Couples at the Garden of Eden near Bristol, FL.

(Red Kerce/State Archives of Florida)

On Elvy Edison Callaway’s hand-drawn map of northwest Florida, the Jim Woodruff Dam over the Apalachicola River looks like the narrow wrist of a giant hand. Just north of the dam, near the Florida-Georgia border, the Apalachicola splits into four fingers. Callaway has neatly labeled each river with its Floridian and its Biblical name: The Chattahoochee would be the Tigris, Fish Pond Creek the Pishon, Flint River the Gihon, and Spring Creek the Euphrates. Callaway, a white-haired bespectacled lawyer, announced in his 1971 book In the Beginning that this four-headed river system “proves beyond all doubt that the Bible account is true, and that the Garden was in the Apalachicola Valley of West Florida.”

Biblical truth was not the message one would expect to hear from a man named after the father of American invention, Thomas Alva Edison, or from a lawyer who’d taken Clarence Darrow’s side in the legendary Scopes trial. But Callaway was neither a typical progressive nor a typical Bible reader. A former Baptist turned religious freethinker, a staunch Republican in the age of the New Deal, he was a pro-woman, pro-market entrepreneur. He also believed that God created man in the flat piney swamps of the Florida Panhandle. But his Eden was hardly traditional; it was open to everybody. In 1956 he opened his Garden of Eden park, where visitors could pay $1.10 to see paradise for themselves. Callaway spent thirty years trying to convince people to do just that. He knew how to handle the skeptics—he’d been one himself most of his life.

Religion and Reason

Callaway’s distrust of religion extended back to his youth. Born in 1889, and raised on a farm in tiny Weogufka, Alabama, young Callaway fell out with his father’s hard-line Baptist church. Just before Christmas, 1908, when Elvy was eighteen, he befriended a young female schoolteacher, who was new in town and not yet a church member. The two began taking Elvy’s horse-drawn buggy to local (non-Baptist) square dances. Since Baptists were forbidden by their church to actually dance, at first Callaway would simply “take a seat in the corner and look on.” But after several nights as a spectator, he “finally reached the conclusion that any God who would condemn a young man to eternal damnation for what appeared to me an innocent amusement was a monster instead of a loving father.” He did not pretend this was an entirely theological point: “My interest in the young lady helped me to reach this decision.”

One Sunday three weeks later, his minister called on Callaway to apologize for his square-dancing transgressions. When he refused, motions were made to charge him with “revelry” and begin proceedings against him. Callaway responded: “I have no desire to associate with a bunch of ignorant bigots.” He then picked up his hat and walked out.

As Callaway told it in his 1934 book The Other Side of the South, this was the moment he converted to secularism. Without the pressure of the church, he studied and read whatever he could get his hands on, hiding his books in the woods and barns to keep his parents from destroying them. It was only a short step from book-reading to Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama. He left for school that very year, 1908, and by 1911 he had married Annie Levie—who may or may not be the good woman from the square dances. By 1917, he was running a law practice in Lowndes, Mississippi, and he and his wife had a son, William.

Soon they moved south to Lakeland, a good-sized town in central Florida, about halfway down the peninsula. There, in the 1920s and 30s, he prosecuted cases for the newly formed NAACP. Callaway claimed a long lineage of forward-thinkers. He wrote that his great-grandfather—who had built the church that he made such a dramatic exit from—had freed his 103 slaves in 1856. Callaway’s views on “the situation of the Negro” were progressive for his time and place, as were his views on the separation of church and state. He also claimed friendship with Clarence Darrow, and endorsed his pro-evolution position in the Scopes Trial. All of these positions would have been minority views in central Florida.

In his opinion, there were two forces needed to save the South, America, and the world: religion and reason. Ever the lawyer, he reserved the right to define these timeworn terms. “What I mean by religion is love, patience, toleration, sympathy, kindness, vicarious service, honesty, truth, a love of and for the beautiful, a hunger for knowledge and wisdom, a belief that right thought, right conduct, right example is a magnet sufficient within itself to attract men and women away from excesses and evils.” Who could argue with that? He did not stop to define “reason,” perhaps because he hadn’t spent so much time battling against it. Reason needed no definition. “If we can ever have both religion and reason,” he continued, “the South will be the ‘Garden of Eden’ of this earth.” Callaway was being figurative here; he meant that the South had potential for perfection. It was politics that took him from a figurative Eden to a literal one.

