Archaeologist shares experiences from Eden’s Garden and Fort Cooper in the 1970s | Opinion

Noble Horvath

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Collage Collages chapter of The Reticent Archaeologist: The Memoirs of James Michael Wisenbaker After finishing the fieldwork at Hutto Pond in Madison County, Florida, Frank Fryman and Dan Penton asked if I would join them for three weeks of test excavations at Fort […]

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Collage Collages chapter of The Reticent Archaeologist: The Memoirs of James Michael Wisenbaker

After finishing the fieldwork at Hutto Pond in Madison County, Florida, Frank Fryman and Dan Penton asked if I would join them for three weeks of test excavations at Fort Cooper near Inverness in central Florida. Without hesitation, I said yes. That short stint ended up being one of my favorite and most unique field experiences.

At any rate, sometime around Labor Day in 1971, Dan and Frank drove the state’s classic Dodge Power Wagon down to Inverness in Citrus County. They had nicknamed that exceptional vehicle the Enola Gay for the B-29 bomber used by the U.S. Army Air Forces on Aug. 6, 1945, to unleash an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. It marked the first time a country used that type weapon on an enemy target.

I first met James Levy, better known as Jamie, when he traveled to Fort Cooper with me. He and I later both toiled as career employees for the Florida Department of State. Levy spent the remainder of his career in the Conservation Lab. In contrast, I worked out of the director’s office and for two bureaus and several sections for nearly 40 years at FDAHRM, later known as the Division of Historical Resources.

I drove my beat-up Ford Falcon down to the site. Jamie rode with me since the Enola Gay had no room for any more passengers. Levy was an undergraduate anthropology student at FSU and a Tallahassee native. Although beyond ugly, I had just installed an eight-track tape player into my Falcon to lend it some pizzazz. Even though we barely knew one another, Jamie and I yakked away on our three-and-a-half-hour trek to the south.

We didn’t know what to expect in the small central Florida town. A good-looking family of blue-eyed blonds soon greeted us. John “Johnny” H. Eden, Jr., the patriarch, and his lovely and warm wife, Betty and their five children, Muriel, Amanda, Amelia, Jonathan and Abigail, charmed us. The five children ranged in age from teens to little ones. From the outset, they treated us as part of their family. We had landed in a contemporary Garden of Eden.

From Dan’s recollections, John Eden grew up on Long Island next door to the Armand Hammer family. One set of John’s grandparents owned an iron foundry that supplied much of the Transcontinental Railroad with rails. The other set began the first phosphate mines in Citrus County. Johnny also acted as his family’s art curator for original paintings from artists such as Frederic Remington, Winslow Homer and Grant Wood. Their works lined the walls of a room in his home. Penton also remembered Eden always being decked out in sport shirts, Bermuda shorts and Wellington boots both in the field and at home.

The Eden’s marvelous dwelling rested along the southern shore of Lake Tsala Apopka on an extensive tract of land. Next to their house, a splendid patio surrounded an enticing swimming pool. The four of us stayed in the guesthouse just on the other side of the pool. For Dan and me, we had gone from poorhouse accommodations at Hutto Pond to the penthouse digs at Eden Farms.

Fort Cooper, a Second Seminole War (1835-1842) Fort, embodied Johnny Eden’s passion and obsession. Troops occupied the garrison for only 16 days from April 2 to April 18, 1836. The First Georgia Battalion of Volunteers, commanded by Major Mark Anthony Cooper of Milledgeville, Georgia, staffed the fort with 380 soldiers. Between 300 and 500 Seminoles attacked it for 13 consecutive days. Cooper and his men, however, successfully rebuffed the offensive by the Indians. After that conflict, the army used Fort Cooper only for overnight stops and brief visits until it eventually collapsed or burned.

Johnny Eden spent years researching that part of his property and lending financial support to document and preserve it. When we arrived, he operated his bulldozer and brought three of his farmworkers to pin down the fortification’s exact location. His delightful and gracious wife, Betty, even lent a hand uncovering the overburden at the site by getting down on the ground with a trowel.

Before we had arrived, Eden and his men used a bush hog to remove most of the brush covering the site. After consulting with Frank and Dan, Johnny then used his bulldozer to lightly grade several trenches about seven feet wide and a foot below the surface. We then shovel shaved and hand troweled inside the dozer cuts to search for any telltale signs of the fortification.

