Women of Amelia

March 8, 2018
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When an island is named after a princess, it comes as no surprise that it would have a court of determined women to mold its history and protect its natural assets for future generations to enjoy
Named in honor of Princess Amelia, the daughter of King George II of England, Amelia Island has a history that has been dotted with pioneering women who have seen the value in its natural beauty and sought to protect it for posterity’s sake.

Amelia Island is revered for its thirteen miles of wide, uncrowded beaches, but it’s the lush tree canopy and maritime forests that truly make it unique in Northeast Florida. One of its most famous trees, growing in the center of Ash Street in downtown Fernandina Beach, is better known as Kate’s Tree. Katherine “Kate” MacDonnell Bailey lived nearby in the “Bailey House” built in 1895 as a wedding gift from her husband, prominent businessman, Effingham Wagner Bailey. Local legend has it that when Kate learned the tree would be cut down for the expansion of Ash Street, she sat on her front porch, shotgun in hand, threatening to shoot any workers who attempted to destroy the tree. Kate’s will and determination persuaded officials to pave the street around the tree, preserving it for visitors to enjoy over a century later.

MaVynee Betsch had a successful career as an opera singer, but it was her work as an environmental activist that earned her the nickname “Beach Lady.” The great-granddaughter of millionaire Abraham Lincoln Lewis, who founded American Beach as an African American vacation spot during Jim Crow’s era of segregation, Betsch spent much of her wealth and adult life educating the public on the environmental importance of American Beach. While she was well known for her seven-foot-long hair and foot-long fingernails, Betsch is also remembered for her conservation efforts to protect “Nana,” the tallest natural dune in Florida. Thanks in part to Betsch’s efforts, Nana was transferred to the National Park System in the early 2000s and still serves as a landmark for American Beach today. 

Amelia’s trees and dunes are part of the reason guests flock to this barrier island, but humans are not the only returning visitors to her coast. Each year Amelia Island welcomes nesting sea turtles to her shores, and since 1985, Mary Duffy has been a steward of Florida’s endangered sea turtles as president of the Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch. For over thirty years, Duffy has led a team of volunteers to mark sea turtle nests, conduct nest excavations, and educate the public on sea turtle conservation. Duffy’s efforts have resulted in a significant increase in local nests and have helped create lasting memories for many visitors who are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a nesting turtle or watch a hatchling make its way to the ocean. 

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Located just off the coast of northeast Florida, Amelia Island is easy to reach, but hard to forget. With 13 miles of beautiful beaches, abundant native wildlife, and pristine waters, this barrier island has long been a beloved destination for visitors and residents alike.