In the 1950s retired lawyer and Republican candidate for governor Elvy Edison Callaway opened his Garden of Eden Park along the highway in the Florida Panhandle town of Bristol. Callaway believed that God had created man in the delta of the Apalachicola river, which split into four rivers, just as the Bible describes four rivers leading out of Eden.
The area was also the habitat of a rare tree known as the “Torreya yew,” (Torreya taxifolia) an unusual evergreen which can grow up to sixty feet tall, and earned the nickname “stinking yew” for the strong smell of its fruit when crushed. Callaway believed the Torreya was the “gopher wood” that the Bible says Noah used to build his Ark.
In his roadside kiosk, he displayed a Torreya log which he said was a remnant of the Ark. Visitors could pay $1.10 for admission into a wild unspoiled land of dramatic cliffs, rivers, and wildlife, and all proceeds from his “non-profit shrine” were to go to a local Florida retirement home. When Barry Goldwater lost his campaign bid, Callaway offered him a retirement home in Eden.
Having left his hardline Alabama church as a youth and become an advocate for social and economic progress in the American south, Callaway eschewed the usual Biblical literalism for his own idiosyncratic ideas. His Eden was a contrarian, libertarian vision of perfect freedom, in which “Mother Eve” made the brave choice to eat the fruit so that humanity too could progress out of the garden; the trade of immortality for knowledge was a good one, in his estimation.
Indeed, he peppered his 1971 book “In the Beginning” with references from geologists, numerologists, preachers, and other experts in various fields. Today Callaway’s kiosk is long gone, but you can still hike the “Garden of Eden Trail” in the nearby Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, run by the Nature Conservancy.