My wife and I showed a couple visiting us from Ohio around our favorite winter retreat, Amelia Island, Florida. We drove to Old Town Fernandina Beach, where lots of history has occurred. A small square, Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park, marks the site of a colonial massacre of Indigenous peoples and some French trappers.
We drove to the small parking area overlooking the Amelia River on a bluff. Soon, our attention was drawn away from history to the present moment. A small flock of American White Pelicans had landed along the river’s edge at the park’s base.
The beautiful birds formed a floating wedge of sorts and immediately began to forage in their unique synchronized fashion. We witnessed a ballet on the water, as the video shows.
Seeing these elusive migrators was one thing. Observing their feeding ritual was something else altogether.
These were the first arrivals. The photos were taken five seconds apart.
American White Pelicans migrate to the coastal areas of California, Central America, and the Gulf Coast States for the winter. They nest in the Midwest and western states, as well as the Canadian prairie provinces.
In the United States, February has been designated as Black History Month for many years now. Some schools, libraries, and other institutions give the theme only cursory attention while others plan meaningful and memorable events, including art shows, lectures, and dramas.
When my wife and I discovered Amelia Island’s American Beach on one of our Florida snowbird retreats, our interest piqued. We quickly learned a lot about decades of injustices, discrimination, and intolerance of blacks in our society.
The American Beach Museum is a tidy, organized, and informative exhibition hall on Julia Street in a secluded historic district on the south end of this Atlantic Coast barrier island. The place may be tiny, but it is packed with facts, stories, relics, and photos that make your head spin trying to absorb it all. The volunteer guides are the most gracious people one would ever want to meet, and gladly help explain and amplify the historical information.
The short video featuring the Beach Lady, MaVynee Betsch, is the highlight of the tour. It makes you want to have been on that tour bus with her to hear her passionate stories of experiencing racism, discrimination, personal career success, her genuine love of nature, history, family, and the Creator who gave us the responsibility for caring for this marvelous earth.
In her case, the Beach Lady cut short a lucrative and professionally successful career as an opera singer in Europe to return to her beloved American Beach to ensure its preservation. She had her ups and downs in that endeavor. In the end, the Beach Lady’s efforts prevailed, even years after her death from cancer.
For her persistence and persuasive hard work, MaVynee left her mark everywhere around American Beach. The beach itself is the most obvious result. Its sand dunes are some of the highest in the state. The beach’s sands are white and smooth, much desired by island developers. However, due much in part to the Beach Lady, the National Park Service now supervises the 80 some acres of the area.
American Beach was the only one on which blacks were permitted on Amelia Island. That segregation lasted until 1970. American Beach was founded in 1935 by the Afro American Insurance Co. president A. L. Lewis, the Beach Lady’s grandfather. American Beach provided a place for recreation and relaxation without humiliation during the Jim Crow era. It offered a place of hope in a time of despair for dark-skinned people.
Ironically, the original 100 by 100 ft. plots of land were always integrated. Some of the original buildings still exist, though they are not in the best condition. Evan’s Hall, a gathering place for music and dance, is one of them. Today some of the beachfront houses are worth millions of dollars.
The museum holds photographs, artifacts, and displays of the legacy of the Beach Lady, including her seven-foot length of hair. Some thought her eccentric. Others knew better. Her devotion to family, nature, and her beloved beach remains for all to see today.
Each winter, we always make a point of visiting the museum and American Beach itself. We do so as a personal reminder of segregation in this country, of those who worked so diligently to overcome it and the sacrifices they made in doing so. MaVynee, the museum, and American Beach are testaments to what was, is, and yet needs to be done to indeed guarantee equality for all in this great country of ours.
Art often imitates life. It’s more unusual to have it happen the other way around.
On Amelia Island, Florida, art and life have harmonized, especially for one particular children’s fictional character, Pippi Longstocking.
Pippi Longstocking was the brainchild of Swedish children’s author, Astrid Lindgren. She wrote a series of adventures about Pippi that have been read and reread by adoring youngsters around the world. The books have been translated into 64 languages.
Pippi books have been so popular that Hollywood had to join in the fun, too. Several versions of Pippi Longstocking movies have been made.
In 1988, an Americanized version of the original Swedish story was made into a movie, which was filmed entirely on Amelia Island. Island tour guides like to point out various locales where scenes from “The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking” were shot.
Most of the scenes were filmed in or near Historic Downtown Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island’s only city. The only seashore scene, which was very brief, was filmed just down the beach from where we have stayed on vacation.
When our three grandchildren visited us in Florida near the end of January, they wanted to see some of the locations as depicted in the movie. They had seen the movie, thanks to Nana, who had it on videotape from her teaching days.
