OCALA, Fla. (AP) — A fishing trip to Orange Springs in 1960 introduced Alvin Hendrix to a hobby that would take him on underwater treasure hunts for the next 40 years.
Hendrix and a friend were bringing their fishing boat to a pier on the Ocklawaha River when they encountered two men docking a boat. They were carrying scuba tanks and a piece of a mastodon tooth that caught Hendrix’s attention.
“I was fascinated,” he said. “I had grown up on that river, and I didn’t know that kind of thing was there.”
Before Hendrix could make a bid for the tooth, a bikini-clad woman came out of a nearby fish camp and asked if she could have it.
“The guy said yes and the lady took the tooth and left. That just shattered me,” he said.
The incident motivated him to buy a wet suit and second-hand scuba gear, and sign up for lessons at a Crystal River diving school.
After training, Hendrix went back to the place where he had seen his first mastodon tooth. What followed were a series of adventures at the bottom of a half-dozen North Central Florida rivers, where he collected thousands of historic and prehistoric artifacts.
Among Hendrix’s finds were spear tips, mammoth teeth, mastodon jawbones, a variety of tools once used by Native Americans and the bones of many animals.
Recently, a smiling Hendrix showed off some of the treasures he has collected at the Silver River Museum, where his donations number more than 16,000 items, many displayed in glass-fronted cabinets or placed on shelves in the classrooms where children come on field trips to learn about Florida’s history.
To Hendrix, 81, the best use of such treasures is sharing them with youngsters.
“It’s a thrill,” he said. “I used to make speeches to the children’s classes. It’s satisfying when the children take an interest in something they never heard of before.”
Scott Mitchell, museum director, touted Hendrix’s donation of all the items as “one of the more important private artifact and fossil collections in Florida.”
“Alvin explored the rivers of North Florida with scuba equipment during the ‘60s and ‘70s, long before most people knew that the bottoms of these rivers were full of treasures, such as prehistoric stone tools and ice age fossils,” Mitchell noted.
“He also collected just about everything, including broken items, which gives us a very complete picture of the history of these areas in Florida. Many of his objects are on display, and all of them are available to researchers and people interested in the prehistory of North Central Florida,” Mitchell added.
Hendrix’s collection recently caught the eye of researchers who came to Ocala to study mammoth kill sites on the Silver River.
Morgan F. Smith, a candidate with the Center for the Study of Early Americans at Texas A&M University, said Hendrix directed the group to sites where he found artifacts. They also toured the museum.
“Alvin’s collection is a really phenomenal representation of the cultural diagnosis of the Paleo-Indian in Florida,” Smith said. “It’s really important in archaeology to be able to work with people who have collections like Alvin’s. When you get a collection that large, you can find out all kinds of things. The thing about Alvin is, he’s so open. He’s been very forthcoming about where he found everything, which is the way scientists and collectors should communicate.”
From the time he started collecting, Hendrix spent long hours numbering and categorizing each item, noting when and where they were found and what they likely were used for. He first stored the treasures in orange crates and shoved them underneath his house.
Hendrix said he received encouragement from many professionals, among them Barbara Purdy, retired professor of anthropology at the University of Florida and former curator in archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
In a phone interview, Purdy said most amateurs fail to keep the detailed records Hendrix has.
“Alvin’s collection was so well-documented, I really learned a lot by studying it,” Purdy said. “Because of my interest in prehistory, I was interested in his stone tool collection. I think what made Alvin make his final decision to give most of his collection to the Silver River Museum (is that) he was living in Marion County, and they were willing to take it and catalog it. It’s where it should be.”
In recent years, the cataloging fell to museum volunteer Monty Pharmer and his wife, Martha. Pharmer, 81, a retired Air Force pilot, puts in 20 to 30 hours every month at the museum. About 75 percent of his time is dedicated to Hendrix’s collection.
“They asked me if I’d be interested,” Pharmer said. “I jumped at the opportunity. While we were doing that large collection we did the computer work at home. My wife helped me immensely. We sorted the collection and put the information in the computer, so it’s easily available to researchers. They are not only important to the Silver River Museum, it’s an important bunch of Florida artifacts that date back to historical times and help to understand early Florida.”
Guy Marwick, executive director of the Felburn Foundation, founded the Silver River Museum in 1991 and served as its director until 2004. Marwick also noted the importance of Hendrix’s detailed numbering system.
“It tells a better story about what may have happened, who may have lived there, and what time periods are represented in that area,” Marwick said. It’s a tremendous collection. I mean, what kid doesn’t want to find a mastodon’s tooth or a mammoth’s tooth? Alvin never lost that passion.”
Born in 1933 in a home in McIntosh, Hendrix spent part of his boyhood scavenging for relics among the groves in Orange Springs. After graduating from Reddick High School in 1951, he put in several years at UF, but his college education was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
Afterward, Hendrix returned to UF and earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of Pharmacy. In 1962, he returned to his hometown and opened a pharmacy. Hendrix lost his wife, Juliette, to cancer 15 years ago, and he retired 10 years ago.
Looking back on what he considers the greatest hobby a guy can have, he talked about some of his most memorable adventures.
“The first time I went to Sunday Bluff, about five or six miles upstream from Eureka, I found 300 pieces,” Hendrix said, his voice filled with excitement. “No one had ever been there. The water was clear and running fast. I was just picking them up off the top of one another. Two hundred of them were broken, but we found 100 complete. There was some beautiful material — bones and chert.”
Most of Hendrix’s dives were in shallow, clear water, but he also found objects in fields, in burial mounds and along shorelines. Some items were given to him by other divers. But, to him, the greatest thrill is scouring a river-bottom and coming up with your own find.
“There’s actually a tool named after me,” he said. “It’s called a Hendrix scraper. It’s a tool Indians used to scale fish.”
Then, there were the deep rivers, like the St. Johns, where Hendrix would go down about 20 feet where it was pitch black. He rigged his own lighting system using a lawn mower battery and an aircraft landing light, and attached it to his weight belt with duct tape.
Hendrix said he would spend up to seven hours a day underwater, gathering everything from stone tools and glass bottles to animal bones and conch shells. There were disappointing times when he spent all day searching and came up with nothing.
“It’s what we called bombing out when we didn’t find anything,” he said. “Sometimes, the water was too murky; sometimes there was too much silt.”
Though Hendrix has given away most of his artifacts, he has kept a few treasures that sit in a pile on his grandfather’s roll-top desk.
Laws now restrict people from taking such things from Florida’s rivers, but Hendrix believes some leeway should be given to professionals.
“They’ve got to make a distinction between looters and legitimate anthropologists,” he said. “It’s a good law, because people were going out and selling these things on Craigslist. We don’t know where they’re going. We want to keep them in Florida.”