Editor’s Note: Not often does the Fernandina Observer reprint articles, but as we begin our new year, Suanne Thamm’s message written in 2013 still holds true. Happy New Year!
As we approach the start of another new year here in our beloved home–or adopted home–town, let us pause and reflect a while on what makes Fernandina Beach so special. At the top of anyone’s list must be The People. Our community is home to some of the kindest, most generous and friendly folks that you can find anywhere. Regardless of differences in faith, ethnicity, politics, income or education levels, there is no difference when it comes to helping people in need. Generous with their time, ability and resources, our friends and neighbors will pull together to assist families struck by tragedy, local causes that benefit the elderly, children and the needy, animals, and strangers who wander into our midst trying to find Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach, or a bridge to Georgia.
Our community is served by public employees who embody these same traits. The outstanding response time we receive from our public safety and fire/rescue personnel makes our community the envy of neighboring communities. Our school system wins high rankings so routinely that people take it as a given that we score at the top of statewide measures. We are located within a short commuting distance of the Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Nassau Center in Yulee, where degree or certificate seekers can broaden their horizons without having to fight Jacksonville traffic. For a city of roughly 12,000 souls, our Parks and Recreation Department runs a wide variety of programs that appeal to all ages and all levels of athleticism in addition to covering something like 40 beach accesses to our world famous beaches, ball fields and parks, multiple recreation centers and a greenway that stretches along Egans Creek. Despite some hiccups of late, we continue to enjoy the benefits of a public marina, a public golf course, and a general aviation airport.
We enjoy a rich cultural life, thanks to the creative efforts of both professionals and volunteers and the generous financial support of local benefactors. Amelia Community Theatre and the Amelia Musical Playhouse provide us with enjoyable and affordable entertainment. Fort Clinch re-enactors take visitors back in time to Civil War days. The Amelia Island Museum of History, located in the former Nassau County Jail, offers an abundance of programs highlighting local and state history in addition to routinely telling visitors the real story of the island’s eight flags. The Fernandina Beach branch library has undergone a major expansion, with the help of many private citizens who stepped up to match public monies committed by both the city and Nassau County. Our new, heavily used Boys and Girls Club exists today due to the generosity of community residents.
And we can’t forget the festivals that add so much to our life on the island and bring so many visitors to enjoy what we often take for granted. In addition to the long running Shrimp Festival that celebrates Fernandina’s pivotal role in the shrimping industry the first weekend of May each year, we now host music festivals that run the gamut from chamber music to blues and jazz, a book festival, barbecue cook-offs, car shows, fishing tournaments, golf tournaments, an international petanque tournament and others that I’m sure I have missed. And is there any community in the state that holds as many parades as Fernandina Beach?
Our National Register-listed Historic Districts in Old Town and Downtown Fernandina Beach are a source of pride to those who have invested in restoring and rehabilitating historic structures to live and work in. The downtown district draws many visitors who enjoy walking the tree-canopied streets, shopping in unique stores, and dining in an area that dates to 1857 and the arrival of the Florida Railroad Company. Old Town, with its surviving Spanish grid, draws visitors who want to seek out the earliest location of Fernandina surveyed by the Spanish in 1811.
Fernandina has managed to survive where other communities have failed thanks to the indomitable spirit of its people and the vision of others. It started with people like David Yulee and Samuel Swann, who brought the railroad here in the 1850’s. The shipping, lumber and phosphate industries capitalized on our naturally deep-water port. The boat builders and the pioneers of the shrimping industry at the turn of the 19th century brought another period of prosperity to be followed by the pulp mills that brought the community out of the Great Depression. Tourism, spurred on by the advent of the south island resorts in the late 1970’s, created additional opportunities for city entrepreneurs in hospitality, food and retail commerce. While early settlers battled the yellow fever epidemics that seemed to strike with severe regularity and the problems inherent with Civil War occupation and Reconstruction, later generations contended with hardship resulting from economic cycles, the rise of Jacksonville as a port city, and the problems of both racial segregation and integration. In all cases, the citizens needed to adapt to changing circumstances to ensure their future and that of this community. As one wag once said, Fernandina should borrow a motto from the Timex Watch Company: takes a lickin’, but keeps on tickin’.
We hear a lot today about fragile ecosystems. We know that while fertilizer can be a good thing for our lawns and gardens, it can be a bad thing when it washes into our streams and rivers. Fishing brings us delights from the sea to savor, but overfishing upsets the balance in the marine food chain. So it is with communities. The interrelationship of people, private enterprise and public institutions is also a fragile one. Too much reliance on one aspect, be it government support, private generosity or a single industry, places the survival of the community at risk. As Fernandina’s forebears understood, the balancing point for all these systems is tricky to achieve. But the one factor that that has allowed Fernandina to prosper despite national economic trends, wars and social upheaval has been the ability of its people to change and adapt to new circumstances.
As we approach a new year with a new city commission at the helm of the good ship Fernandina, we cross our fingers and hope that since our little craft has survived the perils of the past years, we can try to pull our oars in the same direction on a true course to a future with greater economic opportunity, more tolerance for considering change in all its forms, and a willingness to leave past controversies to history. Our good people deserve at least this much from our elected leaders.
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.