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."
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