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Willistonians dedicated to preserving the past

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By Mark Scohier

Karen Pinkston leaned over the cracked slab and brushed away the dirt and grime of a century of neglect. The name of a young girl cast into the homemade stone, Missouri, was barely made visible.

"That's what's sad," Pinkston said, standing to wipe the sweat from her brow and the dirt from her hands, "someone put a lot of effort into this, and now she's forgotten."

Pinkston, along with her husband, Joe, four volunteers from the Friends of the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge and two rangers, spent several hours Thursday morning cleaning the site of the Atsena Otie Cemetery.

Most of the group focused on clearing the thick underbrush that had sprung up with recent rains.

The Pinkstons, owners of North Florida Monument Company in Williston, were there to evaluate some of the headstones that have crumbled from age, weather and vandals.

"It looks rustic," Pinkston said of the collection of about 40 grave markers and monuments, "But I'd rather see people be able to come out here and read them. I think that's why, initially, they were put out here."

The cemetery sits at the end of a winding trail on the south end of one of three small islands that collectively form Atsena Otie Key, about 1/2 mile by boat from Cedar Key across the Waccasassa Bay.

The key, shaded by wind-swept live oaks and skirted by salt marshes, beaches and swamps, is about 60 acres and is famous for an old mill that once made wooden blanks for a pencil factory in New Jersey, throngs of black salt marsh mosquitoes and for being the site of the original Cedar Key settlement.

"To us, the island is important to keep the history of the area," said Lower Suwannee and CKNWR Ranger Pam Darty. "Really, this place is a museum. This was the  area in the late 1800s."

Humans have been using the island for thousands of years. Ruins from the old mill sit next to a giant midden composed of millennia of discarded shells from early native people, who by the early 1600s had mostly died out because of diseases brought over by Europeans. The few who remained were carted off to reservations in the 1800s.

The U.S. Army built a hospital and stockade on the island, which served as a base for soldiers during the Second Seminole War. In fact, it was Atsena Otie Key in 1842 where Col. William J. Worth declared the war over.

It wasn't long before homesteaders started making their way to the island, and then in 1843 came Augustus Steele, a rich developer who built a resort on Atsena Otie for the wealthy southern planter class.

"He really developed it and promoted it," Refuge Friend and area historian Toni Collins said. "He could really be called the father of Cedar Key."

In fact, in 1852, the island was renamed Cedar Key. Steele ran the homesteaders off, she said, "And he bought it all for $227."

Throughout the rest of that century, trade and industry grew. Near the end, about 50 households lived on the island until 1896, when a hurricane spawned a 10-foot wall of water that crushed all but a few houses on the island.

By the next year, the island was abandoned, with residents making homes on nearby Way Key, the present site of the City of Cedar Key.

Today, the Suwannee River Water Management District owns Atsena Otie, though an agreement specifies that it be managed by the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.

 The island is open to the public, if one is brave enough to face the mosquitoes, but it can only be reached by boat. Beside the cemetery and a few other ruins, Atsena Otie offers fishing, hiking and nature study. Several species of birds, including egrets, herons and white ibises, are common to the area.