Using the story of a rock-star naturalist to drive tourism


Published: Sunday, June 9, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 7, 2013 at 5:15 p.m.

PALATKA -- Before there was John Muir, before there was Archie Carr, there was William Bartram. A rock star among naturalists.

He was the son of a Royal Botanist who went on to eclipse his father, John.

He wrote perhaps the first scientific book ever published in the Colonies, his wildly popular “Travels,” in 1791.

He ventured from civilized Philadelphia to the East Florida wilderness on a voyage of discovery to draw and record subtropical flora and fauna that few of his contemporaries had ever seen.

He eluded mean-tempered alligators and once waded ashore to kill a very large rattlesnake on the banks of the St. Johns River at the request of the local Seminoles. Why, Indiana Jones himself hated and feared snakes.

Bartram was a personal friend of Long Warrior, the “King of the Seminoles.”

And he rubbed elbows with Long Warrior's brother, Cowkeeper, who, I suppose, you might call the Prince of Paynes Prairie.

Cowkeeper nicknamed Bartram “Puc-puggy,” flower hunter.

I'm just saying that the man rocked.

“There was no more popular naturalist than Mr. Bartram,” is the way Sam Carr puts it in a near reverential tone.

And Carr ought to know because he is the chair of Putnam County's Bartram Trails Committee.

As a matter of historical record, William Bartram was also Florida's first “ecotourist.” And on at least four occasions between 1765 and 1774, he passed through what is now Palatka on his expeditions up and down the St. Johns and as far west as the great Alachua Savannah, near present-day Gainesville.

Bartram's unofficial headquarters was Spalding's Lower Store, near Palatka's Stoke's Landing. And he is known to have indulged in the occasional smoke and watermelon feast with the locals in the course of his jaunts up and down river.

“Here being seated or reclining ourselves after smoking tobacco, baskets of the choicest fruits were brought and set before us,” he wrote.

These days, Bartram's life and times matter a great deal to Carr and others who live in and around this struggling paper mill town.

Because they believe that Palatka's and Putnam County's economic destiny can be rebuilt on a base of nature and history tourism. On greenways and blueways; hiking, biking and paddling paths. And, mostly, on an insatiable human curiosity to learn more about those who came here before us and what they did and why.

“We own it, this is our history,” Carr says.

Admittedly, this is something of a leap of faith in a state that built its tourism empire on theme parks and golf courses and beach condos and outlet malls.

But bringing Bartram back to life, telling his story in an interesting and compelling fashion, is already something of a cottage industry around here. It is also an enterprise that has joined together in common cause the city of Palatka, Putnam County, the St. Johns Water Management District, the Florida Council for the Humanities, local business and civic organizations, environmentalists and others.

To help enlighten the curious there will be a Bartram Headquarters kiosk erected not far from where the lower store was located. There are miles of marked bicycle and driving routes — including a 100-mile circuit to Paynes Prairie and back to commemorate Puc-puggy's encounter with Cowkeeper.

There is under construction a website devoted to Bartram's writings and observations about Florida's great, slow, north-flowing river. There are designated kayak trails and hiking paths that enable modern-day naturalists to trace Bartram's movements from Beecher's Point, to Mount Royal, to Lake George, to Drayton Island, to Salt Springs and points north and south. There are ambitions to bring water taxies to the riverfront. And to tie it all together posted QR codes along the way will enable travelers equipped with smartphones to take self-guided, virtual Bartram tours.

Putnam County is coming relatively late to the Bartram Trail market. There are trails and markers and monuments dedicated to Bartram that stretch from Philadelphia, through the Carolinas and beyond.

But Carr argues that the great body of Bartram's most meaningful work was done right here in Northeast Florida. On the St. Johns. And that Palatka is, by rights, Bartram Central.

“We want to make this an adventure,” he says of Putnam County's ambition to be the nature-and-trails hub of Florida ecotourism. “We want people to be able to retrace his steps.”

If Carr is right, it might be the beginning of an economic renaissance for this small city on a great river.

According to National Geographic, 55 million Americans can now be accurately described as “geotourists.”

“These travelers have ceaseless expectations for unique and culturally authentic travel experiences that protect and preserve the ecological and cultural environment,” National Geographic says. “These groups are different, but all are affluent, travel frequently, and have strong geotourism inclinations.”

Listen, nobody says you have to come down here and wrestle alligators or kill rattlesnakes to earn your ecotourist spurs. But you don't have to linger very long on the banks of this broad, eternal river to sense that William Bartram was onto something when he left the comforts of home and set his sights on this magnificent wilderness we are this 500th anniversary year calling “La Florida.”

“We had a pleasant and prosperous voyage down the grand St. Johns,” Bartram wrote of his travels.

William Bartram was here. The St. Johns flows on still.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun and executive director of Bike Florida.

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