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Friday, October 7, 2011

Growing Up In A Magical Place: Fernandina Beach

Growing Up In A Magical Place:
Fernandina Beach 


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ONCE UPON A TIME, longer ago than I like to admit, (actually, over fifty years ago), and not so very far away, there existed a magical place in which to live and grow up, called Fernandina Beach.

Fernandina is on Amelia Island, which is Florida's northernmost, east coast barrier island. The sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean and sets over the St. Mary's River. You can look across the river, from the docks downtown, and see GEORGIA! (This was amazing to me as a child, since Georgia seemed so far away!)
View looking down Centre Street in Fernandina
Photo by www.elizabethwilkesphotography.com
Fifty plus years ago, Fernandina was a sleepy, small town. Doctors made house calls. Dry cleaning was delivered to your home. The Fuller Brush Man visited regularly with free samples. Doors were left unlocked. 

With drug stores, barber shops, clothing stores, a shoe store, office supplies, bakeries, hardware stores, a movie theater, jewelers, a bowling alley, grocery stores, gas stations, and a hospital, we had pretty much everything we needed without ever having to leave the island! 

Lots of children knew each other almost from birth, since many of our parents also grew up together. Some families had lots of relatives in the area. New girls and boys moved to town. Over time they became "old friends," as well, through interactions in our neighborhoods, churches, scout troops, clubs, sports, and schools. 

As children, we could ramble and explore for hours, because our parents knew everyone we were with, and their parents. My mother knew exactly where I'd been, before I even got home to tell her!

We played in the park across from the junior high. We played tennis on the public courts. We rode our bikes to buy penny candy from E-Z Pic and GW's. We rode our bikes to swimming lessons and "public swims" at the pool at the Recreation Center. When we got tired of swimming, we put peanuts in a bottle of Coke for a snack. We also had ceramics classes and "Sub-Teen" Club at the Rec Center.

We spent Saturdays, and lazy summer days, walking downtown for comic books and 5¢ Cokes, or 6¢ Cherry or Vanilla Cokes, from Gene's, or 10¢ ice cream cones from Waas' Drug Store. (Ice Cream cones were free from Waas' if you had a prescription for an ice cream cone from Dr. Stewart, our dentist, for having a good dental check up.)

We went to Becker's after school for Cokes with half-orders of french fries, or, when they had a promotion, we popped a balloon to try to get a banana split for a penny! (Prices ranged from 1-39 cents.)

We played outside till after dark, and our two favorite outdoor events were: (1) the Ice Cream Man coming by in his truck, and (2) the Mosquito Control truck spraying, so we could get lost in the fog.

Fernandina Beach
Photo by www.elizabethwilkesphotography.com
We walked to the beach with friends, where we jumped waves, rode rented rafts, balanced on skim boards, and surfed on long boards. When we were thoroughly parched, we got hydration from public water fountains, where the water was HOT, or from the Golden Sands, Moore's, or the Blue Seas which had a walk-up service window on the beach!

We gathered sand dollars, conchs, whelks, angel wings, fingernails, and other shells by the hundreds. We harvested sea oats for dried flower arrangements. We trudged up and raced down the multiple layers of sand dunes that lined North and South Fletcher, and the Fort Clinch Road, before Hurricanes Donna and Dora took most of them out.

We played Putt-Putt, jumped on the trampolines, ate snow cones, went skating, and played pinball at Main Beach. When we got our driver's licenses, we endlessly circled town and the beach.

Starting in junior high, we had beach parties with bonfires. (Of course, that was before there were turtle patrols, condos, The Amelia Island Plantation, The Ritz Carlton, the park at Peter's Point, or the multiple public beach accesses.)

The PTA had Halloween Carnivals under the bleachers at the city football field and there were Friday night high school football games at the same location. On the 4th of July, the Kiwanis Club hosted their annual fireworks and charity auction at the football field. (My Daddy served as auctioneer!)

After the quonset hut movie theater by the water tower downtown closed, our only movie options were the Reef drive-in theater at Five Points, or occasional movies at church youth group events. We also had hayrides, Shrine parades, and Shrimp Boat races for additional entertainment.

