Saturday, March 24, 2018

Hunting for Relics of a Golden Age

Union County Historical Society

Five years after "Finding the Fountain of Youth" was published, I am fortunate enough to still have speaking events, most recently at the Matheson History Museum in Gainesville. Since this talk coincided with the start of Spring Break, it seemed like an excellent opportunity for some spring hunting. Lately I'm not hunting for beautiful cerulean swimming holes, but rather the vestiges of what I call "Florida's Golden Age of Bathing." That refers to the era after the Civil War when invalids and tourists poured into the state looking for restoration and relaxation in dozens of spring-side spas.

Union County Historical Society
The first stop on my tour of forgotten springs was Worthington Springs, about a half hour north of Gainesville. I knew from Jane Keeler's excellent post on the Desolation Florida blog that there was not much to see from the Union County spring's glory days as a destination for tourists, picnickers, and the infirm. Sadly, Chastain-Seay Park, where the Worthington Springs Hotel and the spring-fed bathing pool once stood, was closed due to high waters and the only evidence of the site's history was photographs posted outside the park's boundaries.

The Tampa Tribune from June 27, 1910 describes the property as an "ideal place" for outings and vacation stays:
"The Spring is magnificent and strongly impregnated with sulphur, affords ample bathing facilities and under the able management of Ira Lamb is kept in a first class manner. There is no reason why any one should go elsewhere for an outing when all the requirements are here. No mosquitoes, fine shade right in the midst of where melons, vegetables, chickens, fresh milk and all else to make (l)ife pleasant are found in abundance."

Courtesy Matheson History Museum
After making a few photographs of the signs outside the park, my wife and I headed to Taylor County, home of Hampton Springs. The site of a former resort hotel and spa is now a county park, and it has recently received much attention after the County decided to fill in the spring pool. The County Commission quickly reversed their decision after residents protested the loss of a favorite swimming hole. I talked to the County Administrator who was caught off guard by the vocal reaction, but seemed to see an opportunity in the outpouring of energy from advocates of the spring. This was my second visit to the spring – my first stop was after a talk in Tallahassee on a cold day in 2014. There was no one in the park that day as I poked around as a "polar vortex" threatened the state capital with potential snow flurries and the park was slightly erie and very quiet. I could see evidence of vandalism then, and the problem has persisted, contributing to the county's initial decision to fill in the spring pool, although the main reason was to minimize liability.

Image of Hampton Springs from my 2014 visit

Filling in the spring, courtesy J.T. Davis

Page from a 1920s promotion booklet from the State Archives of Florida.
Note the semi-circular area in the photo on the right. 

This appears to be the semi-circular area pictured above.

This shallow pool is between the semi-circular area and the deeper pool.

What appeared to be the indication of  high mineral content in the water of the spring pool.

Water flowing into the recently restored spring pool.

On this visit the park was again quiet and I could see evidence of where heavy machinery had removed the concrete debris and gravel used to fill the spring. The main pool was full of algae-laced spring water on my first visit, but it was mostly dry this time, allowing me the opportunity to descend the stairs and survey the pool. The smell of sulphur permeated the air and there was evidence of minerals deposits from the flowing spring water, which made a miniature waterfall as it flowed down the side of the pool. Taylor County cobbled together a series of grants in the early 2000s so that this historic site could be surveyed and partially restored. Their foresight has created an opportunity for future generations to learn about an era when visitors arrived via train to take the waters, hunt, fish, golf, and participate in other leisure activities, all while staying in a luxurious hotel. Beyond maintaining a swimming hole for locals, preserving the remnants of this site create a glimpse into a time when "taking the waters" at Florida springs provided the foundation for today's tourist economy.


Houses at sulphur springs – Newport Springs, 1924 from the State Archives of Florida

Newport Springs between 1920 and 1939 from the State Archives of Florida

People gathered at springs – Newport Springs, 1926 from the State Archives of Florida

Newport Springs 2018

Traveling west on U.S. 98 into the state's Big Bend region, our next stop was Newport Springs, in the tiny unincorporated village of Newport, Florida. According to 1998 article in the Tallahassee Democrat, this out-of-the-way location boasted a flourishing hotel as early as 1850, and guests arrived by train and mule-drawn wagons. Today the spring is still located just off the unpaved Plank Road, but is surrounded with a menacing fence marked with no trespassing signs. It was a bit disappointing that we couldn't get closer to the water, but it is good to know the watering hole still exists, unlike the pool at Worthington Springs.


Text near the bottom of the sign reads “A Florida Learn and Serve Project." Learn and Serve America (LSA) was a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Created under the National and Community Service Act of 1990, LSA distributed grants in support of service-learning in order to simultaneously enrich the education of young people, demonstrate the value of youth as assets to their communities, and stimulate the use of service-learning as a strategy to meet unmet community needs. The federal appropriation for Fiscal Year 2011, signed on April 15, 2011, eliminated funding for the Learn & Serve America program which provided funds for the Florida Learn & Serve program. This sign is a remnant of that program.

