The Island That Time Forgot

At least once a month, a few dozen Amelia Island residents don Civil War uniforms, move into Fort Clinch and live like 19th-century soldiers and citizens. No one around here bats an eye, but then again this is an island of eccentrics. Lots of them.

“We didn’t have no mosquitoes down here,” explains merchant Bob Lannon, in a rich southern drawl, “before you Yankees started comin’.”

“That’s an interesting theory,” says Roger Esckelson, who runs the Book Loft, right next door, “seeing as how Bob’s from New Hampshire.” Then without missing a beat, Esckelson asks, “Want to see some of the mastodon bones I found this morning?”

Since 1562, northeastern Florida’s Amelia Island has been ruled by French and Spanish, English and Patriots, Confederates and Yankees.

At the turn of the century, Fernandina Beach was one of the most luxurious resort areas in the south. And the island’s American Beach was Florida’s only beach resort for blacks (see accompanying story).

But when Henry Flagler’s famous railroad brought wealthy Northerners farther and farther south, Amelia Island was left to rot in peace.

“Everybody just left,” said James Perry, curator of the Amelia Island Museum of History, the state’s only oral history museum. “It was a Pompeii-like flash – the boom was over and the town was frozen in time.”

Loving Restoration
The town was laid out in just the sort of Victorian style that makes entrepreneurs’ hearts sing, “What a place for a B&B!” Over the last 20 years, the town has been lovingly restored and a turn-of-the-century time-traveler would feel at home walking through the Historic Downtown District with its railway terminal, Palace Saloon and cobblestone streets.

Many area homes (including the one used in the 1988 Disney classic “Pippi Longstocking”) have been renovated and refurbished.

Today, those who make their home on Amelia are a tightly knit community. Non-residents are referred to as “off-islanders,” and residents are free to be as quirky and eccentric as they wish.

But what’s so arresting about the island is the open hospitality in every shop, restaurant, B&B and motel.

Islanders Bob and Karen Warner are used to people walking through their home, which happens to be the oldest hotel in the state of Florida. At various times and in various incarnations, their Florida House Inn (1857) has been host to Cuban freedom-fighter Jose Marti and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as to Rockefellers and Carnegies.

Today it’s a decadently comfortable B&B, whose restaurant is one of the best values – price, food and service – in the state (see “If You Go”).

They Visit, They Stay
Every year just before Christmas, the Florida House and eight other historic inns take part in the Amelia Island Christmas Tour. It attracts more than 1,300 visitors who listen to the histories, admire the restoration work, check under the beds and look into the closets for skeletons of a long ago past.

“I can name a dozen people who have stayed with us and then moved here,” says John Kovacevich, who, along with his wife, Rita, runs the Hoyt House, one of the B&Bs included on the tour. “And that’s not because of Rita and me or the resorts or the beaches, but because of the island – it’s so welcoming that it just grabs you.”

The Downtown Historic District is the main draw of Fernandina Beach, though other attractions are to be found on the island. The beaches are about two miles east of the city.

The Amelia Island Museum of History is in the former city jail (1879-1975). Volunteer-led tours are conducted Monday through Saturday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The exhibits, while fascinating in and of themselves, are secondary to the oral history from the volunteers. Highlights are the Galleon Room, dedicated to Spanish explorers and gold ships, with not much treasure but heaps of artifacts, and the old drugstore soda fountain upstairs.

The museum conducts two-hour walking tours in the Downtown Historic District by appointment and strolls of Centre Street on Thursdays and Fridays at 3 p.m.

The neo-Gothic Episcopal St. Peter’s Parish (1881-1884) features impressive stained-glass windows and a magnificent Harrison organ. It’s at the corner of 8th Street and Atlantic Avenue. Great sign outside in a no parking zone: Thou Shalt Not Park.

Civil War Re-enactments
The U.S. government began construction of Fort Clinch, to the east of the town, in 1847. Today the fort is open as a state park, and re-enactors (whom most call authentic and whom others call nuts) hold open house garrison weekends, candlelight viewings and candlelight tours at least once a month, featuring demonstrations of the weaponry (the cannon are loud!), fireplace cooking, the fully equipped Civil War infirmary and the jail. The fort by candlelight is beautiful, and the re-enactors – who sleep in the fort during the garrison weekends to help them stay in character – are a treat, whether they’re playing Yankee or Confederate troops (they do both).

At the island’s southern end is American Beach, part of Florida’s Black Heritage Trail, a summer resort primarily for blacks but open to everyone.

At its heyday, American Beach catered to throngs of Northern blacks, who boarded buses that would arrive 40 and 50 at a time. Blacks owned the motel, the restaurants, the nightclubs.

Black entertainers performing at clubs in Jacksonville would head up to American Beach after their sets and play the rest of the night at the Ocean Rendezvous, then the resort’s largest nightclub. That club also hosted concerts by Ray Charles, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other stars of the day.

Ghost of a Resort
After desegregation the beach became less attractive than beaches closer to home, and business dried out. Though the resort remains open, it is a ghost of its former self. And surrounded by big business in the form of a multimillion-dollar resort complex, local residents worry that some of the 35 families who call the beach home will sell out to golf-course building developers.

You can visit for a tour any time. Resident and unofficial mayor MaVynee Betsch is always happy to guide tours personally, and she operates the American Beach Museum out of a small mobile home parked at the corner of Gregg and Lewis streets.

The most notable feature of the American Beach coastline today is the absence of the high-rise condominium and hotel towers that line the sand immediately to the north and south. Horseback tours, available at the southern end of Amelia Island, sometimes clop by; fishermen flock to this relatively deserted stretch, and camping is permitted in summer.

The stretch of coastline controlled by the town is, like the beaches on the rest of Amelia Island, made up of fine white sand that gets sprinkled with sharks’ teeth and fossils for about two hours before and after a tide change. You can almost always see locals out hunting and gathering these in the morning and afternoon.