As it turns out, there is a great deal I do not know about my friend Jim Clupper. I know he loved racing cars, Bob Dylan, books, chocolate, history, and perhaps most especially, prehistoric Indian culture.
I also know he was a great Florida Keys historian and a passionate amateur archaeologist. As one could imagine, his small home tucked away on Upper Matecumbe Key is filled with the kinds of things one might picture cluttering the home of an old historian — artifacts, stacks of research papers, bookshelves lined with dusty tombs, filing cabinets stuffed with historical tidbits about pirates, Spanish galleons, family histories, and my favorite folder filled with stories about the Florida Skunk Ape.
It would have been nice to spend more time hanging out with Jim, passing the peace pipe, and letting the historical tales take their unanticipated turns (as they often tend to). Unfortunately, I was introduced to Jim too late in his life for most of those kinds of shenanigans. Fortunately, barstool sailor and island troubadour Micah Gardner had the good sense to bring the two of us together. What Jim did not know then was that I had been a fan of his work as a historian long before we ever met face to face.
What is fortunate is that we were able to partake in several field trips over the course of our friendship, venturing out into the sub-tropical jungles in search of physical manifestations of the local history. None were places Jim had not seen before; most were places I had heard of, but never seen. Jim chose every locale we explored and while there was always the chance that he might come upon something unexpected, we were not really there so he could discover something he had never seen — rather, we were there so that I could.
Of course, field trips were not generally how we spent our time together. More often than not we would sit in the back room of his rustic conch house on Parker Drive. I would sit on a stool and listen as he swiveled back and forth between looking at me and the computer screen.
Jim would start with something like, “You should have a copy of …” and end with things like: “these transcripts of interviews I did with Russ Neidhauk...” or “this one I did with Buck Starck… Buck talks about seeing the freshwater wells on Lower Matecumbe…”
Early on in our relatively short friendship I asked Jim how he became interested in the local history. He told me he wanted to, “get to know his backyard.” Essentially, our time together consisted of him showing me his backyard — whether that was through field trips or his incredible collection of documents and source materials. The fantastic part is that Jim and I share the same backyard, as well as the same thirst for its history.
Where I am a more of a sit at the desk and write kind of historian, Jim was more of a get out there and get your hands dirty kind of historian. While not a professionally trained archeologist, he was respected by professionals and worked with some of the best people actively working in South Florida, including Bob Carr, executive director at the Archaeological & Historical Conservancy, and Dr. Traci Ardren of the University of Miami, who is currently researching prehistoric Indian sites in the Keys.
Where he did differ with some archaeologists, Jim was a firm believer in the notion that a national treasure, like a prehistoric Indian site, is better served on display for the public to see rather than restricting access to it. Repeatedly he told me that whenever he visited a site it was generally those declared off-limits that seemed to show the most wear and tear.
Jim had an affinity for Indians and prehistoric sites since childhood. What manifested from it was a brilliant passion — though it was not just about digging in the dirt and discovering some long-forgotten artifact for Jim. He was also an avid woodworker who created replicas of prehistoric tools using resources like shell, wood and animal bone, as well as techniques either known to or only available in prehistoric times.
While it would be hard to nail down one lesson I learned from Jim over another, the best I can do is try to listen to him now, to the sound of his voice in the back of my head that I will forever be both thankful and sad to carry with me. Fortunately, I was able to sit with him a couple of days before he passed and tell him how much I appreciated him, his work, and shake his hand. “I am not done yet,” he told me. “I still have work to do.”
I know, Jim. I know.
From his brother, Dennis, and his surviving family: James (Jim) Martin Clupper died peacefully at his Islamorada home December 19, 2015. Born in Marion, Indiana 1941, Jim was the son the late Henry Clupper and his surviving mother, Mabel Eggers Clupper who turned 100 years old in December. Jim is survived by Susan Guyaux and Karen Vandervoorde, brother Dennis and wife Connie Clupper of Manteo, N.C., and sister Donna Hazzard of Ohio, as well as a loving bunch of cousins, nieces and nephews.
After graduating from Coral Gables High School in 1959, Jim served in the United States Navy on the U.S.S. Turner Joy as a sonarman. Jim attended Florida Atlantic University, before moving to Maryland where he was employed as a parole officer; he later owned an import car repair shop. After relocating to Islamorada, Jim was employed with Monroe County, becoming the manager of the Helen Wadley Library, Islamorada.
Jim was a Florida Keys Historian and an active member of the Archaeological & Historical Conservancy. Jim had an avid passion for music, dogs, woodworking, motorsports, and South Florida prehistoric Indian culture.
A public celebration of Jim's life will be held Sunday, February 7, at the Florida Keys Memorial, better known as the Hurricane Monument, in Islamorada at 2 p.m. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Jim’s name to the Archaeological & Historical Conservancy, 4800 SW 64th Ave, Suite 107, Davie, Florida, 33314-4438.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.
Cutline: Keys historians Jim Clupper and Brad Bertelli stand together during a recent outing. Clupper died on Dec. 19 at the age of 74. (Photo courtesy of Brad Bertelli)