STORIES BY ZAIN BEVERLY

Final Project: Amelia Island Eight Flags Abridged History Documentary

Published: December 13, 2020

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The Oldest Bar In Florida

Published: Nov. 9, 2020

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The Palace Saloon is the oldest continuously run bar in Florida, and the mayor of Fernandina bartends during the day.

Patrons entering the Palace Saloon. Photo by Zain Beverly.

The saloon opened in 1903, after being converted from a haberdashery by Louis G. Hirth, a German-born immigrant who came to America with his close friend Adolphus Busch. 

Busch, who would go on to found Anheuser-Busch, set up Hirth with an old bar from Germany, which was disassembled, shipped and reassembled in the Palace.

The bar was aimed at the more upper-class captains and passengers who would sail into Fernandina’s natural deep-water port.

The bar was a success until the Prohibition Era, which made Florida spend 13 years as a dry state, meaning no alcohol could be sold.

During that period, Hirth converted the Palace into an ice-creamery. It not only sold frozen treats but also gasoline, kerosene and hardware to weather the dry storm.

After prohibition ended in Florida, it was back to business as usual.

The Palace had become a popular place for socialites like the Carnegies and Rockefellers, who would sail down from Cumberland Island to get their fill.

In 1906, a man named Charlie Beresford was hired by Hirth to work at the bar. He would spend the next 50 years of his life dedicated to the Palace, gaining the nickname “Uncle Charlie,” and opening his own bar next door named after himself.

Palace Saloon in the 60s. Courtesy of Amelia Island Museum of History.

Charlie had a very strict policy of not allowing politics or religion at his bar in the 40s, which would start arguments and lead to fights. 

However, at the same time, a local columnist in the Fernandina News-Leader named Reverend Brown was the talk of the town. 

He would contribute very divisive opinion pieces to the paper, and no one knew who he was, as the Reverend’s holy persona was just that, a persona.

Every Wednesday, the local bar-flies would come into the Palace with the newest News-Leader and read the Reverend’s column, angering Charlie when the inevitable arguments would follow the polarizing opinions found within.

Uncle Charlie was at his wit’s end about the column and decided to take out a classified ad in News-Leader. The ad told that Charlie would give anyone who could give him the real name of Reverend Brown, would receive a $50 bar tab, a hefty sum for the time. 

The financial incentive proved to be inadequate to out Brown, and he continued publishing his column. Charlie continued to raise the bounty on Brown’s head so he could, “punch the teeth out of his head.”

For decades, Charlie kept the bar and ranted about Brown, until the late 1950s. Charlie was reaching the end of his life and decided to write his own will and send it to the News-Leader to be printed on the day of his death.

“One day the bar didn’t open at noon,” said Johnny Miller, the mayor and current bartender. “Everyone knew what that meant.”

Charlie was found in his apartment above the Palace. He had passed in his sleep. The next day the News-Leader printed his obituary.

It was full of light-hearted jests at some regular’s expenses and other things, but it ended with Charlie’s one regret. “Not being able to find that bastard Reverend Brown.”

The News-Leader printed a statement under his obituary informing the public that the name of Reverend Brown would be released in consideration of Charlie’s passing.

The Reverend had been Charlie all along.

Charlie’s passing and the reveal of the Reverend was “the talk of the town for months to come, and Charlie never got to see it,” said Miller.

Charlie was a key figure in the history of the Palace, but with a mayor behind the bar and a bright future ahead, he probably won’t be the last.

The Legacy of American Beach

Published: Oct. 5, 2020

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American Beach is a relatively sleepy beach nestled on the southern side of Amelia Island in the unincorporated community of Franklintown. Every year its attendance numbers are dwarfed by the close by Main Beach, but it used to be a lot more competitive. 

American Beach Entrance Sign. Photo by Zain Beverly.

This now minor beach was once a haven for African Americans to vacation and enjoy themselves without fear of prosecution or the humility that came with segregated beaches. Every year, many African Americans would flock to its sparkly white sands to enjoy something many take for granted, living on the First Coast

American Beach in the 1940’s. Courtesy: Amelia Island Museum of History

Founded in 1935 by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, the head of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company in Jacksonville, it was used by his company primarily for company outings. After two more land acquisitions in the next five years, the community had 216 acres and Lewis started selling the land to the black community. 

From there, the beach cemented itself as a mainstay in Northeast Florida, as a place of black entertainment and leisure.

Prominent black entertainers such as Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and James Brown made appearances at the nightclub on the beach, Evan’s Rendezvous. Which was the place to be after a long day of laying in the Florida sun.

However, by the time the 1960s rolled around, the heyday of American Beach was on the decline. The Civil Rights Act was passed in July 1964, which started the desegregation of Florida’s beaches, and in August of that same year, disaster struck.

The First Coast is the farthest west one can be and still be on eastern coast of the continental United States. This provides a natural barrier to the tropical storms and hurricanes that come from the Carribean. Because of this, no storm had ever made landfall on the First Coast at hurricane speeds in recorded history. 

Until Hurricane Dora.

With winds at nearly 110 MPH by the time it hit the First Coast, Dora decimated the coasts of Jacksonville and its surrounding areas, American Beach included. All over Amelia Island, small summer homes were falling apart, having to be held up by struts and supports, or gone completely.

Amelia Island home after Hurricane Dore. Courtesy: Amelia Island Museum of History

American Beach was struggling to recover, and its residents were getting older, passing on whatever they had left to their children. Then, the 1970s recession hit America.

 The first economic downturn since World War II, it had been four decades since Americans had dealt with a widespread economic crisis, and many were looking for ways to stay afloat. 

Carol Alexander, president of MaBu Culture and American Beach Museum board member, expressed what it was like during those times.

“We were standing in lines just to get gas on odd and even numbers,” said Alexander.

During these hard times, a new player on Amelia Island sprang up to seize on the opportunity.

The Amelia Island Plantation, now the Omni Amelia Island Resort, was founded in 1971, and, in contrast to American Beach, attracted many white vacationers to the island. The elderly owners of American Beach and their younger descendants were struggling through the recession, and the Plantation came knocking with a tempting offer.

“For many people, these were vacation homes, second homes,” said Alexander. “So they sold their land for so cheap, it was mind-boggling.”

The plantation bought as much land as they could during the 70s, 80s, and 90s to expand their new resort, leaving American beach’s influence diminished in the process.

Today, the now historic district of American Beach is down from 216 acres at its height, to 40 acres. The residents are trying to hold on to its history and heritage they grew up with. 

One such resident is Marsha Phelts, who lives in American Beach, just two streets from the coast. She moved to American Beach in the 80s after visiting many times when she was younger. She has worked to collect records and document the history of American Beach throughout her time living there.

In February, the vacation home of American Beach’s founder A.L. Lewis was torn down by its owner. To some this seems like another step along American Beach’s long decline, but Phelts is confident that it’s in good hands.

“I know the man who owns that house,” said Phelts. “He’s lived here a long time and he’s going to rebuild and take good care of it.” 

A L. Lewis’ vacation home being rebuilt. Photo by Zain Beverly

American Beach is a quaint coastal community with a rich and important history, and for the time being, it’s not going anywhere.