Nana packed the tape so the kids could review the various locations in the movie. They watched the light-hearted film, and we were off on our Pippi tour.
Since the setting of much of the book and movie was in Pippi’s dilapidated house, the Villa Villekulla, we headed there first. In previous years, the house looked much the way it appeared in the movie, unkempt, disheveled, and badly in need of a fresh coat of white paint.
Imagine our surprise, and the grandkids’ disappointment, when we found the house being remodeled. A distasteful olive green siding replaced the weathered white clapboards so prominently featured in the film.
It was evident that the remodeling project was a work in process. The owner had replaced some of the windows of the Victorian-style home. Others were boarded up.
We later learned that the beloved house had been vandalized, purchased, and was being restored with the purpose of giving tours. In the movie, the villain tried repeatedly to obtain the home by deceit so the old house could be demolished and replaced with a moneymaking scheme.
The grandkids were disappointed to learn that the big tree in the side yard where Pippi and her neighbor friends so often played was the convenience of the producer’s imagination. They discovered how movies are produced.
We visited Centre St. in the quaint downtown area, where most of the movie was filmed. The ice cream shop was actually the oldest saloon in Florida. The building Pippi flew her bicycle by just happens to house a toy store named “Villa Villekulla.”
One puzzle remained, however. Where were the orphanage scenes shot? I found the answer after the kids left. Those scenes were filmed at a private school just north of Centre St. Ironically the old brick building originally had been a home for orphans.
When the sun broke through, and the temperatures warmed, our grandchildren’s attention turned from fantasy to reality. They played on the seashore in front of the lighthouse-shaped home where Pippi threw the bottle with a message in it for her father.
Imagination and reality met on the beach. Our grandkids couldn’t have been happier.
When we vacation on Amelia Island, Florida, my wife and I usually head to the pier in downtown Fernandina Beach for sunsets. The assortment of ever-changing colors that glow in the western sky and reflect in the waters of the Intercoastal Waterway are fabulous unless it’s cloudy.
We were invited one evening to have dinner with friends at the south end of the island away from the water. Still, I checked on the sunset from the rear of their fourth-floor condo. I wasn’t disappointed. The sun’s rays illuminating the evening’s high, thin clouds created an amazing sunset. The Nassau River was a mere ribbon of orange, snaking through the saltmarsh beyond the canopy of live oaks.
I couldn’t remember seeing so many warm shades of orange. “Florida Oranges” is my Photo of the Week.
Amelia Island, Florida and Lakeside, Ohio might be nearly a thousand miles apart, but they have a lot in common. People would be at the top of the list.
First, though, I am grateful that I can visit each destination. Second, I’m glad my wife also loves both Amelia and Lakeside, and, well, me, too.
Personal disclaimers aside, each destination features special attractions unique to its setting. And yet, though one location is in the Sunshine State and the other in the Buckeye State, they are not that dissimilar.
Sure the vegetation and critters vary significantly, but are intriguing nevertheless. They are much more alike than you might imagine.
My wife and I discovered Amelia Island almost by accident. On our way to Sarasota, the hot spot for greater Holmes County snowbirds, we made an overnight stop on Amelia. It was love at first sight.
We stayed nearly on the inviting sands of the 13-mile long Main Beach on the Atlantic Ocean. Between the motel and the sand a family owned restaurant served delicious, fresh, locally caught seafood.
On the trip home, we further explored Amelia Island, discovering its historic town of Fernandina Beach, founded in 1562. Its quaint shops and showy old homes sit on the Intercostal Waterway. You can’t beat sunrises on the Atlantic, and sunsets on the harbor. Need I say more?
That was four years ago. Yes, we’re heading back this winter, too.
Conversely, I knew Lakeside since I was a kid, and that’s a long time. Our parents took the family there a few times when I was young. Needing a getaway, I introduced my own family to the Chautauqua on Lake Erie 27 years ago. We haven’t missed a year since.
The lake lures you to its enticing shore where giant oak, ash, maples and cottonwoods shelter parks and steamboat-style cottages. Visitors gather on the concrete dock for luscious looks of dawn and dusk.
Since it’s a gated community in the summer, kids can run free without the normal parental fears of life beyond the gates. Lakeside is not just family friendly. It is family based, founded as a Methodist church camp in 1873.
All that said the people of both Amelia Island and Lakeside are the mortar that cements the palms, the ocean and the exotic wildlife just as they do the lake, the shuffleboard courts and the ice cream shops. Amelia Island and Lakeside both have character and characters. It’s the latter that really makes you feel at home.
Amelia Island hosts a nice mix of natives, retirees and sun seekers, permanent and temporary alike. Residents are courteous to tourists who ask too many questions, or drive like they’re lost. They might be.