On the first day of our third week, we finally found a tin cup and a jacket-sized button. The next day we located the south wall of the fort. We discovered the west and north walls and the northeast corner of the garrison during the remainder of that week by uncovering post remains and post molds. Beyond that, we unearthed a possible slit trench (a latrine) and several spent 50mm musket balls, iron nails, a harness buckle and a lead bullet from a percussion revolver — first used in 1836.

Levy remembered it this way: “Johnny would usually push the debris (with the bulldozer) up from opposite directions, making a spoil pile in the middle of the cut. Under the spoil pile was one of the last places to look. After he pushed the pile out of the way, we cleaned it and noticed a ditch with pickets inside it. It signaled the first evidence of the actual fort that we’d found. We followed it down the slope towards the lake, discovering a small bastion (a projecting part of a fortification that allows for defensive fire in several directions) along the way. We never found the grave of the one soldier killed and buried inside the fort.

While working there, I never let on to anyone, but most of the endless yammering about the fort and the Seminole wars drained me. Johnny (and his family), however, intrigued me. Specifically, watching Eden’s face light up when we first found the palisaded wall of Fort Cooper. A lifelong dream of his had come to fruition before our eyes.

We started in the field early mornings and usually shut down in mid-afternoon because of the Indian summer heat. Unlike the two months at Hutto Pond, our previous dig, where Penton and I dined on the likes of Dinty Moore stew every night, the Eden’s insisted that we join them each evening at their dinner table for mouthwatering meals.

On several occasions, they treated us to dinner at the Green Tavern in nearby Crystal River. I recall driving my old Ford Falcon over there as we listened to Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past,” and the New York Rock Ensemble. Johnny permitted his three teenaged daughters, Muriel, Amanda and Amelia, to ride with Jamie and me. Mr. Eden trusted the two of us, but he had some serious doubts with several characters on the crew that followed ours two years later.

That ole styled Florida diner in Crystal River offered sea turtle steaks. I had never tried them before. I must admit sea turtle had to have been some of the tastiest meat ever to touch my tongue. However, the passages of the US Endangered Species Act and Florida Statues in 1973 listed all sea turtles as threatened or endangered. Those succulent turtle steaks would remain only a foggy memory. Sadly, a RaceTrac gas station now occupies the site of the fabulous Green Tavern.

In the evenings after dinner, we gathered around the Eden’s Florida Room with a sweeping view of Lake Tsala Apopka. Under the influence of dark rums and other spirits, Johnny relished discussing various topics besides Fort Cooper. He often touted the proposed Cross Florida Barge Canal. I don’t know how Jamie and Frank felt, but Dan and I politely listened since the two of us thought the barge canal was a terrible idea.

Our crew chief, Frank Fryman, loved regaling everyone in the room with his stories about his archaeological exploits near Khartoum, Sudan and Egypt’s Aswan Dam on the Nile in North Africa. He showed up for our evening chats dressed in a khaki outfit — shirt and shorts — and a pith helmet to match. Fryman often had a bent pipe hanging off his lips. Since I only worked with Frank that summer, I never knew whether he was a serious archaeologist or just full of blarney. He played the silly stereotypical role, sans the whip, of an archaeologist to the hilt.

All four of us genuinely liked the Eden’s, as I believe they did us. Jamie and I returned one weekend the following spring break and visited with them. I later traveled to Cocoa Beach to surf that summer, and on the way home, made a slight detour to Eden Farms to see them. When Amelia saw the surfboards on my car rack, she asked me to teach her how to surf. Of course, that never happened, but that perky girl and her two older sisters were sweethearts. Alas, that would be my last visit with them.

Probably the most noteworthy thing about that September at Fort Cooper though happened to Jamie. Beyond his profession as a conservator, Levy was (and is) an avid equestrian. As Jamie said, “Being bored after work, I began riding one of Johnny’s horses named Able. He wound up giving the horse to me, and he lived for another 31 years. “What a parting gift!

Our three weeks of work there resulted in the following unpublished report:

1972 “Exploratory Excavations at Fort Cooper, Citrus County, Florida: A Preliminary Report,” Florida Dept. of State, FDAHRM, Tallahassee.

James Michael Wisenbaker is the state archaeologist who first began uncovering the treasures at Fort Cooper State Park.

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