The final stop on our journey was Panacea Springs located in a roadside park just across from the Wakulla Welcome Center in the unincorporated town of Panacea. A large sign marks the spot where about half dozen small mineral springs still trickle into different size basins. According to Bulletin No. 31, the State of Florida's definitive report on springs, the site was home to a 125-guest hotel and some 20 medicinal springs in 1911.  An ad from the Weekly Tallahasseean in 1901 boasts of new mineral and salt water pools, hot and cold water in all rooms, baths in the hotel, and "all modern conveniences" (including shuffleboard!) According to much more recent 2008 article, different springs were purported to cured different ailments and were labeled as such, including Arthritis Spring and Liver Spring.

The spring closest to U.S. 98 had a brick wall around it leading to a circular opening, so I assumed it was the famed "Cypress Stump Spring" from which water flowed directly out of a stump. Nearby were several other rectangular basins of differing sizes, some sheltered, others completely open to the elements. One spring filled a pool large enough for several people, others were about the size of hot tubs. All of them had cloudy water that seemed to indicate a high concentration of minerals in the spring water.

Cypress Stump Springs from the State Archives of Florida

Cypress Stump Spring?

The most interesting spring was near the rear of the park, where three, (at one time four), brick columns supported a roof above a small, round basin, that reminded me of a spring one might find in a temple in the ancient world – a temple that was home to an oracle.  Located right next to the creek, one of the columns had been pushed down into the water and another was decorated with graffiti. This place where the water was at one timed believed to have miraculous properties is very much at risk.

Across the street at the Welcome Center I found some archival images of the spring, but no historical interpretation. I emailed Wakulla County through their tourist website, and the county official who responded said that the park was located on private property and the county is not responsible for the park's upkeep. Yet the park is promoted as a destination for tourists and is mentioned on printed materials and included on websites. Additionally in 2015 the Welcome Center once posted renderings of restoration plans for the park. I have inquiries pending, and my hope is that these remnants of another era are somehow preserved.

2015 photo from the Wakulla Welcome Center, courtesy Karen Chadwick.

In summary, the spring pool at Worthington Springs is now covered by a parking lot. The spring pool at Hampton Springs was recently filled, and then emptied when residents reacted strongly to the loss of their swimming hole. The basin at Newport Springs is fenced off, and the spring pools at Panacea are crumbling and at risk of falling by the wayside.  I like the words of the mission statement of the Florida Division of Historical Resources: "To inspire a love of history through preservation and education" by cultivating "connections between people and place." These spring pools are invaluable assets of our state's history where enormous opportunities exist to create connections between people and place. To let these assets crumble and disappear or in some cases, even be paved over, is unacceptable. One does not need an oracle to see the cloudy future facing these irreplaceable historic resources.

Archival images of Panacea Springs from the State Archives of Florida

Friday, October 6, 2017

Looking for Billy Bartram

Note: William Bartram first came to Florida in 1765 with his father John, who was exploring the new British possession for King George. After failing as a Florida plantation owner, William, aka Billy, returned to Florida on his own in 1774 and in 1779 published an epic narrative of his journeys throughout the southeast titled Travels. His lyrical prose inspired a generation of writers and naturalists to follow – they continue to inspire people today, including myself.

Even though there are historical markers and signs marking the Bartram Trail throughout the state, the small city of Palatka seems to have taken ownership of Bartram in Florida. Their festival of all things Bartram is known as the St. Johns River Bartram Frolic, a reference to a Native American ritual at Spalding’s Lower Store called the "Indian Frolic" in William Bartram’s writings. The two-day long event held the last weekend of September features historical reenactors, boat excursions, hiking, biking, and kayak tours, art, music, and a symposium featuring Bartram presentations. My first foray into the Frolic was a kayak trip to two of the springs visited by Bartram: Satsuma and Welaka Springs.

Soon after putting in at the Shell Harbor boat ramp in Satsuma

The forecast looked bleak the day before the excursion, but the overcast skies resulted in comfortable cooler temperatures. The water of the mighty St. Johns looked like swirling black ink and it was still swollen from the passage of Hurricane Irma three weeks prior.  Our mission was to follow the route that was explored by John and William Bartram on December 27, 1765.

