19th century plantation is a window into Florida's past
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published September 24, 2006
PALM COAST - As rain pelts down around them, two archaeologists sit in the dirt under a pavilion, working to preserve what early Spanish settlers used as an outdoor kitchen about 200 years ago.
Just a few feet away, coquina rubble juts out of the ground where a well once provided water for one of the largest plantations in northeast Florida. Nearby, a whitish slab is visible with several different compartments, what may have served as tiny rooms.
All the structures are remnants of what historians believe is left of the early 19th century home of Joseph Hernandez, the first Hispanic congressman in the United States and the man who historians say was the first mayor of St. Augustine.
Burned down during the Second Seminole War, Hernandez's Mala Compra plantation site went relatively unknown for 150 years.
But after five years of gleaning state grants and doing excavations, Flagler County officials are finally readying the former plantation - nestled at Bing's Landing off State Road A1A - to become an outdoor museum and testament to Florida history.
"This will be pretty unique to have such an interactive archaeological site located in a county recreational park," said Tim Telfer, Flagler County's environmental planner. "When the whole thing is done, you'll go in, hear a little about Florida history and Joseph Hernandez, and when you're reading about his fireplace, a light will shine on the fireplace to enhance the experience."
Archaeologists began working at the site in 1999 after former county attorney Al Hadeed wondered about a concrete wall on land the county commission had just purchased for the park. He dug out a bit of the well, then found a historical map of the plantation revealing the "Mala Compra well."
Since then, archaeologists have collected more than 14,000 artifacts from the site. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places, said Hadeed, who is president of the Flagler County Historical Society.
Marsha Chance, senior archaeologist at Jacksonville's Environmental Services Inc., was hired to coordinate the project using part of the state's $362,500 in grants and the county's $250,000 donation.
She split up the preservation of the site into phases, based upon when funding was available from the Florida Division of Historical Resources. First, archaeologists did excavations and mapped the site for structures. Then conservationists came in to evaluate the best way to preserve what was left of Hernandez's plantation.
County officials followed the advice of conservationists and built a pavilion over the site to emulate the oak tree canopy that covered the structures for so long. Having the protection of a roof will cut down on moisture and water that can eat at the dated buildings, said Shelley Sass, a conservationist, professor and coquina expert.
Sass, husband Michael Geisert, and archaeologists Toni Wallace and Lisa Hopwood were finishing some of the preservation recently under that pavilion, using sand and mortar to fill in gaps in the stone. Their work is the last step before exhibit designers will draft and construct walkways around the structures. They also will put in place informational kiosks and artifact displays to guide visitors through the covered site.
By next summer, county officials predict the space will be open for the public. They hope it will attract Florida archaeologists and classes studying the Sunshine State's history, said Chance.