Irving Eyster helped preserve history of Indian Key

Keys Sunday contributorJuly 11, 2008 

Irving Eyster’s interest in archaeology started when he was growing up in Indiana. He and his grandfather would go looking for old mill remains or houses that had long been abandoned.

“Kids would go out and play ball on Saturdays, and that didn’t interest me,” Eyster said. “My grandfather would tell me about the people who had lived in these places and what they had done. It was just like being introduced to these people.”

Eyster has been an archaeologist and historian in the Florida Keys for more than 60 years. He taught archaeology at Florida International University and University of Miami, anthropology at Miami-Dade Community College and was a Dade County archaeologist for two years.

Eyster was on the Upper Keys Historical Preservation board for 16 years and is the current president of the Matecumbe Historical Trust. His books include: Indian Key, Handbook of South Florida Archaeology, Islamorada and More, and Dr. Jeremiah Reade Explores Florida in 1882-1883.

Eyster and his wife, Jeane, first settled in Key West in 1947, and he remembers a town that was much different than it is today.

“It was more like the West Indies,” he said. “Some of the palm trees had grown out over the street. They didn’t want to cut them, so they put a big red dot on them. If it was too low, you’d drive around.”

In 1952, Eyster proclaimed that Key West was too crowded, and they moved up to Lower Matecumbe where they were the eighth family to build in the area. At that time, it was more like a private island with very little traffic coming through on U.S. 1.

“One morning, these guys on the seven-mile bridge set a tent up,” he said. “I stopped and said, aren’t you guys afraid of being hit? He said there’s only one car that comes through here at night, and that’s the one taking things to the commissary in Key West. You’re the first one who’s been through here in 24 hours.”

Over the years, Eyster has done excavations all the way from Ocean Reef to Key West, but he has spent a great deal of time researching Indian Key and ensuring its preservation.

“I’ve lived in the Keys 61 years, and I’ve been researching Indian Key for over 70,” Eyster said. “My grandfather stayed there in 1882, and he was telling me about the things in Florida that he visited. Indian Key was his favorite. He told me about the Indians and all the things that went with it. I was very worked up over it when we came here. That was one of the first things that I looked for.”

Eyster excavated Indian Key several times starting in the late ’50s when he was invited out by the owners of the island who recognized that people were starting to steal artifacts from the site.

“It was mostly a family affair,” Eyster said. “We found tools and things from the house — hardware, doorknobs and locks and that kind of thing. Almost all the china and glass was broken by the Indians when they raided the place. We found hundreds of pieces of those. What they didn’t take with them, they broke. My daughter found a whole bottle. It was the only one we found that whole dig.”

In 1965, Hurricane Betsy uncovered a lot of sand on the island, and Eyster’s dig at that time produced more interesting artifacts.

“The Perrine house was built up over the water, and I have bowls of stuff that they actually used,” he said. “I found the sole of some guy’s shoe. I wonder if that wasn’t Dr. Perrine’s or maybe young Henry’s.”

In the early ’50s, Eyster thought that he was going to be able to buy Indian Key. On a trip to Key West, he saw that it was advertised for sale for $28,000. When he went to Miami to sign the papers, the agent told him that it had been sold by one of the owners without his knowledge.

“I was real disgusted,” Eyster said. “He told me that if I wanted to fight it, I could beat it. I said to hell with it, and I’ve regretted it ever since.”

In 1976, he wrote his first book about Indian Key to go along with the first Indian Key Festival, which he helped establish. They expected a few hundred people, but it turned into a two-day affair with more than 2,000 people in attendance.

Eyster only had three weeks to write that first book, which he said he wrote from memory. He is now working on a new one, which is growing to be more than 250 pages.

The Perrine descendants, who live up the East Coast, have been helping, as well as people in New York who knew the Perrine and the Housman families. They have sent him photos, legal documents and items of historical significance.

“I knew a lot about Indian Key then, but I didn’t have all the facts,” Eyster said. “That’s what I’m trying to do now.”

In addition to his work on Indian Key, Eyster has been collecting artifacts, memorabilia, documents, maps, and pictures about the history of the Keys for all of these years. In 1995, he helped form the Matecumbe Historical Trust, which has a vision of starting a museum that will focus on the history, anthropology and archaeology of the Keys.

Eyster’s daughter, Barbara Edgar, is a board member for the trust. She said what makes Eyster’s collection so special is the relationships that he has formed over the years with the descendants of the early settlers.

“With him these things aren’t just hearsay,” she said. “He knew the people that lived here, and these people knew that he’s trying to preserve the past for future generations.

At this point, plans have been drawn up for the building, but the organization is still soliciting donations in order to buy the land. Edgar said that they will be applying for grant money but that she anticipated that most of the funds for the museum would have to come from the private sector.

“My dad’s been doing this for over 60 years, and this collection is tremendous,” she said. “He’s wanted to build this for years. We’ve got plans to make this place a first-class museum that people will be proud of.”

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