Emerson Point Preserve grabs visitors with its history

SNEAD ISLAND -- Payten Presley promised his high school history teachers he was going to bring back a great history story from his Christmas vacation in Manatee County.

It remains to be seen if teachers Lisa Larkin and Bryan Corn of Tri Valley High School in Downs, Ill., get as excited as Payten did Sunday about the 365-acre Emerson Point Preserve here.

That’s because Payten, his sister Morgan, 16, their parents Jim and Deb Presley of Bloomington, Ill., and grandparents, Lee and Mary Harder of Parrish, had the advantage of meeting Emerson Point fans who helped make the experience come to life.

The fans are Jeff and Jill Peters of Sarasota, who ride their bicycles at a different area park every weekend if they can.

On Sunday, the Peterses rode Emerson Point’s bird-rich shore trails in western Palmetto and met the Presleys when all were soaking in the vibes of Emerson’s signature attraction: the Native American temple mound.

“If you look out from up here on the mound, imagine all those trees gone and you can see right out into the open water to see who might be coming to visit you or attack you,” Jill Peters told Payten.

The mound is the Portavant Temple Mound, reported to be Southwest Florida’s largest such mound and a key asset of the Native American people who lived on what is now Emerson Point.

Historians say the Florida Amerindians lived at Emerson Point in the years 800 to 1500 and used the mounds as collections of waste and, later, observation towers and temples.

“It’s huge,” Payten said. “And it’s all from fish bones, pottery shards and shells, lots of shells.”

These Amerindians harvested fish and other marine life for their survival.

The massive mound is covered in green now and, on the edge of it, are the remains of the home that pioneer Robert Stewart Griffith built there in 1866.

“You can feel the history of this place,” grandmother Mary Harder said as she leaned against the boardwalk’s wooden rail. “I am thinking now of the Native American women and the hardships they faced to survive. What was life like for them?”

Morgan, a math and science whiz at 16, is about to graduate from high school and has already been accepted to attend the elite universities Cal-Tech and MIT. She imagined what life would be like for a 16-year-old Amerindian girl.

Would she be interested in cosmology, the study of the origin of the universe, as Morgan is?

Would she have the same teenage issues as Morgan does?

“Absolutely,” Morgan said.

The family pondered what the Native Americans might have called their home.

Leave it to the dad, Jim Presley, a detail-oriented fellow who works for State Farm Insurance in Illinois, to come up with the name.

“Temple on the Point,” Presley said confidently.

Jill Peters, who would like nothing better than to be an amateur Emerson tour guide, amazed Morgan and Payten with stories of the vegetation at Emerson Point.

“That’s resurrection fern,” Peters told the Illinois vacationers. “When there is no water, they dry up and appear to be dead. But the slightest drop and they unfurl and come back to life.”

Resurrection fern is abundant at Emerson Point because it’s an air plant, which gets its nutrients from the atmosphere and lives in the branches of large trees.

The Peterses biked along the multi-use shore trails that wind their way amid Emerson Point’s great tropical hammock, which also offers picnic shelters and a canoe/kayak launch.

“We saw an osprey with a fish in its talons,” Peters said. “We saw a roseate spoonbill, my favorite spotting of the day. We saw blue-winged teal ducks, tri-colored heron, white ibis, great egret, wood stork, anhinga and, on the inner trails, the tiniest of birds, which one could easily miss, the palm warbler and the blue grey gnatcatchers.”

Payten later said he has so much to report to his high school class about Emerson Point, he doesn’t know where he’ll begin.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.

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