Koreshan religious sect may come back to life in interpretive program

Bonita Daily News, May 16, 2003

It may not come to be for several years, but two Estero groups and the state park service are taking the first step in developing an interpretive program to further the message of the long extinct Koreshan religious sect.

“I call it the beginning of the beginning,” said Charles Dauray, president of College of Life Foundation, the corporate arm of the original Koreshan group.

That first step is an $8,500 study that will identify the program’s goals and figure out how best to convey its message. At its heart, the interpretive effort will center around a yet-to-be-constructed visitor’s center at Koreshan State Historic Site to showcase artifacts and explain the Koreshan story. The study will be conducted by St. Augustine-based Hughes-Bowman Design Group Inc.

The project is helping to heal old wounds between College of Life Foundation and Koreshan Unity Alliance, which serves as Koreshan State Park’s citizen support group. For years, Alliance members questioned the way the land and artifact-rich College of Life group conducted its business. In return, the College of Life board bristled at the criticism.

“We’re talking, we’re meeting and we’re working together,” said Bill Grace, Koreshan Unity Alliance president. “It has been a step in the right direction.”

What the Alliance and the Foundation have in common is an interest in the Koreshans, who came to Estero from Chicago in 1894 and settled along the riverbank to form a Utopia. Among other things, Koreshans believed they lived inside Earth, not on its surface.

College of Life and Florida Parks Service each are donating $4,000 for the study. The Alliance is contributing the remaining $500.

Dauray and Grace have been discussing the project, along with Koreshan State Park Manager Jon Robinson, for about a year.

“I’d like to take credit (for the collaborative effort), but I think everyone involved has recognized that we need a plan to tell the story of the Koreshans and the best way to do that is to work together,” Robinson said.

The interpretive program is one element in the historic site’s new proposed management plan. The plan, and another for nearby Mound Key, are being reviewed by a 21-member advisory committee. The public also will be able to weigh in on the plans at a 7 p.m. meeting on May 29 at South County Regional Library.

State park management plans are updated every five years. It has been only three years since Koreshan’s last update, Robinson said, but another is being conducted now to get it on the same timing cycle as Mound Key’s. Both facilities are overseen by the Koreshan State Historic Site staff. Neither plan has changed much since it was last updated.

“My big gripe with these management plans is that they’re not based on a budget, on what’s feasible,” said Grace, who sits on the advisory committee. “It’s a wish-list of things there’s no money for that keeps rolling from one management plan to the next.”

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