Amelia Island has a wonderfully wild history, featuring characters and events stranger and more dramatic than can be found in any novel. Evidence: it has seen rule under eight different flags.
And there’s no better place to learn about the island’s fascinating past than the Amelia Island Museum of History, a place of learning and discovery housed in a building that for decades was the Nassau County Jail.
If you haven’t explored it, put it on your list of things to do this summer or fall.
The imposing brick exterior looks much the same as it did as a penitentiary. The original highly barred entrance is still there, although no longer used as the front door. Some iron doors, adorned with bars and heavy, intimidating locks, also still exist. Visitors who look closely can see evidence of the building’s original use throughout the first floor, where the exhibits are located, and on the second floor, which houses the staff offices and archives.
Creative Director Liz Taylor’s office has the only window that still has bars on it, which can be seen from the outside. “It was the padded cell,” says Executive Director Phyllis Davis with a smile. The cell’s shower is still there also, which Taylor has placed boards across to use as a closet.
Davis’ office was once the jail’s hospital, and an office adjacent to hers “was the mental ward,” she says. Where it’s rumored that “some guy who was a little off once set fire to his bed.”
No evidence of the burned bed still exists, but an entire room in the first floor exhibit area is devoted to a recreated jail cell, complete with stories about some interesting prisoners and an iron bunk bed fitted with less than comfortable looking mattresses.
The entire first floor also features rooms devoted to various aspects of Amelia Island’s extraordinary history, including the Paleo and Timucuan Indians; Spanish Missions, featuring the lives of Spanish monks, who were some of the first European settlers; the Chaos Period, when three of the island’s flags were raised and lowered within a few years in the early 1800s; Fernandina’s Victorian Golden Age, when the area first attracted tourists; Historic Restoration, which includes photos of historic buildings then and now; the Civil War, when the Union took over the island in 1862—and Nassau County industries, featuring information about fishing, shrimping, boat building and tourism. A temporary exhibit, created by Fernandina Beach High School students, pays tribute to area African American teacher, activist and leader Willie Mae Ashley.
The brick building, built in the 1890s, was given to the museum the year after the county jail was moved to Yulee in 1978. The museum had just been founded and exhibits were housed in temporary locations. When it was given to the museum, “it was in rough shape,” Davis says.
In the early years, docents used to give tours of the structure that had housed criminals. Since the roof leaked, “older docents said they had to have boards stretched across the floor so they didn’t step on water,” Davis says. “The building had a lot of issues.”
A major renovation in 2007, when many of the present exhibits were put in place, has allowed the edifice to shine.
There you can learn about General George Mathews, an aging Revolutionary War veteran, who led a secret take-over of the island’s fort and town of Fernandina from Spain in the Patriot Rebellion of 1812.
And Gregor MacGregor, a mercenary con man who hailed from Scotland, who tried in 1817 to take over the entire state of Florida, beginning with its northernmost town of Fernandina. He succeeded in taking over Fernandina, for a short time at least, and raised one of the eight flags, his personal one, “The Green Cross of Florida.”
And then there’s Luis Aury, a French privateer fighting for Mexican Independence, who sailed to reinforce MacGregor, and when he found him gone, hoisted a checked Mexican Rebel Flag in the Green Cross’s place.
Amelia Island’s history “is unique to Northeast Florida,” Davis says. “Being a border town,” in Spanish Florida just across the river from British colonies that would become the United States, it was much of the time a lawless and rowdy place, and a smugglers haven.
Some of the area’s history has aspects in common with the rest of Northeast Florida, she says. But since much of it is distinctive, “it’s worth coming to the museum to find out about.”