50 Years the Transformed Amelia Island

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Amelia Island Plantation began on a 3,000-acre parcel on the south end, which turned a quiet barrier island into a world-class tourist destination.

Charles Fraser, a true visionary, changed the history of Amelia Island when he purchased most of the south end of the island in December 1970. Fraser, representing the Sea Pines Company of Hilton Head, arranged to purchase approximately 3,000 acres, which included 2,000 acres of uplands and 1,000 acres tidal marsh. The purchase was a great relief to island residents, who feared the previous owner, Union Carbide, would begin to mine titanium. The historic purchase included the entire south end of Amelia Island, from Peter’s Point to the island’s southern tip.

Fraser came from a family of privilege. His father, a lumber baron, harvested trees from Hilton Island, South Carolina. Fraser attended the University of Georgia, and then earned a law degree from Yale University. Enamored with Hilton Head, he convinced his father to utilize a land use plan he drafted.

The first lot in Sea Pines was sold in 1957. His land development concept was an instant hit, and he developed other properties in Virginia and North Carolina. Moving down the coast, his next major target project was Cumberland Island, the undeveloped island just north of Amelia Island. However, he ran into great resistance from both environmental groups and politicians. He ultimately abandoned the Cumberland project, selling his holdings to the National Park Service. Thanks to that transaction, the Cumberland Island National Seashore now offers visitors 17 miles of secluded white sandy beaches, wild horses, and historical tours of the Carnegie family properties.

Moving further south, Fraser became aware that Union Carbide owned most of the southern end of Amelia Island and had decided not to go ahead with plans for strip mining titanium on the island. On behalf of Sea Pines Company, Fraser stepped up and made the purchase. The master plan for the Amelia Island Plantation was revealed in 1972. Innovative at the time, the original plan designated natural preservation of one-third of the land, not including marshes, and a density that would not exceed 1.6 residential units per acre.

Fraser’s approach to development was greatly influenced by Ian McHarg, a renowned Scottish landscape architect who gained fame through his environmental planning and conservation practice. He carefully took into consideration topography, wildlife habitat, and natural vegetation.

The community planning firm of Wallace, McHarg, Roberts, and Todd prepared the master plan, which planned homesites, commercial areas, recreational areas, and meeting facilities into the existing natural environment of marshes, ancient live oaks, and massive sand dunes, not to mention Atlantic Ocean and Amelia River frontage. Amelia Island Plantation can thank Fraser and Ian McHarg’s approach to developing residential communities for its iconic forests of ancient oaks.

Marketing was aggressive, with an emphasis on golf and tennis. At the time, Chris Evert and John Lloyd, tennis personalities, became Amelia Island Plantation touring pros. Currently, the Omni Amelia Island Resort tennis program is operated by Cliff Drysdale Tennis and has been recognized as one of the finest in the world. Since 1974, guests and professionals have been enjoying this prestigious tennis facility set beneath a canopy of majestic live oaks and featuring 23 Har-Tru® fast-dry clay courts, a tennis pro shop, a health & fitness center, function rooms, and the Verandah restaurant.

Legends of tennis have played at Omni Amelia Island Resort, including Andre Agassi, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Maria Sharapova, and Venus and Serena Williams. Many remember the glory years of the annual women’s professional tennis tournament, sponsored for years by Bausch & Lomb, which brought the greats in women’s tennis to Amelia Island each year in the spring.

In 1973, the Plantation opened its first golf course, the Amelia Links course, designed by the renowned golf course architect Pete Dye. Now called Oak Marsh, the scenic course makes its way through the beautiful marshlands of the island. Over the years, Dye and Bobby Weed created an additional course, Ocean Links. A wide variety of golfing options and amenities make the Amelia Island Plantation a sought-after golf destination.

As Fraser’s enterprises grew, he developed North and South Carolina properties. The oil embargoes and resulting financial recession hit his businesses hard in 1974-1975, and Sea Pines Company lost control of Hilton Head Plantation. In 1978, Richard Cooper, an Amelia Island Plantation owner, assembled a group of investors into the Amelia Island Company to purchase the Amelia Island Plantation properties.

The bankruptcy made it necessary to break the commercial property into parcels. Cooper expanded operations with additions like a new Amelia Inn, the Conference Center, and the Long Point Golf Course.
Recession hit again in 2008, forcing the Amelia Island Company into bankruptcy. The Omni Corporation bid ($67.1 million) on the resort and commercial property in bankruptcy court and took control in 2012.

