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For John Featherstone, the nature tours were the best part of working at Arch Creek Park. The self-taught naturalist enjoyed leading groups of schoolchildren along winding trails, the leafy brown mulch crackling beneath their feet as he'd point out the flora and fauna in the shady, eight-acre green space off Biscayne Boulevard at 135th Street. Among the palm trees and the gumbo limbo and the sturdy live oaks draped with Spanish moss, Featherstone would explain to the kids how Indian settlers and white pioneers had found nourishment in leaves and berries, how they'd fashioned the subtropical forest into food, shelter, and clothing. "This is one of our native coffee plants," he would announce, leaning forward to touch the red berries on a bush. "We don't know if the Indians used it, but we do know the early Florida pioneers did. I always recommend planting this in somebody's yard. The mockingbirds love to eat it."
As the students would learn, the park played an important role in the early history of Dade County. About 500 B.C. Tequesta Indians settled on the the dry ridge that ran between a mangrove forest to the east and the vast swampland to the west. The site near Arch Creek, a mile-long waterway that runs along the western edge of what is now the park, was finally taken over by white settlers in the mid-Nineteenth Century's Seminole Wars. An old military trail that served as a supply line during the fighting passes through the park. In the late 1860s, a mill was constructed on a natural limestone bridge over the creek, with the aim of converting the roots of the coonti plant into arrowroot. The mill, one of Dade's first industries, failed, shutting down after less than a year. By the turn of the century, the wooded area had become a tourist destination and a popular picnic spot.
In the Fifties the site housed a trailer park; then the Chrysler Corporation bought the tract and attempted to build a used-car lot on it. That prospect horrified local residents, who organized and in 1973 got the state to purchase the land as an archaeological site. Nine years later the area became part of the county park system. To ensure that the tract would be properly maintained, the concerned citizens formed a group called the Arch Creek Trust, a nonprofit organization that would consult with park management to keep tabs on the site's operation.
The 39-year-old Featherstone says nothing made him happier than sharing his love of nature with young people. "Don't ever underestimate kids. They are smart, especially about animals," says the chubby-cheeked vegetarian, who always dresses in blue jeans and a work shirt and prefers a breakfast of black coffee and unfiltered Camel cigarettes to oatmeal or whole-wheat toast. Featherstone says he can't remember a time when he wasn't messing with plants and animals. He pores over books about nature and self-sufficiency, fascinated at how Native Americans and early white settlers lived off the land.
During his employment with the county, which lasted until early last year, Featherstone himself discovered a way to make Arch Creek Park meet his own modern-day needs. As a part-time aide at the park, he earned five dollars per hour, landscaping and maintaining the small woods and the one-room museum, organizing recreational activities, and cleaning the rest rooms. And in October 1990, after eight months on the job, he discovered a more lucrative method of working the land. He began leading elementary-school students on tours of the nature area during his off hours.
At the rate of three dollars per head, a three-hour walk spiced with historical tidbits about the park yielded as much as $180 - nearly equivalent to a week's salary for John Featherstone. All in all, it wasn't a bad way for a man to supplement his income.
Except for one thing: police say it wasn't legal.
Trained by the park naturalist, Patricia Cunningham, the aide had led tours as part of his duties, but all the revenue generated by the walks had gone to the county. "At the time I was impressed by his sincerity, interest in the environment, and knowledge about the outdoors and forestry," Cunningham recalls. "You have to understand, this was a five-dollar-an-hour job, not full time.
It is very difficult to find someone for five dollars an hour who's interested in the woods and Florida."
But after Cunningham left in March 1990 to take a job as a naturalist at Fern Forest Nature Center in Pompano Beach, Featherstone's experience at the park began to sour. He applied to replace his old boss, but he failed to meet the county's educational requirement of two years of college, and although he had worked for twenty years doing landscaping work and studying ecology, county personnel managers refused to alter qualifications for the opening. Frustrated by the snub, the part-time aide refused to lead any more tours. "If I'm not qualified to be the naturalist, I'm not going to give tours," he recalls saying to Ron Bell, a Metro Parks district supervisor.
The county didn't hire a park manager until January 1991, and when the new naturalist finally took over, Bell says he decided to transfer Featherstone to another park, both because of the employee's hurt feelings about being turned down for the job, and to cut down on labor costs at Arch Creek Park. Bell phoned Featherstone and told him he wouldn't be needed at the park any longer. He says he intended to meet with Featherstone face-to-face to tell him about the transfer he had in mind, but three requests for a meeting went unheeded.