Florida summer vacations are an American tradition. Time and again I’ve endured slides and photos and tales of trips to Disney World, Fort Myers, Miami, and on and on from well-meaning friends eager to share the joy. I’ve listened politely but none of it ever really interested me until I finally, under some pressure, consented to a family vacation at Amelia Island about twenty years ago, a place where members of the extended Hardaway family in the construction business had been doing work for some time. That year we stayed on the South end of the island within the “Plantation,” a modern planned development sporting recently constructed, stylish beach homes, golf courses, a Ritz Carlton hotel, and a sort of Country Club atmosphere. Though I liked it fine, I wasn’t taken with the place. Was it a little too ”Hoity-toity”, high-brow? I don’t know. But I don’t remember being particularly impressed. Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention.
Some years after that we became friends with a family who had access to a home on the North end of the island near the beach and accepted their invitation to spend a week with them. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Good thing we did. We fell in love with the place and have been coming ever since. What makes it so good is that unlike so many other touristy, overdeveloped, overcrowded places on the Florida coast, Amelia Island, with it’s historic old Florida charm and so much more, has somehow remained a secret, such a secret that I hesitated to write this piece!
Amelia island, where I now sit and write, located on the NE tip of Florida, about the size of Manhattan, was named for the daughter of King George II, sister to George III, yes the one who got the patriots all fired up in the American Revolution. The original inhabitants of the island, the Timucuan Indians are, unfortunately, long gone. In the rush of Europeans to the New World it passed into the hands of the Spanish soon after the establishment of St. Augustine, sixty miles or so to the south. And so it was for many years, until a brief period of British rule (thus the name) in the 1760’s after which the Spanish resumed control until the early nineteenth century when they vacated Florida once and for all and the new United States gained yet another territory and later a state in 1845. The nineteenth century was a bad time for the Spanish empire, especially in this hemisphere. First they lost Mexico, then Florida, then most of South America, and finally, just before the century was out, as if to add insult to injury, the they lost Cuba. No, not a good century at all for the Spanish.
The historic town located on the north end of the island, Fernandina Beach, named for King Ferdinand VII of Spain, is, at least in it’s name, one of the few reminders of the old days of Spanish rule. Incorporated and laid out in 1811, it is, in many respects, the premier showplace of “old Florida”, a port town that over the years managed to keep most of its old buildings and homes, never experiencing the ravages of urban renewal, the kind of rapid, unfettered twentieth-century growth in which the wrecking ball was employed with a seemingly mindless abandon in the interest of “progress”. Today one can walk down quiet streets bordered by manicured lawns shaded by enormous, delightful moss-draped live oaks and palmetto trees fronting late nineteenth century Victorian homes, remnants of a time when Fernandina Beach was a post-war boom town alive with entrepreneurs who had flocked to Northern Florida to exploit lumber, phosphate, and other resources in the interior. Some of these delightful homes built by the businessmen of a hundred years ago remain private residences. Others have been converted into businesses such as “bed and breadfast” establishments. Though a tour of the neighborhood will reveal a few “diamonds in the rough” most of the homes in the old town are restored, well-maintained, and utilized-prime photo ops for tourist brochures and conversation pieces for horse-drawn carriage tours. Every house has a story.
In addition to having a unique historic residential district, Fernandina Beach has lots of other bragging rights. The “Palace Saloon”, where I stopped and enjoyed a local brew and a cigar this afternoon, boasts of being Florida’s oldest continuously operated drinking establishment (since 1903) Of course, the place had to get creative to stay afloat during Prohibition selling ice cream and gasoline among other things. Today groups of sailors from the nearby nuclear submarine base on shore leave still frequent this and other tourist-oriented establishments and gift shops in the old business district, many of whom belong to foreign navies, a reminder of the old days in the late nineteenth century when Fernandina’s docks were among the busiest in the South. Though not as busy as a hundred years ago, ships still come in and out of the small port on a daily basis.
Want a good meal? There are lots of choices. Though it’s hard to nail down a favorite, “T-Ray’s”, a burger joint on 8th St housed in an abandoned filling station, is a close contender in our book. Where else could you enjoy a delicious plate of fried, local shrimp seated outside on a picnic table next to unused and rusty gas pumps? Can’t beat it with a stick. T-Ray himself, a gregarious middle-aged gentleman in a Georgia Bulldogs polo shirt, will likely carry your food to you and greet you as if you’re a long lost friend.
Amelia Island also has a thoroughly modern dimension. On the North end of the beach (where we stay), if you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a surfaced Trident II nuclear submarine heading either in or out of the King’s Bay base adjoining nearby Cumberland Island, not something seen in many other places in the world. This is quite a sight. One can’t help but wonder how many of our tax dollars are invested in a piece of hardware like that!
