Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
April 7, 2015 12:56 p.m.
Alert readers may have noticed that in addition to building renovations and the new David Yulee statue, there is even more change coming to the plaza in front of the historic Train Depot at the foot of Centre Street in Fernandina Beach. Thanks to funding and labor provided by by the Amelia Island Fernandina Restoration Foundation and the City of Fernandina Beach’s cooperation, work is underway to uncover, clean and more fittingly display an old cast iron fountain that is part of the city’s architectural heritage and oral history. The restored fountain will not be operational, but will serve as a distinctive architectural feature of the Centre Street landscape.
The drinking fountain, commissioned and donated by Mrs. Amelia Duryee in the 19th century, was originally placed at street level so that its calcium-rich water might slake the thirsts of horses from the largest trough and dogs from the small trough at the bottom. Mrs. Duryee, who is said to have liked animals better than people, also provided for thirsty humans toward the top of the fountain.
The fountain has had a peripatetic existence. At some point in time, the fountain was moved from its original location downtown and relocated to Fort Clinch. According to Restoration Foundation minutes, in June 1975 the Foundation received a grant from Bird & Son, Inc. of Massachusetts to restore the fountain and a separate horse trough. In a memo dated August 12, 1975, Restoration Foundation President Suzanne Davis Hardee reported that a grant of $2,000 had been received for the purpose of creating a mini park at the depot and that the Restoration Foundation had been given permission to return the fountain (and the horse trough) to the city from Fort Clinch State Park. These actions coincided with plans to revitalize and streetscape Centre Street, which had only recently been rechristened with its original name by the Fernandina Beach City Commission. For a period the entire street, from ocean to river had been called Atlantic Avenue.
But apparently over the years, the fountain’s finial has been an attractive nuisance for those bent on mischief. By 1983, the finial had disappeared once more. In 1987 Restoration Foundation minutes report that the finial has been stolen again. At the end of the year minutes noted that the finial was replaced again—securely this time.
Current placement of the fountain, surrounded as it has been by knock-out roses, makes its use problematic. The few horses that traffic Centre Street today still use the old horse trough that was paired with the drinking fountain in the moves to and back from Fort Clinch. That trough is located in the city parking lot across from City Hall. Carriage drivers have taken responsibility for keeping it filled with water for their horses.
But time, weather and hard water have taken a toll on the Duryee Fountain. While it is not practical to return it to a working water fountain, Restoration Foundation Secretary Chuck Hall has taken on the project of improving its appearance and visibility as part of our local history. With the blessings and financial support of the Restoration Foundation, the approval of the city and the assistance of city maintenance director Rex Lester, Hall is giving the old fountain new life as part of the rich history of the city.
Hall has taken on the physical work involved in this project himself, getting assistance from King’s Plumbing as a community service in removing the old plumbing, that was never part of the original design. Hall has worked on other old fountains and is familiar with their material and design. He has begun removing the old paint and rust and will eventually repaint the bare metal with rust preventative coating and finish.
He has a special affinity for this particular fountain, which he remembers playing on as a child at Fort Clinch. He liked the design of the fountain so much that later on as an adult he found a duplicate, which he has restored and placed in his Historic District backyard.
When the work is finished, hopefully by Shrimp Fest, Hall will have leveled the fountain and added slow-growing, low profile, ornamental shrubs to landscape the base area.
Hall said in an email, “We are proud to work on this treasure of Fernandina Beach. The Restoration Foundation has been instrumental in this fountain’s history, and also that of the Williams’ fountain at the Courthouse downtown.”
Who were the Duryees?
There are many legends and stories surrounding the Duryees, who figured prominently here during the city’s Golden Age following the Civil War. Amelia Island Museum of History docents and walking tour guides will happily share these stories that involve not only the fountain, but the Duryee Building (housing today’s Marina Restaurant), the Duryee’s first house on the corner of N. 5th and Broome Streets, and both the First Presbyterian Church and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
William B.C. Duryee (1838-1913) was the son of a prosperous New York lumberman. But the Civil War interfered with family plans for his business career. Duryee was appointed to a high-level general staff position as Captain and Assistant Adjutant General of Volunteers in the Federal Army. He served with the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 3rd Army Corps of the Army of Virginia (later, the Army of the Potomac). He saw action at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, where he was wounded. A year later he returned to active duty at 2nd Brigade Headquarters, and he was honorably discharged on December 31, 1863 near Stevensburg, Virginia.
General Order No. 84, dated October 14, 1868, appointed Duryee as a Brevet Major, for “gallant and meritorious services in the battle of Antietam, Maryland,” effective March 13, 1865. A brevet rank is a temporary field promotion not subject to approval by Congress.
In 1868, Duryee received a Presidential appointment as Special Deputy Collector of Customs for the Port of Fernandina. Duryee moved to Fernandina, which was becoming a post-war boomtown, and made the city his home. Legend has it that he telegraphed his wife, who had remained in New York City, to convince her to leave her active social life and join him, telling her “they have named an island after you, Amelia.” She did join him, but apparently not happily so. Their arguments were legendary and grist for the gossip mill on a regular basis.
By the time Duryee’s appointment expired, he had entered the local lumber business and operated a grain and feed business. He was an active member of the local Board of Trade and also served as Acting British Consul. He erected the building now bearing his name in 1882. That building housed the Customs House, the Florida Mirror newspaper and printing plant, the First Bank of Fernandina and a first-floor bar. While his wife could not compete on the same scale, she erected her monument—the fountain—directly across the street from his building.
The Duryees’ first home in Fernandina Beach still stands at 414 Broome Street, but their second, grander home no longer does. Rumored to have been designed by the prominent local architect Robert Sands Schuyler, it was located at 716 Centre Street.
For more information about the Duryees, their contributions to Fernandina Beach, and even some ghost stories, visit the Amelia Island Museum of History at 233 S. Third Street or research their online archives. Research facilities are open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays or by appointment. For more information, consult the museum website www.ameliamuseum.org or call (904) 261-7378.
Additional information about the work of the Amelia Island Fernandina Restoration Foundation may be found on their website http://www.ameliarestoration.com.
Oh, and by the way: the finial is in Chuck Hall’s safe hands until its final, permanent installation upon completion of the project.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.