Special designation at Silver Springs
Published: Monday, January 6, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2014 at 5:18 p.m.
Part of the 1,042 acres that make up Silver Springs State Park has recently received a new designation, one that puts that portion on the level of Mount Rushmore and Gettysburg.
Through a project initiated by the Silver River Museum, an official designation of a 247-acre area surrounding Silver Springs has become an archaeological district, and thus eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).
The district's name is the Silver Springs Head Springs Site Complex. It includes the land around Silver Springs and the north and south banks of the river, extending southeast away from the main springs for approximately two miles downstream, and then north of State Road 40.
Twenty-two sites with evidence that dates back as far as the late Pleistocene Era (12,000 to 15,000 years ago) have been identified within the complex parameters. There have been 480 test holes dug by Gainesville's SEARCH, which stands for Southeastern Archaeological Research Inc.
At the first meeting of the park's advisory committee, Tim Parson, a state archaeologist, called attention to the importance of Paradise Park, which was a segregated area of Silver Springs used before integration. The archaeological deposits on that site, and others, date back to the ice age.
Parson said the Silver Springs Head Springs Site Complex is one of several in Florida that are intact land sites, and thus needs to be protected and researched.
A preliminary report from outside archaeologists, submitted this past summer, said many artifacts had been identified. That was no surprise to experts familiar with the area.
Scott Mitchell, director of the Silver River Museum, then secured a $5,000 anonymous donation to help pay the costs associated with getting the district officially designated. In all, it cost $7,200 to compile a final report to submit to officials with the National Register of Historic Places.
“It did not cost the state anything, and it's free research for the state. (The) Silver Springs Alliance kicked in $1,000 and someone else gave me $1,000. So now it's on file. It happened very quickly. SEARCH is all business. They did an excellent job and got it done,” Mitchell said.
“The significance of the district is deep and vast. It involves lots of different cultural groups of people that have been in Florida for some 15,000 years. Sites that are deemed eligible for NRHP (designation) are given the same protection as those that are registered. We wanted to preserve the land from any ground-disturbing activities like development,” Mitchell said.
“This does not affect the buildings at Silver Springs, because they are considered historic since they are built prior to 1955,” he added.
Mitchell said the site designation shouldn't affect the park's ecotourism draw. The designation merely provides an extra layer of protection against development.
For example: Years from now, if the park leased large sections of land to a timber company, this designation would force that company to go through a strict permitting process.
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The types of sites within the Silver Springs Head Springs Site Complex vary. There are prehistoric mounds, some of which could be burial mounds, and prehistoric shell midden (refuse piles), which could contain tools, bones or even burial grounds.
Many artifacts have been found inside the cave opening at Silver Springs, as well. The Silver River Mammoth kill site is one of the only kill sites documented east of the Mississippi.
It was a juvenile mammoth, which went extinct 12,000 years ago. Both stone and bone points were found at the site, which tells archaeologists that the mammoth had been killed and butchered there.
Prehistoric camp sites, building remains from Paradise Park or from the old state park, and a prehistoric dugout canoe in the river are also among the artifacts that SEARCH found.
“That's the nuts and bolts. Here is the bigger picture: People essentially migrated into Florida after the ice age and turned into the tribes that the Spanish ran into. That is established,” Mitchell said.
“Now, if you back away one level with a wider lens, you have the development of commerce, merchants that are bringing goods in and out of this part of Florida with a river boat,” he continued. “They were getting on a boat in South Africa, going to New York, then to Jacksonville, putting it on a steamer to Palatka. If you're a merchant in the 1890s, you can put a product on a boat and send it to anywhere in the world. Essentially, Ocala is an inland port.
“That whole period of commerce is attached at the hip at Silver Springs,” Mitchell said. “It's a lot more than that. You have the development of tourism. They would bring people into Silver Springs at night on purpose. They would advertise in Philadelphia. Imagine yourself as a rich Philadelphian in 1890. 'Hey, let's go to Silver Springs, it's warm down there, it's like a jungle, and it's safe and we won't be eaten by cannibals.' They're hopping on Flagler's train. They're selling that experience,” Mitchell said.
“Factor in segregation with Paradise Park, and it's all clustered around Silver Springs. It's so diverse.”
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On a recent day Mary Williams, a longtime resident of Marion County who visited Paradise Park with her family when she was a child, visited the Paradise Park site with Mitchell and Lamont “Monty” Pharmer, a former employee of Ross Allen, a rattlesnake wrangler who had a show at Silver Springs.
“I must have been about 4 years old. My dad would bring my brothers and me. That was a big deal,” Williams recalled.
“We would see the signs. We were on our best behavior. A lot of times we would already have our swimsuits on, because when we got there, we'd jump out of the car and run down that incline and jump right into that water,” she said.
“I started hunting artifacts in 1948, and my brother-in-law, Wilfred T. Neill — he was a herpetologist and archaeologist — came on board (as Ross Allen's employee) in '49,” Pharmer said. “He was kind of my mentor in archaeology. One of our main sites was along the Paradise Park road. They had dug a 12-foot-deep garbage pit along the south side of the road and ran several hundred yards. Before they started using it for garbage, Neill and I would get down in it and found any number of artifacts. A lot of arrow heads, tools, stone and pottery artifacts dated back to early Archaic.”
River diving became popular when surplus dive tanks and regulators came on the market after World War II. It was legal then. Alvin Hendrix of McIntosh found more than 18,000 artifacts in and around the Silver River, and he mapped everything where he found it. The Silver River Museum has the mass of his collection, 90 percent of which was found in the river. Today, students and professors use the collection for research purposes.
The research in and around Silver River is painting a more complete picture of Florida.
“Putting history in perspective and finding out what happen during those 15,000 years, it's like piecing together a puzzle. It's awesome to hold an artifact that someone 13,000 years ago made,” Pharmer said.
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“There are no existing plans to have any archaeological field work in the complex,” Mitchell said. “The main thing is to preserve it.”
The final result will be a detailed listing of the sites and recommendations on how to preserve them.
These sites will never be part of Silver Springs' tourism package. The state park managers would never mark an archaeological site because scavengers would dig up the artifacts and sell them.
But by mapping and designating the significant areas, park rangers can work around them when putting in nature trails or scheduling prescribed burns.
“This archaeological district keeps her (Paradise Park) alive. She's not dead. She's hiding secrets. I think a lot of her history will come from that earth that is piled up there,” Williams said.
“I believe it will be very exciting what those archaeologists find as it unfolds. It will be a rebirth.”