Want to meet a cross section of the populous? Attend the weekly farmer’s market Saturday morning held on a section of closed street in Fernandina Beach. Or attend the farmer’s market on Tuesday and Friday mornings held on a section of closed street at Lakeside. Different states, same tasty results.
At the Fernandina Beach marina, a dockworker awaiting a yacht to refuel spins stories aplenty. You’ll learn a lot.
At Lakeside, if you admire someone’s cottage, their flower garden, or wonder what game they are playing on the front porch, just ask. They’ll be glad to share.
Destination locations like Amelia Island and Lakeside have lots of attractive charm. It’s their genuine hospitality that keeps people coming back, including us.
I’m glad to be home from vacation. But I have to be honest. I miss Amelia Island, Florida and all the charm and variety it has to offer.
I miss waking early in the day to welcome the sun, or rain or fog, whatever weather greeted me. It often changed quickly from good to bad or bad to good, just like in Ohio.
I miss the rising sun painting with its broad brush, constantly rearranging the brilliant arrays of pinks, blues, oranges, yellows and reds on twilight’s canvas. I miss the sun’s shimmering, silver dance on its forever rolling sea stage.
Equally so, I miss the moon, full or half or quarter, glimmering its creamy, seductive light into our night lives. I miss being transfixed by its profound beauty.
I miss seeing the sun sink behind the trees beyond the Intercoastal Waterway. Unless the fog or rain clouds interfered, the alluring sunsets nearly took our breath away. Like the days began, each evening glow was emotionally evocative.
Side by side/
Sky on fire.
Morning and evening, I miss the dolphins slicing through the hoary sea, first one, then two, then three, then more, fins intermittently marking their gourmet gallop. Their appearing and disappearing mesmerized me.
I miss the slow walks on the beach with my wife. She hunted for seashells and shark’s teeth while I photographed birds, people, and patterns in the sand. Then I’d hustle to catch up.
I miss the delectable seafood meals Neva created. Locally caught, fresh shrimp sautéed in butter and olive oil, a little lemon and a dash of salt and pepper combined with locally made sweet potato pasta and flax seed rolls beat any pricy restaurant entree.
I miss the strolls through Egan’s Creek Greenway, a salt marsh wildlife preserve set aside for painters, birders, photographers, joggers, bikers, walkers and admirers of all things nature. The Greenway is home to alligators, snakes, river otters, rabbits, bobcats, deer, wading birds, shorebirds, birds of prey and songbirds.
I miss the drives and walks through well-maintained Ft. Clinch State Park, a marvelous blend of ecosystems and history. It was equally easy on the eyes and wallet. The 3,300 ft. fishing pier that paralleled the inlet to the Amelia River afforded panoramic views and a perfect perch for birding.
The welcome sign said it all.
Kelley’s Courtyard Cafe.
In Fernandina Beach, FL, trees take priority.
The Nassau Co. Courthouse at night.
The beach at Ft. Clinch State Park.
Fishing in Ft. Clinch State Park.
A trail in Ft. Clinch State Park.
Oystercatchers on a break wall off Ft. Clinch.
The Pippy Longstocking House in Old Town.
A Trident sub is escorted through the Amelia River off Ft. Clinch.
The beach near Ft. Clinch is a popular spot for finding seashells and shark’s teeth.
An artsy entrance to a gallery in Fernandina Beach.
Beautiful old homes are the hallmark of Fernandina Beach.
The fishing pier in Ft. Clinch State Park is a great place to see rare birds like this Northern Gannet.
The 3,300 ft. fishing pier at Ft. Clinch State Park is a good place to fish, walk, bird, and just enjoy the views.
I miss the charm of historic downtown Fernandina Beach, the only city on the island, and the nation’s oldest settlement. Founded three years before St. Augustine, the quaint town attracts customers from around the world.
I miss the eclectic mix of Amelia’s people. From tourists to shop owners to fishermen to photographers, everyone, I mean everyone, was friendly, like open books if you took the time to turn their pages.
I miss the quirkiness of the island that has seen the flags of eight different nations fly over its humble geography. Florida’s oldest continuously operating hotel and bar stand less than a block apart. Businesses boldly display the scores of football games when Georgia’s Bulldogs beat Florida’s Gators.
Those in the know like to say that Fernandina Beach is the East Coast’s western most port. In other words, drive straight north, you run into Cincinnati, Ohio.
Of course, I miss the warmer weather, too. However, warm is a relative word. Our Florida vacation ended the way it began, wearing winter coats. Still, we had it nice compared to what much of eastern North America experienced in our absence.
I like it so much that I could live there. But I won’t. As incredible as Amelia Island and its people are, I like it right here in Holmes County, Ohio even better.