Being a military history guy, I like old forts. Fort Clinch is also located on the North end, again not too far from where we stay- a good bicycle ride. For years this early nineteenth century structure of brick and mortar lay abandoned and deserted until purchased by the state of Florida in 1935 and cleaned up/restored by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) to be the centerpiece of a state park and wildlife sanctuary now attracting thousands of visitors each year. Pay a fee, go through a little museum, and then explore this huge structure originally erected to guard the harbor and keep away any unwanted ships, be they pirate or navy, from the port of Fernandina. But like so many other well-intentioned defensive structures across the world, no enemy ever tested it. When the Federal navy entered St. Mary’s sound in early 1862 to seize the port of Fernandina Beach, the best chance Fort Clinch ever got for some real action, a chance to fulfill it’s destiny, the Confederate garrison, convinced that discretion was the better part of valor, abandoned it without a fight and fled into the mainland along with most of the residents of nearby Fernandina Beach-not exactly the “Alamo.” Unlike it’s more famous cousin Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, which was reduced to rubble from several bombardments, Fort Clinch never experienced a bombardment or a shooting match with hostile ships. Though the fort is rarely mentioned outside of Florida history books, and has no interesting war stories to tell, there is an up side. This lack of activity left the fort in excellent condition, a good specimen for future generations to study and for utilization as a tourist destination.
We hope that future generations will point out something in common with Fort Clinch and the giant submarines that now cruise within sight of it, that both employed deadly weapons that were never used. A missile fired from one of these vessels would level a large city,a terrible thing to consider.
For a Tennessee landlubber like myself, Amelia is quite a change in topography and natural scenery. There are no hills here, the highest point on the island, where an old lighthouse stands, is only 36 feet above sea level. Salt-water marshes or estuaries formed by fresh-water creeks pouring into salt-water intrusions, carpeted with black needle rush and other distinctive tall grasses, cover much of the island functioning as sanctuaries for a wide variety of migratory birds and wildlife. Once when examining the vast marsh between Fort Clinch Park and the town, I noticed thousands of crabs crawling in and out of their own little one to two inch holes in the sandy mud below the grass. The entire marsh is honeycombed with them. This is not a place to explore on foot. Get chased into this area and you’d quickly sink into that mud before being overwhelmed by these nasty looking little nightmares-a pretty place viewed from a safe distance on terra firma.
Most of all, people come to the island for the beautiful beaches. Except for a few spots here and there, they are mercifully uncrowded even at the height of the tourist season. The beach near our house, due to the dredging of the St.Mary’s river nearby (for the submarines) has been widened and enlarged. There’s plenty to do. Take a pleasant walk, watch the pelicans fly (they seem to float) just above the water, look for that prize shell, catch up on your beach reading, work on that tan and be sure to put the sun screen on the tops of your feet (I forgot yesterday-ouch!)
While visiting the beach be sure not to bump into specially marked spots indicating sea turtle nests under the sand. Due largely to the efforts of local turtle enthusiasts, these have multiplied over the years. One morning a few years ago we chanced upon a group doing what they could to help a group of hatchlings make it from their nest to the water. It was a sweet marvel to behold. Most of them made it but one, before anyone could chase the guy away, fell victim to a hungry crab. But, that’s nature’s way.
The beach has rules. Upon passing through one of the official public entry points, the rules as approved by the city of Fernandina Beach are posted: no littering, no loud music, no alcohol, and be sure to pick after your pets. In the Boy Scouts we would simply say: Behave yourself and “leave no trace.” A few years ago at Hilton Head beach (South Carolina) I read their posted beach rules. There were many more rules including a prohibition against nudity, one not mentioned here. This is the US of A, not France. Maybe it is assumed; I haven’t yet seen anyone violating it if there is such a rule. And another thing: A sign over each turtle nest warns beach visitors to leave them alone alone upon pain of “fines or imprisonment” I’ve often wondered if there is a crazy turtle hating guy sitting in prison somewhere getting funny looks from his fellow inmates when he answers their question: “What’re ya in for?”
People also come for the weather. Our Tennessee summers, with long stretches of hot, damp, stagnant air, can be brutal. Come six hundred miles due South to the Northern Florida beach for a welcome change. Yes, it’s still hot, but it’s a different hot. The crisp air and almost constant ocean breeze make coastal Summer living far more tolerable. Being this far south, the Winters are milder as well. But there is a down side. Every decade or two a hurricane visits the area. And sometimes, as in 1898, a hurricane visits with a vengeance and does some real damage, especially to structures along the beach.
At night one can see shrimp boats out on the ocean horizon. About a hundred years ago, Fernandina Beach hosted the birth of the American shrimping industry and for many years it was a major industry here but in recent years it has declined. Today the Amelia Island fleet is modest, numbering ten to fifteen boats. Usually they fish in nearby waters, but often they head to other parts of Florida and the gulf. The decline is not due to a decline in shrimp consumption but rather to competition from foreign imports and shrimp “farms,” landlocked lakes where the tasty little guys are raised commercially. Both have undermined the efforts of local shrimpers and one can’t help but wonder if they will survive. The “Bubba-Gump” enterprise would have a hard time these days.
Alright I know. This blog is about US history, not beaches and shrimp, salt water marshes, Victorian homes, and Summer vacations. But, I’m enjoying things here right now with family and friends too much to keep quiet. And so, at no extra charge, I’m confiding in my readers, many of whom just may be looking for a good vacation in a unique historical setting. Though I’m not really sure why, Amelia Island as a good tourist destination has long been a well kept secret. And we’d kinda like it to remain that way. We don’t want it to become one of those typical Florida destinations that Yogi Berra spoke of when he said: “The place is too crowded; no one goes there anymore.” But you guys are special. Come on down. The water’s fine. Just don’t tell a lot of people. It’ll be our little secret.
Jim Hardaway, 7/28/11