By Peggy Bulger
Above image: Mary Agnes White as a young “plane spotter” in Fernandina during WWII (left) and after her Heritage Keepers interview at the museum (right).
William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner was spot-on. Our history is not past; it is constantly being created, repeated, reimagined and refined. The small spit of land that we call “Amelia Island” has had a marvelous and complex history that has been in the process of reinvention since the dawn of the great storytellers of “prehistory” – the Timucua. “Prehistory” is a term that arises from the notion that history was invented with the written word. As a folklorist, I have always identified with the bards and griots of “prehistory.” I’m relieved that in the 21st century we are experiencing a great renaissance of appreciation for oral narrative as historical record and a recognition of the invaluable contribution made by our community bards, ballad singers and corner philosophers who continue to pass down our collective story to new generations.
History is invented as we memorialize the lives of our local heroes or villains, and mark the significant events (both good and bad) that have impacted the place we call home. The job is never-ending and critical to an understanding of who we are, what we cherish as a community, why we cherish it, and where we are headed in the future. We are a community, and yet, each person is unique in that every moment of a person’s past creates who he or she becomes. It is a truism that the past (history) lives on within all of us, and it benefits each of us to learn from and understand our fellow Amelia Islanders, in all of our increasing diversity. We are natives and newcomers who are sharing a home and creating Amelia Island history every day.
The Amelia Island Museum of History (AIMH) Archive has been a repository of the island’s history and heritage since it was established in 1977. The Archive preserves and presents the artifacts, photographs, diaries and audio/video recordings that document our shared history. These priceless pieces of our heritage become more precious as time goes by. From the doorsill of Mission Convento dating from 1702, to the Seminole dugout canoe handcrafted by Pedro Zepeda in fall of 2020, the museum’s material artifacts are protected for future generations. In addition to artifacts, the Archive saves diaries, public records, news clippings, drawings and photographs that illuminate the lives and works of early residents of Amelia Island: the Sisters of St. Joseph, David Yulee, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Filipa “the Witch,” “Uncle Charlie” Beresford, Nathaniel and Flossie Borden, just to name a few.
Pedro Zepeda created a traditional Seminole canoe at the museum that is now part of the permanent collection.
Many of the newest acquisitions for the AIMH are in the form of audio or video recordings of significant Nassau County residents who share their memories of events that celebrate history and culture of Amelia Island in the 20th and 21st centuries. Oral history interviews include such notables as DeeDee Bartels, Charles and Ernie Albert, the Bean Family, Buddy Jacobs, the net making Burbank Family, Nick Deonas and other boat builders, Neil Frink, , Mary Agnes White, Anne Coonrod, Jack Healan, Marsha Dean Phelts, Arlene Filkoff, Barbara Stidfole and others. If those names are unfamiliar, just go to the AIMH website and check out the amazing life stories there.
The Sisters of St. Joseph made significant contributions to the Fernandina community, including serving as nurses during the Yellow Fever epidemic.
Events that live on in these oral histories include accounts of the 1977 founding of the museum itself, memories of the Fernandina beach patrols of WWII that sought to catch German submarines off our coast, stories of what life was like in Amelia Island’s lighthouse, and the founding of Ft. Clinch State Park. One of the most memorable local “sagas” is the “great Thanksgiving Day Pot Bust of 1977.” This was a day when a wayward boat beached on our shores with 25 tons of marijuana aboard. In a panic, the crew set the boat on fire, which sent an intoxicating wind onto Fernandina beaches and the resulting party is legendary (the story gains detail with every retelling). We have stories of islanders surviving Hurricane Dora in 1964, personal experiences during the fight to save American Beach, the founding of Amelia Island Plantation, the rise and fall of the menhaden (pogy) fishery, the development of the shrimping and net making business, and the magic that was Gerbing Gardens. Going beyond the island, we have collected memoirs of Yulee’s history beginning with the Flood General Store and Post Office, as well as the story of integrating the schools of Nassau County. We have interviewed local leaders about the birth of the Historic District of Downtown Fernandina, and of course we documented the stories of the first Shrimp Festival featuring shrimp boat races and the blessing of the fleet.
Boat builder Nick Deonas and interviewer Marie Santry (both of Greek heritage) after their Heritage Keepers interviewer.
AIMH Archivist, Ronda Outler, and a team of dedicated volunteers have catalogued, transcribed, and posted many of these recordings on the museum’s website and anyone wishing to learn more can access the voices of our Amelia Island and Nassau County “Heritage Keepers.” To date, there are 234 Veterans Oral History Project interviews and 43 Heritage Keepers interviews available online via our Online Archives.
Archivist Ronda Outler and Curator Summer Bias in the AIMH Archives.
As we enjoy the spring of 2022, new history is being made. Amelia Islanders have been united in their support of our newest hometown heroes — FOAR FROM HOME! These four veterans amazed all of us with their determination, grit, compassion and vision. They rowed over 3,000 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean to raise awareness and resources for the cause of preventing veteran suicide and PTSD. This was a project that united the community in an effort that is forever part of our history, and continues to evolve into the future. Paul, Hupp, Cam and Bill will be interviewed for our Heritage Keepers collection on May 7th in a public program open to all until space is filled. We know that this program will fulfill our mission to preserve our living history and their story will inspire generations of Amelia Islanders well beyond our time.
Veteran James Madison Thomas in uniform during WWII and after his Veteran’s History Project interview.
There are many more stories that need to be recorded and the museum staff are eager to teach volunteers how to interview, run the audio or video equipment, catalogue and transcribe the recordings – in short, we’d like you to be a part of the preservation team at the Archive. AIMH Curator, Summer Bias, has trained several volunteers and interns in the mysteries of Oral History, with great results.
To conclude my musings, I am so grateful to be where I am. We are a small community with a big heart, and the AIMH is saving our stories to preserve the historic record of our lives here. Check out the website and please call AIMH if you’d like to be involved!!
More of our Heritage Keepers participants:
Members of the “Red” and Joanne Bean family were interviewed about their life in Fernandina and their parents’ impact on the community.
Ernie Albert, Neil Frink, Peggy Bulger, and Marsha Dean Phelts after Ms. Albert’s interview.