run up on the shore.”

JT and Mildred making the most of an exceptionally high tide. The Gravely Cutter preparing to leave dock. JT proudly holding a large dolphinfish.

While time on the island might be divided by the bridge, chapters are marked by storms, the worst being Hurricane Frederic. The storm came barreling into the island in 1979, dismantling the bridge, drowning JT and Mildred’s garden and destroying most of the house. At the mention of Frederic, Phil’s face turns solemn for the first time since I met him. Storm memories can do that. “I remember my mom sitting on the remains of the porch after the storm, head in her hands, completely distraught over the garden and the unlikelihood that she would live to see it all come back.” But as resilient, coastal people tend to do, they rebuilt the house and replanted the garden, and Mildred did get to see it all come back to life. The city spent the next three years restoring the bridge so it could once again serve as a lifeline between the island and the mainland.  

Changing the subject, Phil holds up a newspaper clipping and tells the story of another resurrection of sorts when his mother was struck by lightning out on the west end. 

“Mom, some friends and their son went out to enjoy the day on the west end, and when the weather turned bad, they walked back to the Jeep to go home. They must have all had contact with the Jeep because when it was struck by lightning, they all went flying 20 feet in the air. The first to wake up was the young boy who was with them, and he ran to get help. When I got to my parent’s house, my mom was laid up in the bed, still in her bathing suit, covered in blisters and sand.”

While the storms never managed to drive them inland, age and health did. Mildred passed away first in 1997, and when JT followed her in 2002, Phil’s family sold the house and closed their unique chapter at Dauphin Island.

“My dad said he wasn’t going to leave the island unless his toes were sticking up,” Phil says with a laugh. “And he held true to that.”

As one story flows into another, the pictures scattered on the table like stepping stones from one memory to the next, Phil starts in on another story involving a holster of pistols and shooting practice on the west end that may or may not have involved clothes. 

But before he can get to the good part, a shout rings out from the adjoining room where his wife of 59 years, Carol, sits. He stops short, laughing to himself at the memory, or maybe at the fact that she still has to rein him in every now and then. 

Naturally, that encourages him, and he calls to his son who is standing nearby in the kitchen, “Should we tell her about that time with the bait when we — ?” 

But that voice rings out again and the story stops, hanging in midair while Phil and his son laugh at the secret family memory, an heirloom not appropriate for magazines but good enough to elicit mothering of grown men from other rooms. The laughter slowly dies down, and if I didn’t just hear all his wild stories on the island, I would say Phil’s face becomes almost reverent as he gives me one last note. 

“I’ve said hi and hello in a lot of places, but there is no better place in the world than Dauphin Island.”

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