Dugout canoe déjà vu?

Submitted by Fred Scheidler


Initial view of dugout canoe in 1970.

In late December 1970, I assisted the Broward County Archaeological Society in the location, recovery, and restoration of an abandoned, twelve and a half foot long, cypress dugout canoe. It became the primary display in the small museum the group maintained for public education.

My friend Keith Hunt asked the Sunday school class he was teaching where they would like to go for a field trip. Several parks and historic locations were suggested. One boy named John raised his hand and said, “I know where there is a lost dugout canoe in the woods.”

At the end of class Keith asked John more about it. John said a few times in the past he tried shortcuts through the woods to get to school, but it had been over two years since he last went that way. Keith asked John if he could find it again, and if he would. He said he enjoyed exploring the swampy forest and agreed. Keith called me about one o’clock and we met John and his mother about three o’clock. By four we were at the canoe. It was about three hundred yards east of Andrews Avenue and about a hundred yards south of the canal that separates Pompano Beach from Fort Lauderdale, west of Dixie Highway and the railroad, and north of Cypress Road. The canal was a drainage canal for flood control from the Everglades. It was a river modified into a canal in the early 1900s. A wall of dredged sand fill on the south bank helped isolate access to the area. The ground varied from mushy, to water-filled areas, with very little dry ground in the area. The trees and ground vegetation were thick and difficult to walk through. Visibility was up to about fifty feet, maybe.

The canoe was covered with several inches of light green, thick, wet moss on some top surfaces. On one side there was a delicate fern about eight inches tall growing out of the wood. The canoe shape had a specific bow wedge at one end and a blunt, lower, stern at the other end. The bow had a vertical front edge to cut the water and kept a rounded deck shape at the top. The sides were slightly lower and about two to three inches thick. The walls became thicker closer to the bottom. The stern was not finished on the outside. It also had decay holes in the direction of the trees’ core at the stern. The canoe measured twelve feet six inches long and was pointed northnortheast toward the canal. About ten or more feet to the southwest was an obvious section of the same tree. It was about six feet long. From the far end of that segment it was only about ten feet west to the tree trunk. The trunk was about two feet high.

The condition of the ground at the canoe was interesting. There was an almost circular depression about ten feet across directly under the entire canoe. We did not think this was formed naturally as there was solid dirt under the other segment of the tree. We speculated how the canoe was to get to the river a hundred yards away. One line of thought was if a ditch were dug from the canoe to the river, it could be floated out. After tearing down the final wall at the river, water would flow to the canoe in the depression. It can then be floated out, by possibly only one person. It was not known to us how high the water in the river could be during different seasons, and how deep a ditch might need to be dug for the idea to work.


View of the canoe before recovery.

The canoe looked to be shaped by blade because there were sharp angles not likely formed by burning. I insisted we do not touch even the plants on it until photos were taken or an archaeologist gives an OK. We counted our paces out in the most direct path we could manage so we could find it again.

The next day was Monday. I worked less than a mile from the site. During my lunch break I brought my Polaroid camera and took several photos of the canoe. After work I had classes at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. I took my photos and started looking for someone in archaeology or anthropology. All the offices were closed at night. None of my classes of my major were in Anthropology so I had never spoken to, or knew any archaeologist. I noted Dr. William Sears was the Director. Tuesday morning I again had classes and I made a point of getting to Dr. Sears.

I showed him the pictures and asked, “Is there was some way it could be recovered before a bulldozer ran it over, or the land was developed?” He gave me the address of Mrs. Wilma B. Williams, in Hollywood, Florida, who was the director of the Broward County Archaeological Society, a chapter of the Florida Anthropological Society.

Next I wrote a short letter about the find and Dr. Sears’ referral, and mailed it to her. On Thursday afternoon the phone rang and I answered it. It was Wilma and her first words were, “When can we meet?” We set up Saturday. On Saturday about 9:30, my dad and I, Keith, John, Wilma, and Burt Mowers all met to look at the canoe. Wilma and Burt agreed it could be safely removed, and they would get it tomorrow.

On Sunday a group of almost thirty of us started the recovery. We picked the most direct route from the road to the canoe. With machetes in hand, the two lines spaced themselves with blades tip to tip apart and cut their way forward through everything. Replacements took over for the tired. The result was a direct path. It looked like a ten foot wide hole had been drilled through the woods and brush.

Four two-by-fours were tied across the canoe with two inch diameter rope. One youth had the job of passing the rope under the canoe in the water of the depression. This is how we found how long and deep the depression was under the water. Eight strong men then lifted the waterlogged canoe, but we could not hold it long enough to inch forward. Another board and two men were added. We could now lift and walk in six inch steps. We could move about twenty feet before everyone became exhausted. Many replacements were used by the time we got it to the truck for removal. The flatbed truck had a bed that tilted to make loading possible. Next, they hauled the canoe back to their workshop at Flamingo Groves, one of the orange groves west of Fort Lauderdale in Davie, Florida.

