A Proud Tradition

Long a beloved institution located in historic Fernandina Beach, the Amelia Island Museum of History reopened to rave reviews after an extensive five-month renovation.

For over 40 years, the Amelia Island Museum of History has been dedicated to the heritage and culture of Nassau County through education and the preservation of local history. Housed in the old county jailhouse on Amelia Island’s South 3rd Street, the newly renovated museum not only provides a glimpse into our past, but it also offers a wide array of engaging programs and an impressive archive available both virtually and in-house.

On May 1, 2021, the museum opened its doors after a $400,000 five-month renovation. Thanks to Malone Design and Fabrication in Atlanta, the museum has a fresh, dramatic new look. The first-floor flow of rooms features five large-scale wall murals used for displays as well as giant resolution images that reveal the beauty and history of Amelia Island provided by Deremer Studios and the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council.

The interior space is open, airy, and colorful. Each room tempts visitors young and old to participate in the many interactive displays. There are drawers to open, buttons to push, and videos to watch. A new scavenger hunt engages visitors and encourages them to search for information in different areas of the museum and record their success by stamping a map.

Always popular is the Margery, a replica ship that invites children to climb aboard. The ship is named after Margery Huston Freas, who, upon her death, left a generous bequest to the museum. And what would a jailhouse be without a few cells? Another popular stop for taking photographs is the replica of one of the original jail cells. An interactive display gives visitors a chance to hear first-person memories from people who remember the days when the old jailhouse was in use.

The museum has quite a history itself. In 1975, the Duncan Lamont Clinch Historical Society formed a committee to address the important need to preserve the island’s history. The group recognized that the personal collection of William Decker, a caretaker at Ft. Clinch State Park, presented a unique opportunity to establish a museum. Decker’s historical documents and photographs were purchased by the City of Fernandina Beach and a non-profit was formed under the name of the Fernandina Historical Museum.

When a new county jail was built in 1979, the old jailhouse on Cedar and 3rd streets became available, and it is now the permanent home of the Amelia Island Museum of History. Although the building had adequate space for displays and was historically interesting, it was in alarming disrepair.

The community came together to clean up the building and transform it into an Amelia Island museum. It was originally named The Eight Flags Museum of Nassau County, the name chosen from a contest of local children. A dramatic transformation occurred under the leadership of Deon Jaccard.

Her concept, which continues today, was to establish an oral or spoken approach to teaching and sharing history. She drew from the knowledge of local historians, including Suzanne Hardee, George Davis, and Helen Litrico. In addition to the dramatic transformation of the museum, Jaccard organized the Historic District walking tours that are still offered today.

The old jailhouse and its limited collection of small rooms has always been a challenge. The first step in the current renovation was to ensure the stability and integrity of the building. A Building Condition Assessment was done by Miranda Architects. Exterior work included much-needed brick-repointing and the replacement of the steel lentils. Interior work included demolition, new flooring, updated electrical outlets, wall prep, exhibit construction, and installation.

A seventh-generation North Floridian and Amelia Islander since 1976, Phyllis Davis has been Executive Director of the museum for over 12 years. She credits a great staff, board, and dedicated volunteers in the museum’s growth and success. Under Davis’ capable direction, the museum’s four full-time and two part-time staff and a corps of volunteers coordinate a wide variety of programs and services.

“We are very excited about the transformation of our Museum,” shares Davis enthusiastically. “We have worked to hone and refine what previous staff and volunteers have created in an effort to engage our visitors with history and keep the Museum moving forward.”

Committed volunteers form the heart of any successful museum and non-profit organization. Thea Seagraves, Education Director, coordinates an army of volunteers that offer many skills to a variety of programs and projects. Docents go through an extensive virtual training program preparing them to take visitors on museum tours, walking tours, or to be available as speakers.

From the friendly greeters at the museum’s front door to the chefs who cook up the museum’s now-famous shrimp gumbo served each year at the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival, volunteers are vital. Almost any talent can find a home in the museum volunteer program, according to Seagraves. Newcomers to the island find the museum a great place to volunteer, meet people, and get involved in the community.

Each year, the museum coordinates three major fundraisers: The Holiday Home Tour in December, the Amelia Island Museum of History Golf Tournament in February, and the shrimp gumbo booth at the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival on the first weekend in May. The success of these popular community events would not be possible without volunteers.

On a daily basis, the museum is a busy place. One-hour tours of the museum are held daily at 11 am and 2 pm Monday through Saturday. In addition, the museum offers walking tours in the Historic District. For those looking for a little fun with their history, a Ghost Tour every Friday evening as well as pub crawls are offered by reservation only.
The museum offers many specialized tours by arrangement, including Victorian teas and architectural tours. Docents are available in costume to give presentations. There is something for everyone, including camps and programs for children. To showcase local historical research, a dedicated space just inside the entry door offers changing exhibits.

Museum Curator Summer Bias coordinates two of the museum’s most popular programs: Third on Third, a one-hour lecture program, is offered every third Friday, in which the museum hosts historians, authors, and other experts for thought-provoking lectures on local or regional history. The topics range from Florida’s statehood to the history of toys, live oral histories to Yamasee princes.

The popular Brown Bag Lunch lecture series offers presentations by people in the community with interesting stories to tell. Participants are invited to bring a lunch and meet at the Museum at noon on the first Wednesday of the month. Attendance is free and open to the public.

All public programs are presented in Baker Hall, the Museum’s large meeting space, located on the second floor. In addition, Baker Hall as well as the museum itself are available to rent for special events or occasions.

Curator Bias coordinates two recorded oral history programs: The Veteran’s Oral History Project and the Heritage Keepers Project. Both programs encourage community members to tell and record their important stories. These recorded oral histories are available online through the Museum’s website. Over 260 fascinating interviews have been collected through these two projects. The museum welcomes volunteers to assist in gathering additional stories and to recommend community members to be interviewed.

Ronda Outler, the Museum’s Archivist, works closely with those doing research and continues to build on and care for the museum’s many collections. Currently, a major focus is digitizing the Museum’s many valuable collections. Not only does this effort offer critical protection for the collections, it makes a vast amount of information available to the pubic on the Museum’s website.

Outler shares that people seek her help for a variety reasons, including researching their ancestors, finding information about a historic home or building, or grant research and general information for books and articles.

Early reviews of the renovations reflect an overwhelming enthusiasm for the Museum’s new look. Carol Ann Atwood, long-time volunteer and past president of the AIMH Board of Directors, is impressed with the results. “I was so thrilled to be present for the ribbon cutting of the Museum’s renovation and installation of new exhibits. The interesting history of our Amelia Island is now told in a very handsome, hands on way.”