A Voice in the Wilderness

Ever since his teenage square-dance rebellion, Callaway had had a strong contrarian streak. In 1920, he was a spectator at the Republican convention in Chicago that nominated Warren G. Harding for President. But once again he wasn’t content on the sidelines; in 1928 he served as a delegate, helping nominate Hoover in St. Louis. By 1929 he was chairman of the Florida Republican Party, in a state so Democratic that, as Callaway wrote: “It is known to every informed Southerner that one who opposes, questions or criticizes any President branded, like a cow in the woods, with the designation ‘Democrat,’ commits an unpardonable sin and is looked upon as a traitor to all that is sacred and holy.” Callaway chafed at anybody telling him what was or was not a sacred cow.

The Depression era was an awkward time to be a free-market libertarian Republican, to say the least. Unemployment had gone from 4 percent to 25 percent, and in 1932 Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt was overwhelmingly elected for the first of four terms. He spent his first 100 days in office meeting with Congress daily in a marathon law-making session, during which they granted every one of his requests for aid and regulation.

Callaway was suspicious of this kind of Democratic party-machine unanimity; it offended his pride as an individualist and an entrepreneur. He opposed everything Congress and Roosevelt favored—except the reversal of Prohibition, which he was all for. In 1936 Callaway ran for Florida governor on an anti-welfare platform. He proudly denounced Roosevelt’s wildly popular New Deal. He wanted the return of the gold standard. He wanted the new banking regulation reversed. He lost, dramatically, and never quite got over it.

Callaway returned to his law practice in Lakeland, and tried to content himself with armchair politicking. Two years after his defeat, the Washington Post published a letter in which he accused the New Deal Democratic Party—“economic royalists” all—of buying a Florida Senate election. This, wrote Callaway, was not progress, but ignorance. But nobody paid any attention. And then America got itself into another World War—another Roosevelt mistake, as Callaway saw it. All Callaway’s libertarian hopes seemed lost.

A New Calling

Just after the end of World War II, Elvy Callaway Sr. paid a visit to one Dr. Brown Landone in Winter Park, not far from Lakeland. The 98-year-old Landone had once been a medical doctor in New York City. Now, in his Florida retirement, he had taken up metaphysics. With the help of a large secretarial staff, he produced prodigious quantities of inspirational literature. Among the titles: “Transforming Your Life in 24 Hours,” “Spiritual Revelations of the Bible,” and “Prophecies of Melchizidek in the Great Pyramid and the Seven Temples.” Landone’s followers felt he had a special talent for bringing a scientific rigor to mystical problems. Callaway describes his meeting with Landone as a “calling.”

It is unclear whether Callaway’s calling happened before or after he got a divorce. But during the same month he met with Landone, in October of 1945, Elvy split from Annie Levie after more than thirty years of marriage. At such a delicate point in his life, Dr. Landone’s call to Callaway to “close his law offices and his home in Lakeland,” must have seemed particularly expedient.

Landone ordered him to move to a different part of Florida, somewhere farther north, where he would receive the mystical knowledge necessary to perform an unspecified sacred mission, sponsored by the Order of the Melchizidek. According to Landone, Melchizedek gave his name to a mysterious order of priests that operate by means of the “Teleois Key,” a numerological system relying on the numbers 1, 4, and 7 to transmit wisdom throughout the ages. Callaway was so drawn to the system that he left his family behind in Lakeland to follow its teachings. Perhaps Landone’s neat formulations of life and truth appealed to Callaway’s developing sense of reason and his idiosyncratic sense of religion. Perhaps his wife Annie had been the “reason” to his “religion,” and without her he came unmoored. In any case, for the first time in almost forty years, he began to lean again toward religion—albeit a very idiosyncratic faith of his own making.

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.