Legendary Islander, Sarah Alice Broadbent

Sarah Alice Broadbent, Legendary Islander of Fernandina Beach, a Crane Island mystery.

— Fernandina Folklore —

Stories about a legendary islander, Sarah Alice Broadbent, have circulated locally around Fernandina Beach for generations. Alice Park, in the new Crane Island community, is named after the island’s former resident to honor her memory.

Long ago called “Craney,” a mystery still lingers about Sarah Alice Broadbent’s disappearance from her island home back 1952. Crane Island is a river island now connected to Amelia Island via an access road built in recent years, enabling development of the tiny island. But it was once home to just one woman.

The first home to be constructed at Crane Island in 133 years (since the Broadbent’s family home was built back in 1886), is gaining national notoriety.

Southern Living's 2019 Idea House, Crane Island, Fernandina Beach, FL
Southern Living’s 2019 Idea House at Crane Island, Fernandina Beach, FL

Southern Living magazine’s 2019 Idea House is featured in the August 2019 issue, called the “Crane Island River House”.

The Broadbent Homestead

John Broadbent had journeyed to America from England and built Crane Island’s only home — ever — up until this year. While one can see homes of that time period (1880s and a few even older), still standing in downtown Fernandina and in the Spanish-platted Old Town Fernandina, the Broadbent home on Crane Island burned down in 1952.

Alice’s father, John W. Broadbent, said to be a blacksmith, is thought to have bought Crane Island in the 1880s for $1,000. Fast forward to 2014, when this wild island, remaining in its natural state without a single home, was sold to the current owner/developers for $9.9 million.

An Independent Woman

Described as an eccentric, “Miss Alice” valued her privacy. She was the sole occupant of Crane Island, living alone there for about 25 years after her father, passed away in 1924. Largely self sufficient, she hunted, grew a garden and sometimes traded goods to get by. Past recollections of her, described in sparse interactions with a few Fernandina residents long ago, have been published in newspapers and old periodicals. When reading these accounts, a character portrait can be painted in the mind’s eye.

Alice Park, Named After Crane Island's Legendary Recluse
Alice Park, Named After Crane Island’s Legendary Recluse

A Few Hours With Alice

A glimpse of Miss Alice can be garnered from the written notes taken by a Fernandina resident back in 1940. The insightful observations captured by a “Mrs. Youngblood” are interesting. After a happenstance meeting with Craney Island’s recluse, she had the foresight to jot down dialogue and her impressions of Alice.

The encounter took place “near Amelia where my husband keeps some of his hogs. He is one of the few people she will talk to.” Mrs. Youngblood came upon Alice and sat down beside her on the ground, and time ticked away. They stayed there for a few hours and Mrs. Youngblood apparently took the role of listener. She described Alice’s physical appearance and speech:

“Coarse black hair pushed back behind her ears – bangs, hair about to shoulders, brown eyes, weathered skin.” She had a distinct accent, speaking “very broad cockney English – does not sound her “h’s,” (“ouse” for house, “orse” for horse”.) She cracked pecans with her teeth (and had a few broken ones).

No Trespassing!

Miss Alice was known for wielding a shotgun, and apparently, wasn’t shy about using it. Stories of Alice firing warning shots at trespassers circulated around Fernandina back then. Incidents were described about occasional boat landings. Those stepping onto “Craney” Island soon discovered they were unwelcome visitors. Mrs. Youngblood mentioned speculation about a man found dead in a boat floating on the river. A fatal gun shot wound, apparently a rumor spread around town as to whether this was possibly connected to Craney Island trespassing.

Alice’s “Take” On Marriage

While her sister, Esther Ann Broadbent, had married, Alice herself had not. And it seems this was a conscious decision not to marry. Alice’s evaluation of marriage seems a bit unusual for the time. According to Mrs. Youngblood’s notes, Alice:

“Thinks marriage is a contract whereby wife gives up all of her liberty, property rights, etc. and gets little in return.”

Walking Across Marsh Barefooted

Marsh Between Crane Island & Amelia Island
Marsh Between Crane Island & Amelia Island

Miss Alice is said to have made occasional supply treks, walking barefooted all the way to Fernandina from Crane Island (about 10-miles round trip). She was notorious for never wearing shoes, even in winter (and the Amelia Island area does experience some hard freezes.) She sometimes stopped by to see friends, or her sister, Esther Ann, who had married Joseph Silva and left Craney Island. If any mail arrived for Alice, it was brought it to the edge of the marsh and she would walk across to pick it up.

No Access Road To Craney

Back in those days, there was no road connecting Craney to Amelia Island. So Miss Alice trekked barefooted through the marsh at low tide when she could more easily cross between the two islands. In contemporary times, getting approvals for a connecting road between Crane and Amelia was one of many obstacles during the long development saga that spanned decades.

