History and Future: The Roles of Our Museum

By Wilma Allen

With Nassau County and Fernandina Beach bicentennial celebrations now in full swing, I found it amusing to learn what city commissioners were up to when the first centennial ended 100 years ago.

Back then, they initiated a stepped-up campaign to eliminate nuisance cattle running at large. They paid firemen an average of $51/month, passed an ordinance requiring fly-proof toilets, discontinued night soil collections, and raised more money from sales of ice than “light” or water.

They employed two policemen; paved streets with 24,000 bushels of shells; added 500 feet of fire hose and a gong to the fire chief’s house; and, in a bit of deja vu for current commissioners, they planned improvements for the “foot of Alachua Street.”

These achievements were reported for the year ending March 1924 in the four-page official “First Annual Report of the City of Fernandina, Florida.” I found it online in the Amelia Island Museum of History archives.

The museum’s archives are a vast collection of books, letters, maps, 5,000+ photos, and other documents and memorabilia. They are confined upstairs in the former Nassau County jailhouse on Cedar Street, where the museum now resides. For writers, historians, researchers, and history buffs, the archives are a treasure trove – the heart and soul of the museum.

Because of their fragility and importance, most items are preserved in temperature-controlled rooms, in specially treated files and boxes. You can view them in person on weekdays and by special appointment or scroll through almost 90% of them anytime, online.

Some samples include:

  • A directory for the year 1900, that lists local businesses, all residents over age 20 with addresses, occupations, and a separate section for “Colored People.”
  • Elixers in “Dr. Carl Lungerhausen’s Doctor Bag.”
  • Photos of the Amelia Beach Casino before and after the 1944 hurricane blew it to bits.
  • Poignant essays about life during COVID by St. Michael’s Academy students.

The archives have lots of fans online. Hits average 2,000 – 3,000 per month, says Archivist Ronda Outler. One month last year, there were close to 13,000. Navigating takes some getting used to, however: the “key words” you use for your search may not match with item descriptions. Also, many scanned pieces are faded, discolored and in handwriting that’s hard to decipher. Some documents are not shown in their entirety, but volunteers are working on that. If you have questions, Outler is happy to help you find what you’re looking for.

Curator Jarrett Hill says new technologies and the ways people communicate present constant challenges for archivists. Old photo albums, letters and scrapbooks provide tactile insights into ordinary lives and experiences, but today’s stories are mostly told electronically. They can easily be lost in the clouds. For this reason, some years ago the museum began the Heritage Keepers and Veterans History Projects, where volunteers interview residents with unique and valuable stories to tell.

Interviews that I found especially interesting were those of environmental activist Mavynee Betsch, aka “The Beach Lady.” She described her heritage and development of American Beach. Former Fernandina Commissioner Charlie Corbett told of pogy fishing and life on the waterfront; and Dee Dee Bartels, namesake of the north end boat ramp, recounted her wild adventures as a shrimper, boat captain, and ‘the crab lady’ of a Caribbean island.

What will be remembered about our times 100 years from now? Only time and scrupulous archives will tell. If you have memories or memorabilia to share for posterity, contact Ronda Outler. But keep in mind that items must be uniquely relevant to Fernandina Beach and Nassau County.

Suggestions for people to interview should be directed to Jarrett Hill. To volunteer in the museum’s important work, contact Thea Seagraves, volunteer coordinator. To reach them, learn more, and access the archives, visit ameliamuseum.org.

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Mark Tomes
Active Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
22 days ago

We are very fortunate to have the expertise and dedication of our museum workers. And their lecture series are the best. Please support the AIMH by becoming a member today.

22 days ago

How do you make a tissue dance at the museum? Put a little boogie in it.

Peggy Bulger
Trusted Member
Peggy Bulger(@peggy-bulger1949gmail-com)
20 days ago

Thank you Wilma!! The Amelia Island Museum of History is a treasure trove of historical documentation for all of Nassau County. The museum’s programs and exhibits are well known, but the archive is the heart and soul of our historic record that will live on well beyond our own tenure as residents of the island. If anyone has not visited the museum and archive, I encourage you to visit . . . and be sure to stop by for our exhibit openings, Third on Third Presentations and Brown-Bag lunch lectures. If you are interested in history and heritage . . . this is your place! (Full disclosure — I am a current Board member)

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