by Patti Connor
When his good friend Capt. Dave Swan approached Fred Sandberg to ask what he thought about the idea of starting a museum dedicated to the preservation of the maritime history of Jacksonville and the First Coast, Sandberg wasted little time in equivocating. “I think,” he said, “we should have started it yesterday!”
That was almost 19 years ago. Now, the Jacksonville Maritime Museum, situated for the last eight years at 1015 Museum Circle on the Southbank Riverwalk following a decade at the Landing, is soon to be in search of a new home.
“Paul Fickinger really liked us, and as long as he was manager of the Landing, he let us stay there,” said Sandberg, who, as a third-generation Jacksonville resident and the son of a Norwegian sailor who enlisted at age 12 — “He had two choices: either join, or raise reindeer” — had a vested interest in seeing the museum come into being.
The compact edifice with its embellishments of red and blue is easily visible from the Main Street Bridge. With the lavender crape myrtles in full flower, the river provides an appealing backdrop for the museum, with its mural of the riverfront in 1928, books, photographs and other seafaring memorabilia and models of sailing vessels, river boats and destroyers showcased throughout.
“We have an absolutely wonderful view of the river. For a while there we were actually seeing porpoises, almost every morning. We haven’t seen them as much lately. Last spring, we had an egret. He kept a watchful eye on me. And then, there are the flocks of pelicans. Those are always fun,” said Mary Graliker, one of only two paid employees (the other is Mary Park).
Yet as much as there is going on outside the windows, there is just as much, if not more, to see inside.
“There’s just no way to know how many people we’ll get, on a given day. It all depends on what’s happening elsewhere in the city. There have been times when we’ve actually had as many as 90 people,” she said.
Museum habitues run the gamut. Some are children on field trips from private schools. Airline pilots from the nearby Radisson come in a lot. Residents of Fleet Landing and patrons of the Mandarin Senior Center also are occasional visitors.
“We’d love to see even more older people come in,” said Graliker, noting that the Council for the Handicapped is working to make additional parking available.
As is usually the case, the museum’s prime attractions seem to revolve around whatever’s happening in the news at a particular time. Some exhibits, however, consistently generate attention. The 16-foot model of the battleship Saratoga is one such example. When Graliker started at the museum two years ago, the Sara was a new exhibit.
“She was based in Mayport for such a long time — about 38 years — and a lot of people had relatives on board. So they’re always interested in seeing her. They also want to see the Gulf America, which on her maiden voyage was sunk right off Ponte Vedra Beach. There are still some people living in Jacksonville who went out in their boats so as to be a part of that rescue mission,” she said.
And then there is the doomed ocean liner.
“People still ask about the Titanic all the time; preteens and young children, especially. We sell an awful lot of the storybooks. It’s just an eternal story,” she said.
Also displayed within the museum is a navigational cabinet featuring a variety of sextants. Long used for navigational purposes, the instruments in recent years have been phased out, to be replaced by radar. “Even at [the Naval Academy in] Annapolis,” noted Graliker, “they teach navigation by radar now.”
Funded exclusively by memberships and contributions, the non-profit organization recently started a fund to go toward its relocation.
Said Graliker: “Our long-term project has always been to have a building of our own. We have three warehouses full of museum-quality models and books that due to lack of space we’re unable to display. We also have items displayed at the Adams Mark Hotel and and a few other places. We really need something that’s about 11,000 square feet. Of course, we’d love to have something waterfront with a dock of its own — but something like that, unfortunately, is getting harder and harder to find.”
The museum is open seven days a week.