As a historian of religion in America, I’m familiar with Missouri’s Garden of Eden. According to Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, the garden was is the United States. And he’s not the only one to have claimed that the biblical Garden of Eden resided within the borders of the continental US. In the 1950s, Elvy Edison Callaway (a lawyer who was raised Baptist) opened the Garden of Eden Park near Bristol, Florida in the panhandle. After paying $1.10, visitors could walk through what Callaway said was the biblical Garden of Eden. The park is now a free hiking trail maintained by The Nature Conservancy. And it’s fairly easy to get to – simply take I-10 in the Florida panhandle and exit about 25 miles west of Tallahassee; then take highway 12 into Bristol, Florida. You’ll turn right on Garden of Eden Road, but look for the sign; it can be easy to miss. If only the 1950s sign was still there. (And yes, I totally hummed and maybe sang this while hiking up the ravine.)
Callaway himself was an interesting figure. If you curious for more on Callaway, check out this essay by Killing the Buddha editor Brook Wilensky-Lanford. Callaway is also a figure in her 2011 book Paradise Lust. Callaway came to the conclusion that this part of the Florida panhandle was the biblical Garden of Eden because of the topographic similarities between the area and the descriptions in the Bible. The Apalachicola River is fed by four small tributary rivers in a manner that for Callaway rivaled and surpassed the Tigris and Euphrates. Furthermore, the area is home to some rare plants. Most notably, the torreya tree – a rare tree that bears a striking similarity to the gopher wood tree that Noah used to build the ark. Floridians claim that the torreya tree is one of the world’s rarest trees, and as one of the world’s oldest trees, it seems a strong contender for the biblical gopher wood tree.
When Callaway opened the Garden of Eden Park, it was filled with signs that informed park hikers what happened where. The signs are gone, but one can still peruse through a collection of photographs from 1953 on the Florida Memory site. The photos are great, and they are what convinced me to make the drive to Bristol and hike the trail. (Side note: many hiking sites claim this to be a strenuous hike. It’s not. My hiking partner and I had to drive onto Florida’s Torreya State Park for more hiking, and of course, more torreya trees!).
These photographs really interest me because they make me think about the people who went to Garden of Eden Park. The old park signs said things like: “WHERE NOAH MADE THE ARK OF GOPHER WOOD GEN 6:14. The Leaves Of Gopher Trees is a perfect Design Conveying a Special Divine Message. No other Tree in The World Has Such a Message.” Another read: “LADIES ON THIS NATURAL OPERATING TABLE GOD TOOK A RIB FROM ADAM’S SIDE AND MADE MOTHER EVE.” Callaway fascinates me, but so do park visitors. Why would one want to see the Garden of Eden? Hike through it? Did they believe they were seeing and walking through sacred, biblical ground? Seeing where God created Eve? Walking along the same path as Adam? Or, were these visitors like me – simply curious and hoping to enjoy some Florida sunshine? Certainly some of them were. But were all?
The archive photos are from 1953, the same year Joseph Stalin died, the Korean War ended, and Eisenhower entered office. Were they wondering “when will I be blown up” as Faulkner had in 1950? Did a fear of the end of the world make them seek it’s beginning? These are all speculative questions I don’t know the answer to, but questions I wondered while hiking through the garden last Saturday.