Archaeologists find interest in WEC Jockey Club

Native American and historic artifacts discovered during CRAS survey

The WEC Jockey Club shown Monday, March 20, 2023, in Reddick. [Alan Youngblood/Ocala Gazette]

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Posted March 30, 2023 | By Rosemarie Dowell

A recent Cultural Resources Assessment Survey (CRAS) of the WEC Jockey Club property has identified nine new archaeological sites, three of which were recommended for avoidance or further testing to assess their eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Those are the major findings by the nationwide archaeological firm SEARCH Inc., which conducted the Phase I survey in December on behalf of the 1,000-plus-acre property’s owner, Golden Ocala Equestrian Land, LLC., which plans to develop it.

Of the nine newly recorded sites on the site located on West County Road 318 near Irvine, four are Native American, one is historic while the remaining four have historic and Native American components, according to the CRAS, a copy of which the “Gazette” obtained March 23 through a public records request.

Although no structures, human remains or other evidence of Fort Drane, a Second Seminole Indian War fort erected on the sugar mill and cotton plantation of Col. Duncan L. Clinch in 1835 were found, one of the sites was tentatively identified as possibly containing artifacts that date to the fort’s period of occupation, the CRAS noted.

At 3,000-acres, or four-square miles, the plantation, with multiple structures, likely encompassed most if not all the Jockey Club property as well adjacent land, including a large mining operation directly to the south.

Whether Golden Ocala decides to investigate further the three newly recorded sites that were recommended for further testing or avoidance remains unknown.

Dr. Joe Knetsch, Ph.D., a retired research historian for the State of Florida and noted expert on the Seminole Indian Wars who has written extensively about Fort Drane, said SEARCH fell short in the Phase I survey, which he’s read, especially in its shovel testing.

“There were an awful lot of buildings on the plantation and up to 3,500 soldiers camped at Fort Drane at one time, as well as many civilians and volunteers,” said Knetsch. “Why haven’t we seen any historical or archaeological evidence of that? They should have done more testing and looked a little harder.”

SEARCH’s fieldwork included the excavation of 564 shovel tests, along with metal detecting throughout the massive property, including areas closest to the purported location of the fort itself, a 150-yard-by-80-yard fenced enclosure with two blockhouses and several other buildings.

But Knetsch, author of “Fear and Anxiety on the Florida Frontier: Articles on the Second Seminole War” and several other books, isn’t sold on SEARCH’s initial findings.

“There are questions that have to be asked,” he said. “There’s lots of information out there about the workings and layout of the plantation as well as the soldiers and civilians who camped or lived there. “

The CRAS was initiated by Golden Ocala, also developers of the World Equestrian Center (WEC) Ocala, in response to an April 2022 letter from the Florida Division of Historical Resources. The letter was sent to Marion County as part of a mandated review by state agencies of proposed changes to the county’s comprehensive land use plan, which were later adopted, allowing the Marion County Board of County Commissioners in June to approve Golden Ocala’s application for a Planned Unit Development on the WEC Jockey Club property.

The approval was immediately challenged by nearby landowners and the nonprofit group Save Our Rural Area in two legal proceedings that were officially resolved March 17.  Jimmy Gooding, attorney for Golden Ocala, declined to comment on this story via email, and County Attorney Matthew “Guy” Minter did not respond to several emails requesting an interview.

However, in a March 7 Marion County Board of County Commissioners meeting, Minter announced a settlement had been reached in the lawsuits and mentioned cultural resources.

“The settlement made provisions for setting aside areas around cultural areas like what might be the remains of Fort Drane from 1835,” said Minter.

The FDHR letter from April 2022 noted numerous cultural resources had been recorded in the general vicinity and multiple attempts had been made to locate Fort Drane, thought to contain human remains. It also said development should be sensitive to locating, assessing and avoiding adverse impacts to any historic resources.

Many residents of rural northwest Marion County grew up hearing about the plantation and the fort’s storied but short history as a major miliary hub and hospital for the sick and wounded before it was abandoned in early 1837 due to sickness and disease.

The fort and plantation’s building and structure were soon burned down by Seminole warriors, including Osceola, who then camped at the site for a short time.

Area natives Lonnie K. Edwards III, now in his 80s, and sisters Annabelle and Nancy Leitner recalled that as kids, they visited the ruins of the fort, which included foundations or footings, cannon mounts and bricks.

Edwards is the oldest son of the late former State Sen. L.K. Edwards, whose family owned and farmed thousands of acres in Irvine beginning in the mid-t0-late 1800s, including the land the plantation and fort were located on.

“We’d have birthday parties by fallen down oak trees on the property near the fort,” Edwards told the “Gazette” for an in-depth story, “What Happened to Fort Drane,” published in early June.

The investigative piece detailed how in the the early 1970s, the late former senator sold a 700-acre portion of his land, which included a chunk of the sugar plantation and the fort’s ruins, to M.J. Stavola Industries, which then sold it to Allen Edgar of Mid-Florida Mining.

In 1977, Whit Palmer Jr., who died in 2020, purchased Mid-Florida and began mining the property for its clay soil, eventually becoming a top producer of cat litter in the U.S.

