Evidence of lost town found.
The ground close to the banks Apalachicola River is quilted by roots, brambles, and washes plowed by the force of rain on the swampy soil.
Out of sight and blocked by thick brush, the river silently winds itself to the Gulf of Mexico.
Other than the occasional bird and a passing boat the only sound is the constant hum of mosquitoes looking for a quick meal.
Through the still air a high-pitched tone rings out, disappears, and then sounds again.
A tall, aging man in a tan bush hat crosses the ground with a metal detector as if sanctifying the soil.
The tone comes and goes and he studies each one, discerning their electronic tone for its cause.
He pulls a trigger on the machine to read the depth, thinks for a second, and then stabs the root-crossed soil with a thin shovel.
With quick movements he slices through the roots and pulls out a dark plug of dirt for closer examination.
The man’s digging partner gets down on one knee and with a pin-point locator pokes the loosened soil until the machine vibrates in his hand.
Brushing away the dirt, the second man lifts an object from the soil and holds it up.
It is a pre-Civil War house nail, one that was last touched by a human hand, perhaps a slave, 175 years ago.
Tom Godwin is a retired Gulf County Sheriff’s Office investigator.
He is studious and straightforward, never backing down from a challenge.
That didn’t end after his retirement.
Given bad medical news, Godwin bought a boat.
“The only reason I purchased that pontoon boat was to signal to my family, the fight ain’t over,” he said.
The days on the water fishing and relaxing may have done the trick for a normal person, but they were not conducive to Godwin’s investigative mentality.
“It was at that point that I said if I die today the only thing I regret is that I didn’t solve the one mystery that I thought was a mystery in Gulf County,” Godwin said. “That was that blooming railroad.”
He had always heard stories of Iola and of the railroad from old-timers after he moved to Gulf County in the mid-80’s, and he had gathered notes on local history since arriving.
So Godwin went over those notes and went further into researching the little-known subject, and spent years getting the proper permissions from land owners to investigate the backwoods of Gulf County.
When Godwin reached out to experts from state universities, his questions were rebuffed.
“If we listened to the experts, all of this stuff is gone,” Godwin said.
The university archaeologists believed that the soil near the Apalachicola River was too acidic to allow for artifacts from Iola to remain intact, and in the beginning the search wasn’t easy.
Godwin was a novice unsure of the steps to take, and without the blessings of the scientific community he was acting on blind faith that there were artifacts in the ground.
He used a large search coil on his metal detector, which he quickly found disadvantageous in the thick underbrush.
But Godwin began pulling long-lost artifacts from the ground, and the digging was helping him with troubles.
“What it did for me was get my mind off the battle I had with myself and get back to the bird-in-hand, which was that railroad,” said Godwin. “It was a matter of refocusing my mind.”
Along with his medical improvements, Godwin was able to put a smaller search coil on his metal detector making the search much easier, and he met Stuart Resmondo.
“I met Stuart and said ‘come on I’ve got a shovel and I need someone to dig,’” Godwin joked.
While others have joined the two on digs, they are usually turned away by the mosquitoes, snakes, and the frustration of false readings.
“I’m bumfuddled about what people expect,” Godwin said. “I mean you’re going after something that’s approaching 200 years old and in the ground.”
Resmondo became central in Godwin’s efforts.
According to Godwin, Resmondo’s skills in tracking down information online, his skills with old maps, and his discoveries, both online and in the field, have really moved the search along.
As the search continued, Godwin and Resmondo were unsure on what to do with the balls of rust they pulled from the ground.
The two researched and experimented with different methods of rust removal and preservation before settling on the process of electrolysis.
Godwin and Resmondo carefully file down a tiny section of an artifact to base metal, before applying a lead wire and placing the find in a solution.
Using a battery charger to run a minimum amount of electricity through the object and to a ground, another metal object not attached to the artifact, the process causes the rust to bubble and fall off the artifact exposing the original metal.
The electrolysis process has let the two discovers preserve hundreds of artifacts that they were told didn’t exist.
At a storage location, Godwin pointed out the hundreds of cut iron nails the pair has found, before holding half of a dainty scissors, and pliers used before Florida was a state.
There are pieces from the railroad; a brake handle from one of the earliest steam locomotives in the country. Tie plates and a complete 15 foot section of rail that Resmondo found.
The two have also found tools for construction including both flat and triangle files, drill bits, and a wood chisel.
While many of the finds have an industrial background, some household goods have been pulled from the ground including the door of a woodstove, pieces of a cast iron pot, a ceramic plate, and a padlock.
With the help of a few experts the two diggers have succeeded where they were told it was impossible.
A professor from Texas introduced the pair to electrolysis, and they have received help in determining what items are from a historian at the Smithsonian Museum.
According to Godwin, the greatest discovery has been finding the location of the saw mill, and the fact that it used holding ponds to process the logs.
The mill was operated by Iola’s most famous resident, Samuel Hamilton Walker, and was in operation before the railroad was active.
According to Walker’s letters the saw mill burned in 1838, and Godwin and Resmondo have found evidence of that fire, along with parts of machinery from the mill.
For the public
If there is one thing that Godwin is adamant about, is the fact that this collection is for the public of Gulf County.
He has already sent a piece to Panhandle Pioneer Settlement in Blountstown and has donated part of the collection to Neal Timber Company who owns the land where Iola was located.
There is also interest to display pieces at the new Bay County Historical Society museum set to open in June on Harrison Ave. in Panama City.
Godwin's main goal is to keep the collection in Gulf County, to have informational displays at both ends of the county before finding a more permanent home for the artifacts.
One possible landing spot would be the old Gulf County Courthouse in Wewahitchka. A grant now in the works would require one room to be set aside for a museum. If that project gets off the ground, Godwin sees that location as a perfect fit for the majority of the objects.
“Hopefully out of it somebody will say we need to write a local history,” said Godwin.
Until that day Godwin and Resmondo say they will continue to search for new evidence and the pair are looking to expand their search area.
The next goal for the two is to search the original site of the landing for the first St. Joseph railroad off of Lake Wimico, and Godwin is currently in talks with the company that owns the land to do just that.