Fernandina Beach needs an identity. It needs something to make it stand out above the ho-hum, humid, hot, look-a-like Florida communities and divert attention from the stupid stuff going on hereabouts. So far it’s not going well.
Fueled by lots of cold beer, I’ve conducted some unscientific research and discovered that there are lots of concepts floating around, but not one that really grabs you and makes you think: “That’s on my bucket list. I’ve got to see it before I die.”
Not everyone’s on board though. Opposing any of this is Ron “Get Off My Lawn You Little Bastards” Sapp, long-time resident curmudgeon who for years has been proclaiming: “There’s nothing to see here. Just keep moving.” He says Amelia Island is full and anybody who’s even thinking about coming to Fernandina Beach should go somewhere else — Callahan, Hilliard or Bryceville — just don’t get any closer than Yulee. Cross that bridge at your own peril he warns in his periodic News Leader “GET OFF MY ISLAND AND STAY OFF” column.
However, there are numerous hospitable folks hereabouts scrambling to make us proud and convince people to visit. So far they haven’t hit on the right formula. What we need is something that can compete with the world-renown, spectacular, and wildly popular Worm Grunters in Sopchoppy on the Gulf side of the state, and Niceville’s Boggy Bayou Smoked Mullet Festival in Florida’s panhandle, two very tough acts to follow.
There are some interesting things to see and do here but nothing that prompts a Disney World-bound Yankee tourist to tap the brakes and take the Amelia Island exit ramp off I-95 after spotting a billboard saying: “Fernandina Beach, Home of (fill in the blank), Last Chance! Exit Now!”
Here’s what we’re currently flacking:
Shrimp: Many people say we’re a shrimping community. We conduct a huge annual festival selling all things shrimp, have a parade, live music venues, beauty contests, and more. But you can count the number of shrimp boats docked locally on one hand these days. I don’t think folks come to Fernandina Beach because they’re lusting after a shrimp cocktail. The festival is a lot of fun and attracts big crowds, but it only lasts three days. After that shrimp’s an appetizer, not an attraction.
Pirates? We have lots of pirates, even a Pirates Club that claims we’re a pirate
community and alleges that history backs it up. Because of pirate excesses President James Monroe labeled Amelia Island a “Festering Fleshpot” and even had t-shirts proclaiming that printed up that are being sold at Pajama Life’s 2nd Street South shop next to PJD’s beer garden. The president sent a militia down here to clean out the den of brothels, slave traders, drunken thieves, and murderers but somehow overlooked the Fernandina Beach City Commissioners during that campaign. That was a long time ago when real pirates swashbuckled hereabouts. Our current pirates are pretend ones. They’re nice, not menacing, and won’t hurt anybody. Heck, they even hand out strings of beads to kids and pat them on their heads. So, forget it, since they’re no longer willing to rob, rape and slaughter visitors, then we’re not a proper pirate community.
Soldiers and a fort played a significant role in the town’s history. We have Fort Clinch, a 19th century garrison overlooking the Atlantic that’s named after Duncan Clinch, one of the most cowardly and inept men to ever wear a U.S. military uniform. There was never a shot fired from the fort, it was surrendered to the Union by the Confederates with a simple “Ya’ll have a nice day,” and today features re-enactments with sweaty men wearing Yankee flannel uniforms in 100-degree heat. It’s fun and interesting but nothing for locals to hang their promotional hats on.
Then there’s David Yulee (aka David Levy), a US senator, scam artist, slaveholder, and enthusiastic Confederate succession advocate. He, along with Confederacy President, Jefferson Davis, were the only two rebels imprisoned by the Union following the Civil War? For some mysterious reason there’s a statue of this treasonous conman warming a bench in front of downtown Fernandina’s old train station. It’s not exactly a “must see” attraction that will convince the kids to look up from their iPhones for more than a nanosecond. And how long before the rabid far-left Confederate statue topplers boot him off his perch?
Last week a visiting marketing consultant told the Fernandina Beach City Commission that we’re a car-centric community because the fancy Concours d’Elegance car event is held here annually. She was pitching the proposed Amelia River Resort’s instructional driving course to city officials, one of the many attractions included in the $200 million-plus project being suggested on the site of the current Amelia River Golf Course. She lives in Hilton Head, speaks with a thick British accent, and works as a marketing consultant for car-related firms. So, to paraphrase the UK’s late Mandy Rice Davis when prosecuting counsel pointed out that Lord Astor denied an affair or having even met her: “Well, she would say that wouldn’t she?”
