This weekend, residents of Brevard County can celebrate and learn about the people who lived here before us.
The fifth annual Pioneer Day will be held Saturday at the Sams House in the Pine Island Conservation Area, and at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on North Tropical Trail, Merritt Island. A shuttle will run from 10 am to 4 pm between the two locations.
Pioneer Day is hosted by the Pine Island Preservation Society and will feature presentations about our area’s prehistoric people, craft vendors, educational displays, children’s games, music, and food.
The Pine Island Conservation Area covers more than 900 acres and is jointly owned by the Environmentally Endangered Lands Program and the St. Johns Water Management District. Archaeological excavations of the area have uncovered fossils of creatures who lived on the property between 20 and 30 thousand years ago, including Mastodon, Mammoth, Giant Land Tortoise, and Giant Armadillo.
“Archaeologists have found everything from fossils of the prehistoric mega fauna that used to roam Florida during the Ice Age, to evidence of human occupation by Native Americans that predate even the contact period peoples that were eventually met by people like Ponce de Leon and Menendez and other early Spanish explorers,” says Kevin Gidusko, co-chair of the Sams House Pioneer Day event.
The archaeological evidence indicates that people inhabited what is now the Pine Island Conservation Area as long as 9,000 years ago.
“Like a lot of places in Florida, what was found were things like lithic scatters, stone tools, and lots of shell tools,” says Gidusko. “Animal remains that had been food for these people would show that they were collecting certain types of food in abundance.”
Between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, people in Florida started using pottery. Styles of pottery change over time, and can indicate trade networks with people in other areas. Styles of pottery found at Pine Island include ceramic sherds of St. Johns Plain and Sand-Tempered Plain.
Archaeological and historic artifacts from the site are on display in the Sams Family Cabin.
In 1878, John H. Sams disassembled his family cabin in Eau Gallie, floated it up the St. Johns River in pieces, and put it back together on north Merritt Island. The cabin is the oldest documented home in Brevard County.
“The EEL program that manages the Sams House has done a great job of not only encouraging stewardship of our natural resources, but also our rich cultural resources,” says Gidusko.
After relocating to Merritt Island, Sams became a successful farmer, growing citrus, sugar cane, and pineapple crops. In 1880, he was named the first Superintendent of Schools in Brevard County, a position he held until 1920. As his stature in the community and his family grew, Sams decided to build a larger home directly adjacent to the family cabin.
The 1888 Sams House has a wraparound porch, an office on the first floor where Sams kept track of his business interests and superintendent duties, a family room with a fireplace, three bedrooms upstairs, and a metal roof.
“During Pioneer Day, visitors will get a short tour through the Sams House,” Gidusko says. “You’ll get to see what it was like for this pioneer family as it grew, and what they had to live and work with on a day to day basis.”
The Sams family helped to establish St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Courtenay, a congregation that remains active today. Before the church was built, services were held in the Sams cabin.
“We’re partnering with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, right down the road from Sams House,” says Gidusko. “The Sams family was instrumental in starting that congregation and getting the church going, and many of them are buried in the cemetery there.”
Pioneer Day activities at St. Luke’s include presentations on local prehistoric people by Rachel Wentz, author of the book “Life and Death at Windover: Excavations of a 7,000 Year Old Pond Cemetery,” and Patrisha Meyers, director of the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science and the Florida Historical Society Archaeological Institute. The church will also host their popular Fish Fry.
“It’s a great opportunity for people to have fun and learn about our particular part of Brevard,” says Gidusko.