In early 2021, as part of its Amelia Forever campaign, the North Florida Land Trust acquired several relatively small parcels in the American Beach community on Amelia Island that contain much of a dune known locally as “Little NaNa.” The 1.5 acre acquisition may be fairly small in area, but it holds outsized importance in helping to protect a portion of the increasingly rare intact “ancient” dune system of the island. That this habitat remained intact and available for protection is largely a result of the unique historic and cultural legacy of the American Beach community. While this acquisition in itself is important, development pressure continues to threaten the long term viability of both the natural and cultural significance of the American Beach area.
The dune system of which Little Nana is a small part is a critical component of the upland portion of coastal barrier islands like Amelia. In a typical scenario, sand blown and washed from the upper beach area accumulates and forms a “fore” dune which provides an opportunity for sparse and low growing pioneering herbaceous vegetation like sea oats, purslane, and railroad vine to take root. These fore dunes afford protection to a landward “transitional” zone that allows for succession and establishment of more diverse and substantial plant species like Spanish bayonet, saw palmetto, and prickly pear cactus. These taller rooted plants allow for still greater accumulation of blown sand, and the dunes grow higher. Over centuries, because of the dynamic nature of these sea islands, the fore dunes may advance more toward the sea, leaving more “ancient” dunes landward that continue to grow and evolve. Such has been the case with Amelia, American Beach, and Little Nana. These higher ancient dunes provide sufficient protection for more landward areas of the interior of the barrier island to mature into maritime forest habitats. The height of the tree canopy in these forests is correlated to the height of the highest protecting dunes. The stately canopy of live oak that graces much of Amelia is testament to the scale of the high ancient dunes that historically flanked its eastern shore.
On much of Amelia, particularly the central and southern portions, much of this ancient dune system has been lost to or permanently altered by human development over the last century. Little NaNa, and the adjacent NaNa Dune, are outliers in the southern part of the island in that they remain nearly intact. This is in large part due to their location within the American Beach community and its unique historic evolution. The dunes that would become NaNa may have been centuries old when the nearby lands were settled by Samuel Harrison in 1781 during the British Colonial period of Florida. Like many settlers in these coastal sea islands, Harrison and his descendants established and operated a plantation, relying on slave labor in the antebellum period. After emancipation, many of the freed African American slaves who had worked on the plantation remained and homesteaded, establishing the successful community of Franklin Town, tucked remotely at the southern end of the road from Fernandina. During the following era of segregation, where blacks were not allowed to freely utilize “white” recreational facilities, enterprising black leaders established their own. A group of such entrepreneurs led by A.L. Lewis sought a beach retreat for the workers at their successful Jacksonville insurance company during the 1930s. The beach near Franklin Town was a natural fit for their needs, and the community of American Beach was born. By accident of geography, protectively ensconced within it was NaNa and Little NaNa Dune.
From its beginnings, American Beach was a modest development. Platted largely with 50 foot wide homesites, many of which would never be developed with homes, it made relatively small footprints on its natural environment. NaNa dune towers to 60 feet above its surroundings, and Little NaNa to 30, both providing significant challenges to development. As a result, they largely escaped the early development of the community. American Beach enjoyed its heyday in popularity in the 1940s into the early 1960s, becoming a popular beach destination for the larger African American community throughout the region. In its earliest days, it remained largely off the beaten path at the end of the road on the south end of Amelia until A1A was bridged to the Talbot Islands in 1948. Even then, it escaped immediate development pressure. Hurricane Dora dealt a physical blow to the community in 1964, and the Civil Rights Act and resulting desegregation eliminated the legal need for a “black” beach community shortly thereafter. American Beach began to wane in popularity in the 1970s, becoming a sleepy community of modest homes centered around the protective NaNa dunes. At this same time, development pressure on Amelia in general intensified, with the establishment of the Amelia Island Company which would develop what is now the Plantation resort area to the south of American Beach, consuming the historic Harrison lands, and ending the existence of Franklin Town. In the ensuing decades, the Summer Beach and Ritz Carlton developments have encompassed much of the areas to the north. In the course of these developments, much of the ancient dune systems of the island have been lost in their natural state: becoming incorporated into landscaped golf course fairways and greens, or serving as foundations for ocean view homes and condominium towers. Few areas of intact ancient dune remain.
Largely because of its unique location, the NaNa dune system generally escaped this development fate, with only a few small homesites built into its peripheral edges. Primarily through decades of tireless effort led by American Beach resident and AL Lewis descendant Marvyne “the Beach Lady” Betsch, the greater 8.5 acre portion of NaNa dune was acquired by the National Park Service for preservation in 2005. NFLT’s acquisition of 1.5 acres containing Little NaNa dune expands this protected holding to the south, providing additional protective buffer for the larger fragile dune. Fragmented and largely absentee ownership of the small lots in American Beach have likely helped prevent its wholesale redevelopment. However, as available land for development in other areas of Amelia diminishes, the appeal of these sites will continue to grow. At risk is not only the historic and unique cultural identity of the American Beach community, but the small scale and lower impact development it contains. From both a development and preservation standpoint, this area presents unique challenges and opportunities. While NFLT’s acquisition of the Little NaNa site was primarily for preservation of the natural environment, it aligns with other ongoing efforts to preserve the cultural identity of American Beach, both as treasured places in Amelia Island forever.
Visiting Little NaNa: because of the fragile nature of the dune itself, physical access is prohibited. However, the dune and the larger NaNa dune system are easily viewed from the lightly traveled Ocean Boulevard in American Beach. NaNa Dune is preserved as a unit of the National Park Service Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve. The historic and cultural importance of the American Beach Community is well presented in the American Beach Museum within the community center near the entrance to the community on Julia Street. Visit NFLT’s Amelia Forever site for more information on the important preservation work being undertaken here and throughout North Florida.
This article was written by Steve Barberie, a student in the University of Florida’s Florida Master Naturalist Program.