You can’t take it with you, but you can hold a piece of history thousands of years old at Neal Preserve by simply picking up a conch shell.
Prehistoric Native American inhabitants of the preserve, just across the Manatee Avenue bridge from Anna Maria Island, opened the shells at the crown to get at the meat inside, according to Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee County’s Parks and Natural Resources director, reminding visitors that taking anything from the preserve is against the law.
“You can hold something that a person held a thousand years ago,” he said, pointing at shells scattered all over the preserve.
Among the most interesting features of the preserve are a reconstructed burial mound – about 230 bodies were excavated in the 1930s from two cemeteries on the site; the remains were taken to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. A midden, or trash dump, also has been reconstructed.
The preserve also is the site of the rare, endangered Florida cotton plant; the petals turn from yellow to pink as the day wears on. The plants barely survived efforts to eradicate them on the misguided assumption that they harbored boll weevils that would destroy commercial cotton crops, according to archaeologist Bill Burger, who has studied the site for several years.
The preserve once was the site of a citrus grove, a dump, and a source of shell for local road beds, but in prehistoric times it served as a fishing camp, he said.
An observation tower overlooks Anna Maria Island, the Intracoastal Waterway, Perico Island and Bradenton, and a shady boardwalk leads through mangroves to the Intracoastal. Signs along the shell and boardwalk pathways describe plants and Native American sites. A picnic pavilion is at the entrance to the park, on Manatee Avenue just east of the bridge.
The county bought the land in 2005 with county funds, a partial donation by landowner Pat Neal and grant funding through the Florida Communities Trust.