Stuff and nonsense responded City Commissioner Len Kreger, who insists we’re all about the beach, disputing the English gal’s auto-centric claim. He fired back with a “hold on madam” statement emphatically proclaiming: “We are not an auto-centric community. We’re a beach community. People come here and live here because we’re a beach community. To imply that that’s what we are, and this will add to us – that’s crazy. We’re a beach community with a historic district.”
When it comes to cars and beaches the City Commission appears more dazed and confused than usual. It’s gotten even nuttier since it was reported that two women were run over on a local beach recently. The drivers have not been nabbed as far as I know, and details are murky. The incidents have caused a ruckus about banning cars on the beach, parking on the beach, paying to park anywhere near the beach, paying to go to the beach, or paying for thinking about going to the beach. It appears that cars and the beach don’t mix well hereabouts anymore. So, let’s put beach driving and beaches as an attraction on hold until this mess is sorted out.
The Fernandina Beach City Commission is an entertaining act that could have spilled out of a Mel Brooks movie set and is a constant source of amusement and laughs unless you’re a local taxpayer, businessperson, or property owner. Our Mayor and Commissioner, Johnny Miller, is a local bartender, who says he’d like to tattoo a likeness of Bernie Sanders on his butt. Commissioner Chip “Sue Their Pants Off” Ross has already sued the city twice costing its citizens $20,000. Recently, far-left California transplant Commissioner Mike “Left Coast” Lednovich, contributed to a Go-Fund Me account created specifically to sue the city and its taxpayers. He tried to sabotage the car-centric Amelia River Resort’s plans by suggesting the city illegally snatch the lease away from its current holder, the Sheffield family, and convert their golf course into a park. He performs at commission meetings like a tantrum-throwing toddler and wouldn’t recognize common sense and parliamentary procedure if they got in the shower with him. Top this San Francisco! It’s all highly entertaining, but not if you’ve got skin in the game. This group just makes visitors thankful they live elsewhere.
There are two classy resorts on the south end of the island – The Ritz-Carlton and the Omni Plantation. Once visitors disappear into the glitziness of their ten-dollar pool-side beers and appropriate dress-required restaurants they’re never seen again until they magically reappear on the other side of Shave Bridge driving west or jetting away in private airplanes. The resorts manage to shield their visitors from the island hoi polloi while squeezing them for obscene amounts of cash. No island color or riff raff there.
We have a small airport with a terminal built to look like an airplane, but that $4.5 million boondoggle didn’t get much traction as even airplane pilots think it’s silly. There’s a downtown marina that doesn’t have much water, but that’s being remedied since mud wrestling was vetoed, so the city decided to fill it up again. We also have our share of fist-shakers, sign-wavers, protesting-pamphleteers, pride-paraders, tree-huggers, women marchers, sea turtle drovers, and more. If Fernandina Beach was a character on Seinfeld it would be Kramer.
What we need is a focal point to divert attention from all the nitwittery. We need one thing to point to that screams: THAT’S Fernandina Beach! After spotting the billboard, something that makes Junior and Sissy in their Yankee parent’s southward-bound family Chevy on I-95 kick the back of dad’s seat while screaming: “We HAVE to see that! Stop here! PULEEZE!”
And I found it. But, first some background.
Nassau County is a heavily forested county of tree farms that have generated a good income for residents for decades. Fernandina Beach boasts two hideous paper mills that — despite their ugliness — have successfully masked their stench and noise, and produce high paying jobs and lots of cash by grinding area trees into mush. The Rayonier company owns one of the mills and is the largest property owner in the county. The Amelia Tree Conservancy opens its meetings by singing the Rayonier company song. Just kidding, I made that up.
To celebrate all this what could be more appropriate than a dog named Stuckie? Stuckie’s not a wonder dog. In fact, Stuckie doesn’t do anything. He’s a dead dog in a log and mummified. I discovered Stuckie, just a few miles away in Waycross, Georgia.
There’s a problem though. We’d have to convince the folks in Waycross to give him up as he’s “stuck” in the Southern Forest World Museum and Environmental Center there. It costs five bucks to see Stuckie who’s the star attraction in a forestry exhibit. Stuckie’s the kind of eye-popping attraction I remember coughing up quarters to see when I was a kid at the old Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa that featured a two-headed calf, the half-alligator half-man, and a duck that walked a tightrope.
I was alerted to Stuckie’s existence by good friend, Tampa Plant High School classmate, and alert blog reader, Jerrol Cohn, who pointed me toward the fascinating web site USA and Canada Tourist Attraction Maps. Roadside America.