Today, Amelia Island Plantation now consists of all private homes, condominiums, assorted properties, and recreational facilities. The Omni Amelia Island Resort includes the hotel, conference center, two golf courses, the tennis center, and shops. The Amelia Island Club is owned by its members and includes two clubhouses and the Long Point Golf Club. The Amelia Island Plantation Homeowners Association (AIPHOA) is an organization that represents the interests of property owners within the Amelia Island Plantation community.

One family has very special connections to the Amelia Island Plantation. Four generations of Millers have made Amelia Island Plantation their home. In 1972, Dave Miller Sr. received a call from his cousin, Cynthia Parks, a celebrated writer for The Florida Times-Union. She told him about Charles Fraser and his plans for the south end of Amelia Island. Miller made his way to the sales office and placed five condos under contract (Two Captains Courts and three Beachwood Villas), and for the next 35 years, the Plantation was the family’s vacation destination.

The senior Millers purchased a home in 1989 on Walker’s Creek, and it became the family’s gathering place. After the senior Millers passed away, Dave Miller and his wife, Kathy, purchased the family homestead in 2017. It has been fully renovated and continues to be a family gathering place. “Among our many blessings is to have two of my triplet sisters and our son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren living close by. The grandchildren make the fourth generation of Millers to call the Amelia Island Plantation home,” says Miller.

The continuing development at Amelia Island Plantation had an enormous impact on the growth of the island. The once-seasonal island vacation spot became a high-end destination for tourists and for those searching for a retirement home with all the amenities. The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island opened its doors in 1991, furthering cementing the island’s reputation as a first-class destination.

The impact the Plantation has had on tourism is immeasurable. “Simply put, without the Plantation, tourism as we know it would not exist,” says Gil Langley, president & CEO of the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The development of the south end as a world-class destination created an economic engine for Nassau County—providing jobs, generating tax revenues, and quality of life unsurpassed in the South.”

Charles Fraser’s vision is a living monument to conservation and a community dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of its natural environment. “As we celebrate the rich history of Amelia Island Plantation, we are actively planning for an even better future,” says Walter Cox, Osprey Village resident and current president of the Amelia Island Plantation Community Association Board of Directors. “The Amelia Island Plantation Community Association, with the enthusiastic support of our community member volunteers, has numerous initiatives underway. We are dedicated to preserving and enhancing the beautiful canopy, ensuring clean and safe lakes and ponds, and protecting habitats for our wildlife, and preserving and protecting our beaches, dunes, and marshes.”

One of the highlights of the last 50 years on Amelia Island Plantation has been Amelia Plantation Chapel. The church dates to 1974, when a group of Plantation residents began meeting in the resort bicycle shop. The group would meet in various places, depending on what was available at the time. As the congregation grew, the need for a permanent place of worship was addressed, and a building fund was established. In 1988, an architectural firm was hired and land was purchased. At the groundbreaking in 1989, congregants were invited to co-mingle soil from their home churches at the dedication, and construction began on the beautiful chapel that exists today.

February 2024 marked the beginning of a year-long celebration. The opening weekend featured a kickoff party at the Oaks Community Center, which introduced a commemorative video, a history exhibit, and a community cookbook. For those interested in the history of the Amelia Island Plantation, an exhibit entitled “The First 50 Years: A Photo Journal,” has been created and will be on display throughout the year.

The exhibit shares the fascinating history of this 1,300-acre gated community on Amelia Island’s south end. The exhibit, carefully curated by Linda McCreary, Maggie Madden, and Janet Kolar, includes historical photographs, documents, newspaper clippings, and detailed information about The Plantation’s five decades of growth and prosperity. It was displayed at the Council on Aging Nassau County in April and Story & Song Center for Arts & Culture in May. The Book Loft will showcase the display from June 11 through the 26. The commemorative cookbook, “Under the Live Oaks,” is available at Story & Song and the Book Loft for $20.

Thanks to the pioneers who went before, Amelia Island Plantation residents enjoy a variety of amenities on top of their ideal location between the Atlantic Ocean and the Amelia River. These include The Oaks Community Center (Owners Club), Drummond Point Park, Walkers Landing, and many parks and trails. The 402-room hotel on the property is part of Omni Hotels and Resorts.

What started as a visionary developer’s dream is now a thriving community happily celebrating its 50th birthday. Amelia Island has been forever impacted by Charle Fraser, his vision, and his contributions to Amelia Island’s reputation as a premier destination for discriminating travelers.