MOULTRIE, Ga. (AP) – It’s not hard to get Leon Cooper talking about history – or maybe it’s just the locale. Cooper spoke in a small museum he began, surrounded by American Indian artifacts, some of which were estimated at 12,000 years old.
Most of the artifacts came from his own land, property he bought 21 years ago along the Ochlockonee River. As he began landscaping, he found arrowheads, spear points, bone tools and fragments of clay pots. He eventually found the remains of cooking fires.
He learned an ancient village once sat upon the land where he now grows crops.
Cooper credits Joe Bodecker, a local educator, with getting him interested in what all these artifacts meant.
“He was instrumental in coaxing me to build this little building so we could teach the kids,” Cooper said.
The little building – built of “throwaways” and pieces of torn-down structures – is Cooper’s unnamed museum. The building measures perhaps 15 feet to a side, not counting the porch. A window air conditioner struggles against the heat as the front door stands open.
The building gives the sense of two rooms, each with glass cases around three walls.
The back room circles a scale model of a Creek Indian council house. Shaped like a four-sided pyramid, the model is constructed to show how the Indians built it, step by step. One side is an open framework. The next side shows poles laid across the frame to make a wall. The third side shows clay daubed over the poles, and the final side shows cedar bark shakes covering the clay. Cooper points to a spot near the top where the shakes don’t mate perfectly.
“They left this hole so the smoke would go out,” he said.
Bodecker built the model based on an actual council house excavated across the Alabama line, he said.
“They wouldn’t let you build this in Colquitt County (today),” Cooper said. “There’s only one way in and out.”
The glass cases in the back room are organized: pottery to the right, segregated by style and age; weapons on the left, organized by era. Along the back wall, flanking a plate glass door, are artifacts that showcase American Indian fishing and farming equipment.
Cooper seems most proud of a few items that aren’t American Indian in origin. He pulls a 35 mm cannon ball from the display case in the far left corner of the room. The late Kelvin Jones, a Florida archeologist and personal friend of Cooper, said the shot was made by the Spanish in the 1500s and could have been used into the early 1600s. The shot was apparently fired into the bank of the Ochlockonee more than four centuries ago, and Cooper’s wife found it when the river eroded the bank away.
Cooper believes the shot was a remnant of an expedition by Hernando De Soto, who wintered in 1539 at what is now Tallahassee.
“It’s a good possibility he came right through my front yard with 150 conquistador soldiers, 150 Indian bearers, 150 women from the Caribbean Islands, 1,500 head of hogs and a 600-pound cannon,” Cooper said. De Soto’s expedition took him to the North Georgia mountains – where legend says he gave the cannon to an Indian chief – and from there all the way to north-central Louisiana, where a conflict with a hostile tribe cost him his life. The cannon has never been found, Cooper said.
The front room of the museum is more eclectic. There’s a table arrayed with potsherds that Cooper’s trying to reassemble. There’s a case with more weapons, topped with replica arrows made by a friend of Cooper’s who hunts with a primitive bow. There’s a display case with gourd jugs and clay pots, all made in exactly the way the Indians would have done it, Cooper said.
Near the door is a diorama, painstakingly carved from wood. Its scene is not American Indian, but it is the rustic, rural South – another side of the area’s history. Bordered on one side by a split-rail fence, it shows the tools woodcutters used to make the shingles that topped houses throughout Southwest Georgia in another era.
“Carving is a vanishing art,” Cooper said. He said he comes from a long line of woodworkers, including generations
In another case, a few fossils share space with American Indian tools. There’s a mammoth tooth and a mastodon tooth – the latter from up the road in Dougherty County. There’s a dinosaur claw and teeth that Cooper found in Saudi Arabia. There’s a stone hammer that’s anywhere from 1,500 to 10,000 years old.
“I have enough stuff to fill up a sizable museum,” Cooper said, adding that much is stored away in boxes.
He debates whether to build a new structure for his collection, but he also wonders what will happen with it after he’s gone. Cooper said his children are interested in what he does, but they’re not involved with it – they don’t want to continue what he’s started.
“I wonder where it’ll all end up when me and the wife are gone,” he said.
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