Crossing The Road Built To Connect Crane Island To Amelia Island, FL
Crossing The Road Built To Connect Crane Island To Amelia Island, FL

Pioneer Lifestyle

Apparently a free spirit, independent and reclusive, Sarah Alice Broadbent lived largely off the land. The Broadbent homestead had no electricity and she “kept her own well dug.” She apparently used “hard pan clay” on the island to make her own bricks.

Old Well Road, Crane Island. Alice Broadbent Made The Well's Bricks

Alice also made her own potash soap and sewed her commonly-worn frock. She stitched together flour sacks (that had been bleached white), making her dresses. Alice told Mrs. Youngblood that she preferred to drink sassafras tea (did not drink coffee), and thought “cocoa is bad for the heart.”  Some of her diet included sweet potatoes cooked with greens, and eggplant cooked with pears. She also told Mrs. Youngblood that she feels better when going to bed hungry, so she never ate supper.

Arson or Accident?

Crane Island lore includes a story that poachers killed Alice and burned down the Broadbent home. Another arson incident did occur the same decade here at the Florida-Georgia border. On nearby Cumberland Island, poachers set fire to the Dungeness Mansion, a Carnegie property that was burned down in 1959.

Crane Island Riverfront Sunset Views Intracoastal Waterway Fernandina Beach, Florida
Crane Island’s Western Exposure Offers Sunset Views Over Intracoastal Waterway

A Hard Life Along The Marsh

Life in another era, picture a time living in buggy Florida, near the marsh without modern conveniences of air conditioning or fine screens to keep the bugs at bay. Those familiar with the South know the marsh and no-see-ums go together like salt and pepper. Not to mention Florida skeeters, especially around dusk and standing water. One need only enter Amelia Island’s marshy, wetland area, Egans Creek Greenway, at certain times, to be swarmed by mosquitoes. Apparently, though, Alice concocted her own bug repellent, using burnt oil acquired from a gas/service station in Fernandina, that she rubbed on her skin.

She must have liked the solitude, surrounded by nature on her private island. But a hard life it must have been with Florida’s oppressive summertime heat and humidity. Along with the bugs and snakes around the marsh and river, and being alligator habitat.

Alligator, Egans Greenway, Fernandina Beach, FL
Amelia Island Alligator (Gators Are Often Seen Near Marsh, Creek & River)

Interestingly, Mrs. Youngblood wrote that Alice:

“Knows far more than I about the laws and taxes, exemptions, etc. Has been to Tallahassee — said she hadn’t paid taxes since her father died and would never do so. . . She mentions things that happened 50 years ago, as if it were yesterday.”

Apparently, Alice had some pets to keep her company on Crane Island. But she said people were “stealing her dogs and cats and stamps.” Considering her isolated lifestyle, combined with several observations in Mrs. Youngblood’s notes, it appears Alice displayed some paranoid personality traits.

The 1952 Fire

The Broadbent home burned to the ground in 1952. No one knows for sure whether Alice perished in the fire, or met with foul play (perhaps a victim of island poachers, who then set the home ablaze). Another theory is she may have climbed into her well to get water when a fire broke out accidentally, but had a mishap and drowned. However, no human remains were ever found in the ashes or in the well, or anywhere else.

Entrance To Crane Island in Fernandina Beach
Entrance To Crane Island in Fernandina Beach (Photo April 2019)

New Chapter of Crane Island

A new chapter of the Crane Island story is being written. A place where bullets once flew to keep people away, will be welcoming its first new residents since 1952. A few thousand people have already visited Crane Island to tour the Southern Living 2019 Idea House. Tours continue through summer and fall, to wrap up in early December 2019.

UPDATE: Home tours reopened January 15, 2020 and will continue through March 29, 2020.

When the community’s build out is completed (estimated around 2024), 113 new homes will cover the island where only one had stood, in a bygone era.

One can deduce what Miss Alice would think of modern day changes on her wild Craney retreat, where she boldly banned others from stepping foot. Legends do sometimes grow over time, and characters can be larger than life. But one thing is for sure, the lore surrounding Crane Island’s female homesteader lives on.

“Haint Blue” Porch Ceilings

The trend-setting team who designed Southern Living’s 2019 Idea House, chose to paint the porch ceilings “haint blue.”  Will this will catch on at Crane Island, as new homes are built in the community? This actually reflects a Southern tradition, traced back to the superstitious beliefs of the Gullah Geechee culture of the sea islands, to keep away spirits. Blue represents water, the thought being that haints (i.e. haunts, ghosts) won’t cross water into the house. A blue porch ceiling also adds charm, while others say pale blue hues help to keep bees, wasps, and spiders away.

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