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The early morning sun was still casting a thin line of light along the contours of the bodies of the eight men and women who had gathered on the small, wind-swept island of Atsena Otie last week.
Most of the crew, members of the Cedar Key Historical Society, rangers from Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge and the owners of the North Florida Monument Company, in Williston, had gathered around a large metal tripod tethered to a 500-pound stone obelisk.
The stone, a large grave marker for Mary Schmidt, an island resident who died in 1890, had toppled over years ago. The crew spent the better part of an hour wrestling it back into place before moving on to the several others that had been damaged or hidden beneath the sands of time in the Atsena Otie Cemetery.
“I’m delighted,” said Cedar Key Historical Society member Toni Collins at seeing Schmidt’s grave site restored. “It just goes to show that Cedar Key is full of people who care.”
Collins, who helped organize the project, said she’s been wanting for years to see the cemetery restored. There are 31 burials on the island that are known, she said. About six burial monuments needed to be restored, cleaned or uncovered from years of neglect.
“This is the history and heritage of people in the area, and we need to respect that, respect their burials. The people buried here, these are the pioneers of this county.”
Collins said not a lot of people know that Atsena Otie is where Cedar Key started.
Atsena Otie, less than a mile’s trek across the bay from where the modern-day City of Cedar Key has concentrated itself on Way Key, has a long history.
Native Americans, eventually destroyed by the spanish who arrived in the 1500s, once inhabited Atsena Otie, a Timucuan name meaning Cedar Island.
By 1839, long after the Spanish were gone, the U.S. Army used the tiny key as a supply depot to aid in the battle against Seminole Indians during the Second Seminole War. When that ended, a man named Augustus Steele set his mind to having people settle the island, creating, in essence, the beginnings of Cedar Key. By 1850, there were 47 people listed as living on Atsena Otie. By 1860, when the island had built on it a mill and a pencil factory, the population had grown by almost six times that number, some of whom, with names such as Corrigan, Fagan Hudson, Lewis, Crevasse and Smith, are buried in the cemetery.
Ken Young, president of the historical society and also helping with the day’s effort, said preserving the area’s rich cultural heritage, making it more attractive, is a big draw for people, who, in turn, do more to keep the history alive and well.
“Preserving Cedar Key history is critical,”he said.