In the workshop they put down a thick plastic sheet. The canoe was placed on the sheet. A strong box was built around the canoe using the plastic as a liner to prevent leaking. The canoe was then covered in a solution of white Elmer’s Glue and water.

The ratio was 2 parts water to one part glue. A circulating pump was positioned to keep it all flowing and cover the exposed surfaces. This was done for fourteen months. The capillary action of the glue rising through the wood fibers displaced all the water. At that time, the tank was drained and the glue allowed to dry. When the glue was dry the entire canoe was very hard and ready for display. The glue did not change the color or appearance of the wood. The wood was so weak before preservation that you could crumble soft wood fibers away from the top of the sides by just rubbing it with your finger tips. After preservation it was so solid it rang like a wood bell when tapped.


View of the canoe after conservation.

The chapter had a small frame house that was their museum, generously rented to the group for one dollar a year. Admission fees were half a dollar, voluntary, and helped the chapter run the museum. They now had a major attraction and the donations increased as the number of visitors increased. The dugout canoe had its’ first museum home. This donation resulted in an offer to me to join the Broward County Archaeological Society, which I eagerly accepted. I worked as a volunteer with the group on most Sundays doing field work until we moved to Georgia over three years later.

Soon Wilma Williams was followed by a new member, Gypsy Graves, as director. She moved the museum contents from Flamingo Groves to downtown Fort Lauderdale, the second museum location. The new location was next to the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society. I visited it again and took pictures of the preserved canoe in this location. For a short time they moved to an empty store nearby. Then they moved to a large building in Dania Beach on highway U.S. 1. There was a name change with this fourth location.

From newspaper clippings sent to me by a friend, it appears there was a lot of leadership controversy about Graves. She and her daughter could not account for $100,000. The museum was in debt for $885,788. Their web page shows they are defunct, and the Bankruptcy Court had taken control of the museum. The Fort Lauderdale newspaper stated on February 17, 2003 that items worth $450,000 were sold for a very small amount to pay debt. There was no other information about what was sold, or what happened to the remainder. At that time, I didn’t know the status or location of the canoe, and I assumed it was lost. My depressing thoughts were it may have been discarded, sold privately, made into a decoration at a restaurant, or left outside somewhere to rot. This is what I had hoped would never happen.

Revisit and update: Canoe déjà vu?

On Wednesday, March 29, 2006 I went to Dania, Florida to where The South Florida Museum of Archaeology and Natural History had been located. A company called “E-tour and Travel” occupied a small office on one side of the otherwise empty January of 2005 all the contents of the museum were removed by a man named Frank. The remainder of the building is completely empty. A woman named Kirsty was the caretaker and had a key to show this location to possible renters. Her home was next to the museum and I might find her there. Nobody was home then, so I left my phone and email address at her front door. My note explained who I was, and why I was interested in the status of the canoe.

On Friday, March 31, 2006 I received an email from Ms. Kirsty Forgie. She is with the Broward Community College as the Museum Collection Coordinator, and the Coordinator of the World Cultures Collections, both associated with the B.C.C. Library Department.

She stated that nothing had been sold or auctioned. Everyone who brought papers to prove ownership of items loaned to the museum had their items returned to them. The bankruptcy court awarded the remainder of the collection to the Broward Community College on March 28, 2005. This included the dugout canoe.

On April 14, 2006 I found and scanned several black and white photos I took in 1970 and sent them to her. With them was included an early draft of this information. She responded with thanks for my interest, and for sending the background information. No one of the Broward County Archaeological Society, or the earlier museum staff, preserved any information about the background of the dugout. The notes I provided on my visit to the Historical Society did not survive. In the ten years of working in the museum she said she had not known any of this information or what conservation methods were used to preserve it. She said recently the B.C.C. executive board had approved the loan of the dugout canoe to be displayed at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale. It is a first class facility located near the Fine Art Museum and even includes an IMAX theater. The museum was founded thirty years ago and now serves about 400,000 visitors a year. Many of them are children on their school field trips.

In my view, this museum is an ideal location to loan the dugout canoe. Here it can reach and stimulate the maximum number of students and other viewers. The dugout canoe was found in Fort Lauderdale and ideally belongs in the Fort Lauderdale area. Now it will be available to the public again. I am very satisfied with this outcome. The loan to the Discovery Center has now ended. Ms. Forgie notified me on February 4, 2008 that it is currently on display at the college. They now have another canoe from South America, and the two form a new display together. Soon I will return to the Fort Lauderdale area to see it one more time. However, with déjà vu, this too, may not be the end!