A short paddle up river led us our first stop at Satsuma Spring, a site described in John Bartram’s journal but only recently discovered by our tour leader, Bartram aficionado Dean Campbell. From the river the spring run was impossible to detect, only by interpreting the topography was it found, as much of the east side of the river is composed of steep bluffs, and springs can only at low points along the river.  The spring is located on private property and the Bartram festival organizers had arranged our visit ahead of time with the owner. A nearly horizontal live oak guards the spring’s entrance and our tour leader informed us that Native Americans often intentionally bent trees to indicate the presence of water sources.  The spring is in a small ravine and the owner had lined the path with mulch to cover up the mud created by Irma. Confined within a semi-circular basin made of cement filled-sand bags to prevent erosion, the spring wreaks of sulfur, one of the clues that linked it to the Bartrams. John Bartram’s journal described the spring this way: "a large fountain (big enough to turn a mill) of warm clear water of a very offensive taste, and smelt like bilge-water, or the washings of a gun-barrel...."  The smell of sulfur, while stinky to most made one of my fellow paddlers feel nostalgic as she explained that she grew up drinking sulfur water and actually liked the smell. Another paddler claimed that it made an excellent mosquito repellant and drinking the water would keep the bugs at bay.  The property owner told us that the torrential rains from Irma had “opened up” the spring and improved its flow. On this gray overcast day the spring water possessed the distinctive cerulean hue I’ve come to associate with Florida’s most beautiful springs.  After a few minutes of soaking in the history and natural beauty of this 3rd magnitude spring, we returned to our kayaks and paddled on.

Native Americans were known to have intentionally bent trees to indicate water sources

Observing the spring vent

The white stuff on the leaves is bacteria that indicates the presence of sulfur

Here's what it looks like where the Satsuma Spring run enters the river

Next was Nashua Spring, also on private property, but in this case we could see nothing more than the Bartram Trail sign marking its location on the river. We paddled on, under leaning live oak limbs, around newly downed tree trunks, and past a half dozen locals in powerboats throwing cast nets in the pursuit of shrimp. At Turkey Island we turned left into a cove towards Welaka Spring, another third magnitude spring – one I remember fondly from my adolescence.  When I was teen my friends and I would trek up this cove until water hyacinths impeded our progress. Then we’d be forced to wade the rest of the way through the dark water, (with the hyacinths at face level), until we reached the spring. There was a rope swing and one could swing out right over the spring boil and plunge into the freezing water, an oasis of clarity in the otherwise root beer-colored cove.

Dean Campbell explaining what the Bartrams would have experienced on this part of the river

As we paddled to the spring I notice immediately, (with great glee), that there are no longer water hyacinths to be found anywhere. The only object near the spring is a floating house – a homemade houseboat on pontoons – positioned adjacent to the boil. The spring is “browned out”, meaning the water level of the surrounding river is so high that the brilliant blue hue, so noticeable at Satsuma Spring, is not evident here. There is, however, a significant boil on the surface indicating a high amount of water flow. While our tour leader relates anecdotes about the spring’s history, the rain we had dodged earlier began to fall gently, and we paddled back down river to our starting point, following the Bartrams’ footprints and grateful that they can still be found over 250 years after they explored this location.

These Bartram Trail signs mark locations visited by William

Dean over the boil of Welaka Spring

Dean speculates that his floating house was moved back
in the cove as protection from Hurricane Irma
Yours truly as a teenager, jumping into Welaka Spring

The next day the featured event of the Frolic was the Bartram Symposium with five different speakers. Despite persistent rain, an enthusiastic audience of about 65 people enjoyed close to three hours of presentations about the 18th century botanist and explorer. Over-sized framed prints of William Bartram’s drawings ringed the room and a Bartram re-enactor was on-hand, posing for selfies with eager Bartramphiles. The first two speakers were co-authors of Travels on the St.Johns River, a book devoted entirely to the Bartrams expeditions up and down the river. Thomas Hallock, a professor of English at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, gave a brief Bartram overview and co-author Richard Franz, an emeritus scientist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, discussed the flowers Bartram observed along his trip on the St. Johns. Next the Environmental Archaeology Collection Manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History, Irvy R. Quitmyer, talked about the archeology of the region, specifically the indigenous people who lived near the river before the Bartrams arrived.  Brad Sanders of the Bartram Trail Conference next discussed plans to attempt to designate a Bartram Heritage Corridor along the routes traveled by the Bartrams (seven states in total.) The Symposium concluded with an animated presentation by Bartram muralist and reenactor Dean Quigley.

Bartram reenactor at the St. Johns River Center in Palatka

The Bartram reenactor stayed in character throughout the symposium

Bartram Frolic organizer Ken Mahaffey

William Bartram’s travels were published just 15 years after America declared independence from England. His powerful spiritual descriptions of what he encountered in Florida inspired writers and authors of the period, from the poet Coleridge to influential transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. What I learned from attending the Bartram Frolic is that his beautiful words still echo up and down the St. Johns River and they still have the power to inspire. What an amazing legacy.

Interpretive Bartram sign in Welaka
The Seminoles named William Bartram Puc Puggy which means "Flower Hunter"