When our Girl Scout troop camped at Fort Clinch, we chopped trees for firewood, with hatchets, and used our Girl Scout knives to cut palmetto fronds for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows. No tree-hugging rules to worry about back then! We had great and scary adventures searching for alligators at Willow Pond.

"Gator Shining" on Egan's Creek--i.e. searching for the red reflection of alligators' eyes as we shined flashlights back and forth across the creek--was always a "must do" with out of town friends. I remember shrieks of fear and laughter as we fed the gators marshmallows from the dock, or from a boat when we were able to sidle up alongside them! Fiddlers scurrying around our feet and a myriad of waterbirds swooping out from under the boathouse unexpectedly kept our adrenalin pumping!

We went "sand surfing" and "dune buggy" riding on the huge dunes at the Fort. We could still get down into the entrance of a tunnel, and into the ovens, when we played "hide and seek" and "Sardines" at Fort Clinch! We also played Sardines at First Baptist Church, and enjoyed breathtaking views of town and the river from the third story roof!

We grew up doing a lot of things that are no longer considered safe, politically or socially correct, or environmentally sound. All those things were a LOT of fun, though! Fernandina was truly magical in "the olden days." It still is magical; just different now.

For the last ten years**, a core group of nine "girls" have gotten together at a rented beach house to enjoy the beach and reminisce about "the good old days." Other friends join us periodically at the beach and about town.

In addition to this being our tenth year at the beach, it was also our 40th Fernandina Beach High School Class Reunion weekend, and I wanted to memorialize our beach weekend with some photos.

My new friend, Libby Wilkes, of Elizabeth Wilkes Photography, came out to the beach to capture some memories for us. The photo below is my favorite. I was already a fan of Libby's work, after receiving one of her photo books as a gift, and seeing her studio's beautiful video of the island.

Beach Chicks--Ten Years at the Beach & 40th High School Reunion
Photo by www.elizabethwilkesphotography.com
If you have even one good, "old friend," you are rich, indeed! My Fernandina friends and I are fortunate to have so many long-term friendships. We're finding, as time goes on, it takes a group effort to remember the details of our joint history! It takes a long time to grow "old friends!" I am blessed!

Love to all my friends, OLD and NEW! (As we used to sing in Girl Scouts:
"Make new friends, but keep the old; One is silver and the other gold!)


**UPDATE: 2014 was our 13th "Beach Chicks Reunion." Sadly, we lost "Little Lucy" Mierzejewski, far right in the photo, in 2014.

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19 comments:

  1. I grew up in Fernandina Beach but I moved away years ago. Thank you for reminding me how much I truly loved growing up there. It saddens me that I had such a wonderful "Wonder Years" experience as a child and my children or grandchildren will never experience the same.

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  2. I lived in Fernandina for two years and believe it to be quite MAGICAL! First, I lived in Old Towne, across from the plaza. There I enjoyed watching the ships sail by, and the most stunning sunsets. Later, I lived on the marsh, then the beach. From the window of my second story window, I could watch the sunrise on the ocean. I worked at Sliders, Sandy Bottoms, and the surf. I tried to visit the beach everyday. I've been to Fort Clinch, the ferry, The Palace Saloon, and downtown. I tell everyone of the B&B's, and Shrimp Festival. I still have friends to stay with, and try to make it up 3-4 times a year. Fernandina, will always be home to me.

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  3. Janice Lewellen PearceNovember 13, 2011 at 3:07 PM

    You are right on the money with all you wrote here! What a wonderful place we grew up! I have the same memories and had such a good time growing up! We were, and are very fortunate to have grown up the way we did! Thanks for your post!

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  4. I agree that growing up in Fernandina was magical. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. I was a teacher at FBHS from 1972 until 1981. Thanks for the wonderful memories, and I completely agree with you. Fernandina has changed. You felt and actually were completely safe in Fernandina. I just heard from friends that old Doc Rodeffer just passed away. Most of the places you described are gone. I loved Fernandina so much that when I retired, I found a community like FB was in the 70's. I live in a small coastal town in downeast Maine. Keep your blog flowing, and everyone up on the old Fernandina we used to enjoy.

