Facts on the Ground

About six months later, in March of 1946, Callaway purchased a patch of farmland in the township of Bristol, 300 miles north of Lakeland along the Apalachicola River. At first, things did not look ripe for the wisdom of Melchizedek. Bristol was both the county seat of Liberty County, and the county’s only town. Two-thirds of Liberty County was considered wilderness, habitable only by gators, wild turkey, and the occasional rattlesnake. In the other third, there were only 3,000 people—about 4 per square mile. None of the industries that would become synonymous with Florida—tourism, retirement, real estate, or agriculture—yet operated in this remote corner of the state. And to make matters worse, Liberty County, despite its name, was a “dry county,” no alcohol sold. Callaway’s theoretical Eden of progress seemed far away, but that was exactly the kind of challenge he was prepared for.

And, sure enough, in 1952, surveying his Panhandle land with a tax assessor, Callaway found the inspiration that would catalyze his mission for Melchizedek: the Torreya yew tree. The Torreya taxifolia, authentically primeval, had survived the previous ice age in what’s called a “pocket reserve” along the Apalachicola River. It’s a holdover from a now-vanished world that existed before a massive geologic event—just as a survivor of Noah’s Flood should be. And like anything valuable, the Torreya taxifolia is also rare. By the 1950s, overharvesting and disease had left only a few hundred trees, most of them in immature stands only about two feet tall.

Callaway got to work, feeding all the Torreya yew information into Dr. Landone’s “Teleois Key.” And it was the Key, wrote Callaway, which allowed him to “conclusively prove” the “definite facts” of the Bible: The Torreya was “gopher wood,” the exact tree the Bible says Noah used to build his Ark. How did he know? “From the Teleois Propertionals of the design of its leaves, the grain of its wood, its strength and weight.” Callaway concluded that the Ark must have been built in America, and floated by Noah down the Mississippi and across the Atlantic to Mount Ararat in Armenia during the Flood. Callaway would have protested accusations of hocus-pocus. He was not a mystic but a practitioner of “teleology,” which he defined as “the science of arriving at the truth of any one thing by its complete harmonious relation of other things.”

Dr. Landone’s philosophies had given Callaway the “out” he needed from traditional Southern Christianity. “Teleology,” whatever it was, was not the hard-line dogmas of his childhood. It was reason, knowledge, progress. But teleology also freed up his religious imagination, a deep-seated need that had gone unmet since he’d left the Baptist church a half-century before. With the zeal of a new convert, Callaway began applying his mystical methods to ideas he felt were stale and outmoded. God and the Bible—like American economics, politics, and race relations—needed serious revision.

He acknowledged that traditional Biblical literalism of the kind that William Jennings Bryan tried to defend at the 1925 Scopes trial could not stand up against the new truths of science. But maybe his new, mystical-logical teleology could bring religion and reason closer together, and reinvigorate the ancient Genesis story for the scientific age. What was evolution, after all, but progress?

He was willing to grant that those six days of creation were more likely to have lasted “thousands of years.” Callaway read newspaper accounts of human-like fossils discovered the world over. How to account for them? God created man twice. The first humans, according to Callaway, did not have the power of choice, and were mostly destroyed in Noah’s flood.

In the second round, God created Adam, placing him about a mile outside of Bristol, Florida. Then God created the Garden, along the Apalachicola River, near Bristol. And all was good, except Adam was lonely among the magnolia trees. Callaway sympathized: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone. (Every bachelor I have known was lonely) I will make him a help mate.’” And finally, Eve. Or as Callaway calls her, Mother Eve, created from Adam’s rib—not because she was inferior to him, but so that “she might be his exact equal in the right of liberty.” A lonely bachelor himself at the time, Callaway was particularly focused on this vision of feminine hope and promise. “She was the last and best thing He created.”

Callaway was against many things: Prohibition, welfare, labor and farm regulation, Roosevelt, the abandonment of the gold standard, World War I, World War II, and Communism. But one thing he had always been for, ever since his square-dancing days, was women’s liberation. He was pro-women’s suffrage, pro-women’s education, pro-birth control. So now, here in Liberty County, Florida, he could hardly stand by the traditional scapegoating of Eve as the original sinner, tempter of men, and bringer of curses.

