This story begins over forty years ago. In 1975, the Duncan Lamont Clinch Historical Society formed a committee to develop the concept for the creation of a museum which would collect items and interpret Amelia Island history. Around the same time, a collector named William Decker was amassing thousands of historical documents, artifacts and books focusing on local history and natural history. Mr. Decker was the caretaker at Ft.Clinch and an avid history enthusiast. His extensive butterfly exhibit had been on display at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and he had also been a gun engraver for MGM studios. His son, Doug Decker, inherited his father’s vast collection and felt it needed to be shared with the community.
In 1977, a board of 15 trustees from that original historical society committee incorporated themselves as a non-profit cultural institution under the name of the “Fernandina Historical Museum,” with Edith Ferguson Shurley as president. At that time, the Museum hired its first employee, Barbara Stidfole, who began to catalog the collection. The group began to raise funds and to look for a permanent place to showcase this incredible collection. Many of the same people served on the boards of the Historical Society, the Restoration Foundation and the new Museum. The Museum group convinced the City of Fernandina Beach to purchase a portion of the Decker collection as a sign of good will toward and interest in safeguarding local history. The City subsequently donated the collection to the Museum, which stored the artifacts in the old schoolhouse on Atlantic Avenue.
During the 1970s, the President of the DLC Historical Society had convinced CSX to donate the old railroad depot at Front and Centre Streets to the Historical Society for the purposes of a Museum. They in turn asked the City to take it over and act as caretakers of this historic building. What a perfect place for the local Chamber of Commerce! In 1978, thanks to close ties with the Chamber of Commerce who agreed to share the Depot Building, the first Museum was opened in the old Train Depot. (Today the Depot houses the Convention and Visitors Bureau.) The Decker Collection finally had a home and could be shared with the community. Portions of that collection were combined with traveling and rotating exhibits from the Smithsonian, Ft.Clinch, and the George Davis Collection of historic photos. This was an invigorating time for those who were interested in preserving and sharing Fernandina’s rich heritage.
After a new jail facility was built on A1A In 1979, the old jail, in quite a horrible state of disrepair sat empty until Nassau County officials decided what to do with the badly deteriorated building at 3rd and Cedar Streets where rusty, leaking pipes, and walls with peeling paint characterized the structure. When approached by the Museum, the County Commission offered the museum a 99-year lease for $1 per year. With the acquisition of this new building, volunteers soon began the work necessary to create a functional exhibit space. When they began to tear out old bars on the windows and clear and clean a space for exhibits, the trustees felt strongly that they wanted to mark this change in a dramatic way. This new Museum, in a renovated building, needed a new name, so they created a contest geared toward school children to rename the Museum. The winner was the “Eight Flags Museum of Nassau County,” which would extend the geographical focus of the Museum’s historical message. After renovations of the four-room jailer’s quarters, Dorothy Groshell was hired as the first full-time Museum Director. Portions of the Decker Collection were put on display with traveling exhibits located on the first floor of the building, and classroom tours and summer camps soon began in an effort to reach out to the community. In 1982, a new room was cleared to house the Museum’s growing Victorian-era collection and a multi-media room was created as well. Susan McCranie Siegmund served as President during this early period and stated in a contemporary news article that “representing the Museum has been the biggest challenge of my life” but credited the true success of the Museum to “the individual efforts of many people,” including volunteers, members, and local contributors.
In an effort to boost local interest and distinguish the Museum statewide, an association was established with the Northeast Florida Railway Historical Society in 1984. The Museum was renamed the “Florida Museum of Transportation and History” and designated the “official transportation Museum of the State of Florida.” Museum trustees began to collect transportation artifacts and even constructed a mini railroad track within the Museum. The redefined purpose was to “tell the story of the first cross-state railroad in Fernandina in the 1860s until the present day.” After a year or so, the transportation theme lost steam, and the board of directors began to search for a new inspiration to keep the Museum alive.
They found that inspiration in a new volunteer, Deon Jaccard. Jaccard resurrected the display stands and framed flags used in the first Museum effort and brought these things to life again, not only by adding new display material but by creating a true “spoken history” Museum. She researched history with the help of local historians like Helen Litrico, George Davis, and Suzanne Hardee. Then she began to inspire, recruit and train volunteers to become tour guides for an “Eight Flags” journey. With these changes, the Museum went through its fourth and final name change, to the current name, The Amelia Island Museum of History. One of the founders, Bob White, stated that “Deon did so much work. She is the one who really put us on the map.” She was also instrumental in the creation of historic district walking tours.
As a way to show their support for the Museum, the County Commission donated the building in the late 1980s. Other exhibit areas were added over the years and the Museum retained the same permanent exhibits for 17 years. In 2003, the Museum completed almost a half million dollar renovation, creating all new professionally-designed exhibits throughout the first floor. The Museum has definitely matured with the recent opening of a modern research facility on the 2nd floor and the expansion of outreach programs to the community. We hope you enjoyed this re-creation of a dream that has been a part of our community for forty plus long years. Keep your eyes peeled for upcoming events that will focus on the rich history of this fascinating place you call home – you will be surprised how amazing your local history truly is!