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    1. I was also a teacher at FBHS from 72-80. I remember driving down South Fletcher after Labor Day, and being the only car on the road. No condos, no AIP, and no gridlock. As with all good things, "they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot." I retired in a small community, not unlike FB in downeast Maine. Leave your keys in your car, your doors unlocked, and know that your kids are safe. Most everyone knows everyone.

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  6. How about the water slide had great years there with my kids its not there no more.Was very magical if only we could turn back time .

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  7. I was just telling a coworker how we used to make toilet tissue flowers to add to chicken wire for homecoming floats at flower parties. So much fun. I too used to ride from Centre Street, circle around the veteran memorial and head to main beach to turn around only to do it again and again. I even told my coworker how didn't lock our doors in the daytime. We just latched the screens. So much fun. We were so blessed to live under the sun.

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  8. Your post brought tears to my eyes as I read it and recalled just about everything you mentioned. You must be a few years younger than I, based on what you said, but I remember and did almost everything as you. I LOVE Fernandina and come back to visit as often as I can, trying to come every year now!! Some of the things you cited I hadn't thought about for many years, so thanks for jogging my memory! I graduated from FBHS in 1964 and still visit and get together with many of my classmates whenever I come. It was and still is a magical place!!

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    1. Kimberly G. PasswaterJuly 7, 2017 at 8:52 PM

      You must have graduated with my oldest brother, John Gregory

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  9. I was lucky enough to live on Amelia for 15 years. Wonderful, magical place!

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  10. What a very special trip down memory lane. Everything you mentioned along with playing pinball at funland next to the Blue Seas, getting free orange juice from the Florida welcome center at the docks where Baxters is. How about going to the Pirates Den on 8th st. to get soft serve ice cream. How excited everyone was the day Hardees opened at five points. The best times in high school when you could drive on the beach from the jetties to the south end, before Amelia Island got discovered. And I can't count how many times we spent fishing on the pier, the one by the Surf restaurant. Thanx for the memory.

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  11. Randy, I remember driving the entire length of the island too. We had dune buggy races on the beach in the 60s. I always knew the beach would one day essentially be private. I can remember all the politicians swearing to never close the beach to the public. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

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  12. I never lived in Fernandina but had many cousins who lived there and every summer as pre-teen and teen visited there for at least two weeks during summer vacation. Even after I married in 1970 my family has vacated there for many many years and yes it has changed as many small towns have. Many good memories share at "Main Beach" and downtown and the docks.

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  13. Loved this post and it brought back so many memories. I was born & raised there and my parents owned & ran Moore's Grocery for may years. Several of my classmates from the Class of '57 still get together monthly. Back then Fernandina Beach was just a small little sleeping fishing village but it was a wonderful place to grown up in. No ever locked their home and most of the time left their keys in their car. I loved Blue Sea's Coney Island Hot Dogs and dancing out in front of the Blue Seas every Friday and Saturday night with our friends! We also loved riding our bikes down Fort Clinch road and climbing the sand dunes there. Those were the innocent, care free days that I will always cherish!

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  14. Wonderful place to grow up ! Getting to go into the lighthouse, skating @ the rink on the beach, attending First Baptist Church, walking and riding our bikes everywhere safely, always getting superior @ band competition, and so many wonderful people that helped raise us !!!

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  15. I also lived in Fernandina Beach for 12 years. South 7th Street. What a wonderful childhood it was. My family moved away the summer of my 15th year. And while I have had a most exciting life I would move back in a minute. You nailed the the feeling , the awe of what a special time it was for all of us. Bless you.

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  16. I began my teaching career at FBHS from 1971-1981. My children were born while we lived in Fernandina ... we loved it there. My husband and I still ride around in Fernandina on our anniversary to reminisce about the good times, good people, and the good life we started there. I loved reading this article ... those were the good times!

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  17. Wow , evidently yall didnt go out to old town, where my grandparents lived. Of course that prolly was before this time U write about. Had some great memories out there as a kid staying with Grandpa and Grandma Thomas. Learned to eat Rutabaga s out there and to shop at Peeples Gen Store. Yank bubble gum was a biggie then.

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