Stuckie’s been “stuck” in Forest World since it opened in 1981 and attracts tourists who otherwise would probably never visit a tree museum much less Waycross. He was discovered on a lumber truck after a chestnut oak had been cut into logs. Rather than send the dog to the pulp mill, the loggers donated it to Forest World. An epitaph of sorts on Stuckie’s eternal resting place explains his condition: “A chimney effect occurred in the hollow tree, resulting in an upward draft of air. This caused the scent of the dead animal to be carried away, which otherwise would have attracted insects and other organisms that feed on dead animals. The hollow tree also provided relatively dry conditions, and the tannic acid of the oak helped harden the animal’s skin.”
After gawking at Stuckie visitors to the Waycross exhibit are treated to interesting facts about trees that might stick with them, including one exhibit featuring a number of common household items suggesting that if we didn’t grind trees into a pulpy mess we wouldn’t have Band-Aids, Gatorade bottles, Huggies, etc. There’s an exhibit on turpentine farming and a miniature replica of a logging camp. There’s even a Talking Tree. There are outdoor exhibits including a giant hollow cypress stump that can hold up to 17 people, a 1905 steam engine that hauled logs, and a butterfly garden that can be used for picnics. Shouldn’t all of this be in downtown Fernandina near our paper mills?
If we can’t wrestle Stuckie away from the folks in Waycross, then we can do what the owners of Jacksonville’s Clark Fish Camp did and create our own critter. While waiting to be seated at Clark’s customers can browse what its owners say is the largest private collection of taxidermy in North America including a “Sasquatch head” made from an old deer’s butt, and “Sponge Man.” It’s true, Linda and I were there and saw this stuff.
So, with a few old deer butts we can create any critter we want (Swamp Ape?) and put Amelia Island on the tourist map and on lots of bucket lists then sit back as a steady stream of Yankees try to maneuver their way down Highway 200/A1A toward Amelia Island (Florida Dept. of Transportation motto: “Your tax wampum, francs, pesos, pounds, and dollars at work since 1562”). I’m sure the auto repair and tire stores along the eternal construction route would be delighted.
Maybe we should ask Nassau County Director of Tourism Gill Langley what he thinks. Would he set up a “Stick With Stuckie” Go Fund Me campaign to buy the dead dog in a log from the Waycross crowd? Like most of us I’m sure he hopes an attraction like Stuckie would divert attention from all the nonsense currently going on around here.
Things I Wish I’d Said: “Isn’t ‘AARP’ the last sound a person makes just before they die?” – Dave Barry
Overheard In A Downtown Bar This Week: “When I was kid in the 1950’s we were shooting commies in Korea, and when guys like me were drafted into the army in the 1960’s and 70’s we were guarding against commies in West Germany and Cuba and shooting them in Vietnam. Now we’re hiring them to teach our kids in American high schools and colleges and a bunch of them are running for president as Democrats. What the hell’s going on?”
And The Mexicans Will Pay For It, Kind Of: Maybe Republican Florida Congressman Vern Buchanan and Texas Senator Ted Cruz have found the cash to build President Trump’s much needed wall along the Mexican border. They’re sponsoring a proposal along with Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., to “allow billions of dollars’ worth of assets seized from Mexican drug lord ‘El Chapo’ to help secure America’s border with Mexico.” Buchanan, who sits on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, backed “Ensuring Lawful Collection of Hidden Assets to Provide Order (EL CHAPO) Act” which “would set aside money forfeited to the U.S. government from ‘El Chapo’ and other convicted drug lords to be used for increased security along the U.S.-Mexico border.” According to Buchanan, Guzman’s drug empire amassed an estimated $14 billion from narcotic sales, enough cash to build the wall and lots leftover to build rehab facilities to treat Americans who bought his poison.
Drinking, Dining & Dancing: I’ve never seen or heard them but I’m told that if you like “The Blues” then tomorrow, Saturday evening, June 29, at Main Beach’s Sandbar Restaurant & Kitchen from 7-11 you should show up for a Jacksonville group called Snacks Blues, the first time they’ve appeared on the island from what I’ve heard. The popularity of barbeque hereabouts is apparent from the crowds that are pouring into the recently opened Captain Jack’s Smokehouse BBQ in Gateway Plaza in the vacated Barbara Jean’s location, a few hundred yards after crossing Shave Bridge onto the island. They’ve been somewhat overwhelmed as the joint is experiencing larger than anticipated BBQ fans and getting the kinks worked out. As it should be, the food is getting the most appreciative social media raves.