The story included the early 1990s efforts of a small but now disbanded group called the Friends of Fort Drane and the still-in-existence Micanopy Historical Society, to get the historically significant site recognized and preserved by the county and state.

However, the group immediately encountered resistance from Palmer, who was well-known in the community and had political ties. Edwards and the late Alyce Tincher, leader of the group, even approached Palmer and asked about getting a historical marker placed on the property, to no avail.

“We had an uproar with Whit about it; we tried to prevent it from being destroyed but he didn’t care and didn’t want to hear about it,” Edwards recalled for the June story.

Tincher and the others, including Carol Riley and Warren Otto, both also deceased, soon uncovered gruesome allegations from two former mine employees. In sworn statements, they said said mine workers, under the orders of manager Martin Palmer, Whit’s son, destroyed evidence of the fort, and dumped the remains of soldiers and others unearthed during mining operations in a deep pit elsewhere on the property.

The alleged desecration of graves would have begun roughly one month after a December 1990 “St. Petersburg Times” (now the “Tampa Bay Times”) story in which Knetsch, both Palmers and Tincher, who contacted the reporter about Fort Drane and the efforts to save it, were quoted.

Martin Palmer told the reporter the company was asking an archaeologist to confirm the location, “just to kind of put the whole thing to rest.”

In early spring 1991, following pressure from Tincher’s group and strong urging from the state, the Palmers hired Gainesville based firm, SouthArc, to conduct a search for human remains at the mine. By then, however, if the allegations are true, it was too late because all evidence of the fort had been destroyed.

Indeed, according to an August 1991 article by Marion County historian and newspaper columnist David Cook, SouthArc said it was unable to confirm the fort’s location based on maps and historical information.

No digging was done at the time, but SouthArc said in its survey, obtained by the “Gazette” last year, that it had found no evidence of remains but had uncovered numerous artifacts, including glass and ceramics which they believed were from Clinch’s plantation and or a later farm.

They also found the remains of one burnt structure, “that could have been a blockhouse,” according to its 1991 survey. The survey also said burials could be located some distance from the fort compound, possibly within the adjacent property to the north of Mid-Florida Mining.

Back then, Knetsch, who became involved in the Fort Drane saga after Tincher contacted the state and they became friends, had little faith in SouthArc.

“They were notorious in the field for finding what they were paid to find,” said Knetsch for the June story.

The attempts to find evidence of the fort and the soldiers buried there soon faltered.

Jeff Winans, an amateur archaeologist who knew Tincher and others in the group and assisted with their efforts, authored a book in the mid-1990s, “What Happened to Fort Drane in Marion County,” based on his research.

“We know what happened back then, they would have found something if politics hadn’t been involved,” said Winans, 75, who despite the fort’s apparent destruction and horrific disturbance of graves, still believes there is evidence somewhere of the fort, the plantation and the soldiers and civilians who lived there, as well as human remains, either on the mine property, the WEC Jockey Club land, or on property south of the mine.

Knetsch agrees, saying SEARCH needs to do some more historical research about the plantation’s vast layout, including the whereabouts of a large village where up to 150 slaves lived, a cotton gin, the sugar mill, the driver’s house, Clinch’s plantation house and where the dead were buried.

“I’ve seen no evidence of spaced-out shovel testing,” said Knetsch, who gave expert witness testimony about Fort Drane on behalf of the plaintiffs during mediation for the lawsuits. “I don’t find, to a level of comfort, enough of a conscientious effort to locate evidence.

“There’s a lot more out there somewhere,’’ he added. “And no one seems to care about it.’’

Knetsch spoke of John Bemrose, a medic at Fort Drane, who in numerous letters to his son years after the war wrote extensively about the plantation and the fort. Those 60 letters were compiled in a book, “Letters to My Son, American History and Adventures of John Bemrose,” by his great-great-grandson, Michael French, via Book Pal in 2014.

Bemrose, an Englishman, also wrote a book, “Reminiscences of the Second Seminole War,” which SEARCH did mention in the history section of the CRAS, along with multiple other historical resources, including several of Knetsch’s books.

For the CRAS, SEARCH archaeologists contacted Edwards and the Leitner sisters and met with them on at least one occasion.

Both Edwards and the Leitners assisted SEARCH by plotting from memory Fort Drane and the plantation house’s location (it was rebuilt sometime after the war) on both an image of an 1895 topographic map and a 2021 aerial photograph that shows the Ocala Jockey Club property boundary, according to the survey.

On both maps, the trio placed Fort Drane and the replacement plantation house on the mine property, near the WEC Jockey Club property.

The CRAS pinpointed the location of the newly recorded archaeological sites, but the “Gazette” is withholding that information as well as details about the findings to prevent looters from disturbing them.

Winans, who’s spent countless hours and thousands of dollars of his own money in the search for Fort Drane since the 1990s, still hopes something will be found and that one day Fort Drane will be recognized with a historical marker along West County Road 318.

“Fort Drane was just as historically significant, if not more, than Fort King and deserves to be honored with a plaque or marker to let people know about it,” said Winans. “It’s overdue; it’s telling a story that needs to be told.”

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