The accidental discovery of James McNeill's homestead created a very intentional drive to research the pioneer.
NEW PORT RICHEY - The first clue that would uncover the mystery of James McNeill was found in a tangle of scrub brush and live oak, only yards from a well-hiked trail in Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park.
Earth was reclaiming the rusting metal, flake by flake, and it might have disappeared for good had a park worker not come by one day not long ago.
The vague shape was once a Model A Ford, says Dr. Burt Golub, a Beacon Woods dentist and amateur anthropologist who went to the park to investigate along with the Boy Scout Explorer Post he advises.
The expedition was supposed to burn a few hours on a Saturday morning. But artifacts kept turning up: rough-hewn fence posts still linked by wire; horse tack; remnants of a wood-burning stove; a grave; and a brick-lined well.
They were onto something, clearly, but there was much to be learned. The old car was interesting, though it dates to the early 1930s; the other items seemed from an even simpler time.
Curiosity rising, Golub enlisted a surveyor to research the property, and that led to a trip to the second floor of the county office building on Little Road.
Loralee Pioszak, a River Ridge High School senior who is president of Explorer Post 604, was sorting through fuzzy property records on microfilm when it hit. "Wait a second," she told her friends, "here it is!"
Her exuberance dimmed when she saw the land's first owner was James McNeill. "Nobody had every heard of him," Pioszak said. Unlike others who would later own the same plot of land, including J.M. Mitchell (a county commissioner and state senator) and Jay B. Starkey Sr. himself, McNeill never became part of local history.
As Pioszak would learn, McNeill had a story to tell. Not only about himself but the way Pasco was before strip malls, subdivisions and congested roads.
The site "says a lot about where we were and where we've come to," said Nellie Robinson, a retired longtime county surveyor who helped research the property. "When you look at the McNeill site, it was self-sufficient. Now we are dependent on each other."
More than two years later, and with the help of several hundred volunteers, the McNeill homestead has been reborn. The remains, which are on display for the public, dovetail with a pioneer exhibit at Starkey's education center. All items for the exhibit, including tools for ranching and turpentine production, were donated. "That to me is an amazing community statement," Golub said.
There was not much of a community when McNeill set up camp. Records show that in 1882, McNeill purchased 61 acres from Florida's Internal Improvement Fund, designed to raise money for railroads and other transportation projects. McNeill paid 90 cents an acre.
Robinson had a hunch that McNeill might have fought in the Civil War and discovered that a man with that name applied for a soldier's pension in 1905. McNeill joined the Confederate Army, 1st Florida Cavalry, on New Year's Day 1862. He then transferred to the 9th Florida Infantry. That unit joined the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864 and took part in the Petersburg, Va., siege near Richmond. When Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, McNeill was there.
There is some question whether the Confederate McNeill is the same who lived in what is now Starkey park. While McNeill lists himself as a Pasco resident (the county formed in 1887) in the pension request, he does not indicate land owned or recently sold.
Golub feels strongly in the connection, but acknowledged holes in the narrative. "There's still a lot more to look into," he said, adding it would be an ideal research project for an enterprising high schooler.Imagination helps homestead come alive
Picturing the pioneer homestead requires a bit of imagination, save for a model inside the education center. While the site has been cleared and preserved as best as possible, nothing has been rebuilt.
"We wanted to keep it like it is, as if someone came across it in the woods," Golub explained. "We're not trying to make it like a Disney attraction."
The result is no less affecting, people who visit say.
"You feel like you are back out here living," said Ted Kimmel, a Hudson High School sophomore who built the split rail fence that borders the site for an Eagle Scout project.
The remains of a well make up the first stop of a self-guided tour. Bricks are strewn about a shallow depression in the soft earth. Along the way there are remnants of three animal pens, wire still attached to wood posts, that might have held hogs and goats. There are notched beams from the log cabin and tin roofing material. At the edge of the site is an area that early surveys showed as a pasture. Cattle probably used the pasture, which has been cleared again. The Florida Native Plant Society is replanting wire grass.
One of most intriguing features of the homestead is a grave. No one knows who lies there, though legend says it is a 15-year-old smallpox victim. Nellie Robinson said the width suggests more than one person is below.
To establish it as a grave, Golub called in a canine forensic unit. All four dogs went to the area, he said, strongly suggesting human remains are below.
In 1905, according to Golub, McNeill sold his property, "destitute and suffering from ailments incurred during his four hard years during the war between the States." McNeill's 1905 pension application indicates he had kidney problems and severe arthritis and was unable to earn a living by manual labor. He said he had three children but they were unable to provide for him. "I have no regular home," McNeill wrote.
In 1920, his name shows up in Census records for Pasco County. McNeill was 76 and listed farming as his occupation. His death record could not be found.
He might have disappeared but his homestead has found new life. Golub hopes to raise funds for a professional archaeological examination, and he envisions the site as a base for folk song and craft festivals and historic re-enactments.
That aim is off to a good start. Mike Jurgensen, an award winning folk singer from New Port Richey, recently penned a song about the site - The Ghost of James McNeill. One verse goes:
In 1905 I sold my home and land, and walked away.
I was old and sick, the well was dry, there were bills I had to pay.
My soldier's pension weren't enough to keep me in the clear,
I tell you though that when I left, my spirit stayed right here.IF YOU GO
WHAT: James McNeill homestead, 1882-1905
WHERE:Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, New Port Richey
WHEN: Remains of the pioneer homestead can be viewed any time the park is open, from dawn to dusk. Signs point to the site.