As Callaway saw it, God gave Eve two options, and the power to choose between them. She could continue living the immortal life, but she would be living “as a beast or a totally insane person,” without the ability to progress. Or, she could eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which allowed her the possibility of improving human life —in return for giving up immortality. God, says Callaway, wanted Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. The serpent, which was most certainly “not a serpent, but a Communist or a welfare-statist,” wanted to keep Eve, as it were, barefoot and pregnant, forever. Instead, Eve ate the fruit of empowerment, and Callaway for one “blesses her forever for her great decision.” Callaway’s women’s liberation was really women’s libertarianism: women had every right to help themselves, but God forbid they be “tempted” by social welfare programs.

Callaway’s Eden had no original sin: “It is a slander of God to teach any such doctrine.” And there was no exile: Adam simply chose to leave Eden one day, and Eve chose to follow him. Callaway wanted to insure that subsequent generations could revisit Eden, and admire the Tree of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. He opened his Eden to the public as a park in 1956. He set up a ticket kiosk along Highway 12, a two-lane road that runs east-west across the Panhandle. There, visitors could pay the admission fee and head down Garden of Eden Road, a 3.75-mile dirt hiking trail within the small geographical range of the endangered Torreya taxifolia, snaked through flat plains populated by deer, rabbits and tortoises, to a cliff overlooking the Apalachicola River. A vast population of migrating birds—including that guardian of Liberty, the bald eagle—called the area home. To supplement these natural wonders, Callaway had gone into the woods and dug up three petrified logs of gopher-wood, displaying them in a kiosk off Highway 12, and claiming they were cast-offs from the building of the Ark.

The park caught the attention of a Chicago Daily Tribune columnist the year it opened. But when he arrived, he found only one pair of customers—a Mr. and Mrs. F. R. Wentworth of Valdosta, Georgia, a two-hour drive away. The intrepid couple was thwarted by a rainstorm, which had washed out the sandy parts of the Garden of Eden Road and made it difficult to progress towards the scenic view. Mr. Wentworth received a refund, and claimed he would return in better weather. (Callaway went out of his way to point out that admission fees would be used only for explicitly religious and educational purposes. He intended the park to remain a “non-profit shrine” in perpetuity.)

Still determined, Callaway came up with a brilliant publicity stunt. In 1964, after Lyndon Johnson overwhelmingly won the presidential election, and passed a mandate to revive the “New Deal” Callaway so despised, Callaway publicly offered defeated Republican Barry Goldwater a retirement home in the Garden of Eden, as a consolation prize, in memory of Callaway’s own defeat at the hands of the “welfare-statists” in 1936. Having a celebrity like Goldwater around would also, of course, be good for business, profitable or otherwise. Goldwater did not take Callaway up on his offer. Nonetheless, the Florida Eden seemed to be making some headway. In her 1967 book about the Panhandle, The Other Florida, writer Gloria Jahoda noted that Callaway’s claim had taken hold among “a surprising number of north Floridians.” The nearest major Florida paper, the Tallahassee Democrat, saw things more practically; a 1972 editorial allowed that Callaway’s park would be “a tourist boon to the state’s least populous county.”

It’s hard to say how those tourists would have become converts to Callaway’s idiosyncratic religion of libertarianism. But one imagines that Callaway, who died in 1981 at the age of 102, would have wanted as many opportunities as possible to try. In a way, he got his wish: the land that he described as Eden is now part of the popular nearby Torreya State Park. The government, Callaway’s frequent nemesis, had inadvertently preserved his contrarian Eden. If Callaway were alive today, he’d no doubt remind park visitors that there is only one unpardonable sin: not to avail oneself of the opportunities provided by Mother Eve’s Great Decision. “If you think you can fritter away your time and talents, whatever they are in this life, and be right with God in the afterlife, you will be woefully disappointed.”

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden, from which this article is adapted. The book will be released in paperback in August.