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Silver River Museum a goldmine of history

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By Rog Patterson

There are, at my last count, six museums in Marion County. I’ve asked several friends to name them. Most knew of two, a few named three and one came up with four.

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Apparently we have some great places to visit – but some of these Marion County museums need to be excavated. So I’m going to tell you about one of these lesser-known collections. It’s a terrific place that adults and kids alike will find truly awesome.

Drive out Silver Springs Boulevard to the light at Wild Waters, turn right and a mile on your left is the entrance to Silver River State Park. It’s $4 per car- or vanload to enter.

Drive another winding mile past the camping and picnic areas, turn left and you’ve arrived at Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center. It’s truly off the beaten path, and finding it is a bit of an adventure.

Off on your left, as you step out of your car, seems to be a collection of old and somewhat battered buildings – more on those later. The path on your right leads to the museum as well as  rest rooms, student classrooms and a fine reference library.

One of the eye-openers a first-time museum visitor experiences is mammoth. Yes – you’ll be staring into the open jaws of a complete and full-size Melagodon skeleton.

It’s a prehistoric ancestor of that huge shark you may have seen featured in the movie, “Jaws.” The gaping jaw is so enormous a teenage boy can stand upright within the top and bottom teeth.

These and similar exhibits tend to make you wonder how any of our prehistoric ancestors actually survived.

Other rooms off the main hall’s paleontology displays open to exhibits about Florida history, Seminole Indian life with clothing and artifacts, early Ocala, the origins and Silver Springs attraction as well as the movies made there, post-Civil War reconstruction, local geology and archaeology.

And, yes, there’s even more. The museum currently owns some 85 percent of these artifacts. Construction and revisions of most displays is ongoing by museum staff and volunteers.

Back in 1987, when a Christa McAuliffe Fellowship became available to research a museum and environmental education center, a Marion County seventh-grade teacher, Guy Marwick, pushed the envelope. His efforts received support from residents, businesses, civic clubs and others, but the Marion County School Board’s backing made a major difference.

As a result, in 1991, the Silver River Museum and Environment Education Center was able to open the museum and classroom doors to Marion County school children. Located in the middle of Silver River State Park on land leased from the state, this Marion County School System program is also a joint venture with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, of which the State Park Service is a branch.

Today, Silver River Museum’s programs are also kept rolling along by admissions, fundraisers and generous support from business partners including St. Johns River Water Management District, the Albright and Rudnianyn Families, and Ethridge Construction.

The museum has come up with an impressive mission statement: “To educate Marion County School System students about Florida history and ecology, and assist them in achieving high scholastic standards.” Oh, and one more important point: “Furthermore, we strive to promote good stewardship of our environment with the hope of providing a better tomorrow.”

Once you meet Museum Director Scott Mitchell you’re assured the museum and all that it stands for is in good hands. Mitchell, like most everyone on the museum staff, is an employee of the Marion County School System. From the bus driver who ferries fourth- and seventh-grade students to this campus to clerical staff and the Coast Guard-licensed captain of student ecological excursions along the Ocklawaha River, all are otherwise school system employees.

They are augmented by a team of enthusiastic volunteers who lead nature walks, serve in the museum gift shop, interpret museum exhibits, and otherwise help assure your visit is both educational and enjoyable.

During the school year, some 15,000 Marion County students visit the museum campus. Class participation has fourth-graders tune in to Florida history while the seventh-grade students concentrate on environmental science themes.

All student activities emphasize state social studies and science standards. In fact, the education center has become a model for other public school systems to follow.

Silver River Museum admission is $2 and children under six are free. Museum visitors are welcome from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends all year long. It is also open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday during June and July.

Appointments for access to library research materials during the school year only can be made by calling Scott Mitchell or Linda LaMont at 236-5401.

Backing up a bit the parking lot and those buildings adjacent to the museum, they comprise the Cracker Homestead. This replica of life in the late 1800s, opens each year in early November for three Ocali Days of fun and frolic to make it the major fundraiser for the entire program.

Interpreters from the museum and the Seminole Reservation, entertainers, food and gift vendors coordinate to make this a splendid experience for young and old. The homestead buildings, originally located at Camp Kiwanis, were moved to the museum grounds in the mid 1990s. Included are two family homes, barns, a combination church and schoolhouse, sugar cane grinder and kettle, a smithy, several other buildings and even a Seminole “chickee” and “baha.”

If you don’t know what the chickee or baha look like or are used for, why not find out by hustling over to Silver River Museum on Saturday, Feb. 28 at 3 p.m.?

Rog Patterson is a Marion Landing resident, Friendship Kiwanis Club member and Citizen writer.