Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Celebrating Sacred Ground

Although Dr. Franklin Branch sought to build a health spa near the healing waters of Manatee Mineral Springs, conflict during the Third Seminole War kept that dream from coming to fruition. But the cultural and historical value of the spring was so great, I included it in my book "Florida's Healing Waters." This account of my visit to the Angola Festival at the spring did not make it into the final manuscript. 

On a steamy weekend in July 2018,  a three-day festival commemorated Manatee Mineral Spring’s connection to the community of Red Bays in the Bahamas. Residents of Red Bays, which is located on Androse Island, the largest island in the Bahamas, were on hand to give the gathering a distinctive Bahamian flair with island food, music, crafts, and performances by a colorful junkanoo band. it is very possible that these Bahamans were the descendants of Blacks who fled the area in 1821 when forces led by Andrew Jackson destroyed the settlement. 

Speakers from the different organizations who helped create the Angola Festival took turns at the microphone, expressing gratitude and taking a noticeably spiritual tone. A local politician marked the occasion as a new beginning built from the adversity of those who came before.

For me, the highlight of the event, however, was a panel discussion by the archeologists and historians who had worked so hard to uncover Angola’s past.  Historian Cantor Brown, Jr. set the tone for the discussion by proclaiming that the location of the festival should be considered sacred ground and that the Angola settlement was once a bright “beacon of freedom” for people fleeing persecution. Cultural anthropologist Dr. Rosalyn Howard offered observations from the year she spent in Red Bays while working on her book “Looking for Angola” – a study of the residents of a tiny town in the Bahamas that was created by fleeing residents of Angola. Anthropologist Sherry Robinson Svekis talked about the process of applying to the National Park Service for official recognition as an Underground Railroad site and New College Archeologist Uzi Baram revealed the discoveries made in the park that led them to the conclusion that the area surrounding Manatee Mineral Springs was the location of the Back Seminole settlement of Angola. The panel was skillfully moderated by “Looking for Angola” project director Vickie Oldham, who helped reveal that the discovery of Angola was a combination of high-tech science and providence. An underground mapping method called radar tomography was used to determine the “ground truth,” so that the archeologists knew where to dig. They found postholes that indicated they were in the right spot, and previous digs had discovered items from the early nineteenth century such as shards of British pottery and clay pipes. This was physical evidence of a settlement before settler Josiah Gates arrived. But the identification of Angola might not have occurred had Tampa-based Witten Technologies, the company that donated the radar tomography service, not been looking for a place to show-off its high-tech equipment. Their offer to demonstrate their services was “total serendipity” according to Svekis.

Dr. Brown asserted that early Seminole communities in Florida acted as trading posts for other Native American tribes who came south in the winter, much like modern-day Snowbirds. The colorful plumes worn in headdresses seen in portraits and photographs of other tribes were often collected from birds in Florida. It was fertile hunting grounds, rather than the healing waters that attracted these early visitors to the region.

I learned a great deal from this panel, but perhaps my greatest take away was that we have just scratched the surface in our understanding of this community located near present-day Bradenton. It will be exciting to watch for new developments at this small, out-of-the-way spring in Manatee County. Perhaps one day the spring itself will be restored, revealing the role this sacred water has played in our state’s history. 

Archival photograph from the Manatee County Public Library

Archival photograph from the State Archives of Florida

Archival photograph from the Manatee County Public Library

Archival photograph from the Manatee County Public Library

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Chalice Well, Glastonbury’s Sacred Red Spring

Note: This account of my visit to the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, England, on my 2018 visit to the UK, was originally written for my book, "Florida's Healing Waters."

One of the first things my wife and I did when arriving in Bath, England was book a day trip to Glastonbury, a nearby village that is setting for legends about such monumental figures as Jesus Christ and King Arthur. Healing waters are prominent in this ancient mythology and I was excited to visit the Chalice Well, described as a sanctuary of “pilgrimage, healing, and peace.”

The sacred well and gardens was an option on the tour, and three of us hopped off the motorcoach while the rest of the group explored the village of Glastonbury. After paying a small admission to the non-profit that maintains the grounds, we entered a lovely landscaped space of extreme tranquility. The water from the spring descends the length of the garden over a series of terraces and is collected in small pools at various points before exiting the site via a serpentine conduit stained red by the chalybeate waters. Benches surrounded the small basin at the lowest level, called the Vesica Pool, and I noticed the other visitors engaged in quiet meditation around the water. As I headed up the hill following the water’s course, I passed under “Guardian” Yew trees, and entered an area called King Arthur’s Court and its “Healing Pool.” Steps led down to a level wading pool, and if I had more time I would have loved to remove my shoes and experience the waters. Around the path were niches and nooks full of silent meditators, and the smell of incense wafted over the grounds. 

At the next level water poured out of a lion’s head and filled two small drinking glasses, and the brochure provided stated that this is the only place in the garden where the water is safe to drink, although moderation was urged. I found the water to have a subtle taste of minerals, and after a quick sip I headed up to the well, the source of the sacred water. The well’s cover was a circular wooden block framed in decorative wrought iron with a symbol of two interlocking circles called a Vesica Pisces – said to represent the “union of heaven and earth” – intersected by a sword (perhaps representing King Arthur). Visitors sat in silence on stone benches around the spring, and the shady glen surrounding it retained a peaceful energy despite the presence of a couple kids who appeared unmoved to be in the presence of this sacred water source. It is at this spot where legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea “buried or washed” the Holy Grail from Last Supper, and the iron-stained waters “miraculously” sprang forth representing the blood of Christ.

In the well-appointed gift shop near the entrance to the gardens, I noticed a painting on note cards and posters of a semi-transparent, mystical-looking goddess figure hovering over the wellhead, her arms lifted forming the shape of a chalice. This rendering of the “Deva of Chalice Well”, a spirit being said to “guide and protect the forces of nature” reminded me of how the hot springs of Bath were first associated with goddess Sulis, and then the Roman Goddess Minerva. For thousands of years, cultures have associated sacred water with feminine energy. That tradition continues in the present day at the Chalice Well.



Saturday, September 5, 2020

Swimming at Silver Springs

The desire to jump into a pristine Florida spring can be overwhelming, especially in the dastardly days of summer. But states' most famous array of springs, Silver Springs, started out as a natural wonder worthy of awe and contemplation, long before it became a recreational resource for swimming. One of the first written accounts of Silver Springs, penned by an officer of the U.S. Army in 1826, described it as a "magical theatre of nature" where one would ponder in "our inward thought the marvelous works of the divine Maker of heaven and earth."

It is likely the hordes of Gilded Age visitors who arrived at Silver Springs by steamboats initially were just there for sightseeing. Attitudes towards swimming transformed later in the 19th century, as the exercise was looked at through distinctions of class. "Prior to the 1850s, middling and well-to-do Americans rarely lunged into natural waters for recreation or amusement" notes writer Jeff Wiltse in his book, "Contested Waters." That changed by the early 20th century as attitudes towards exercise and spending time outdoors were seen as healthy pursuits. But the presence of safety lines stretched across springs or extending into the surf in Gilded Age photographs seem to indicate that there were many during that time period who did not yet swim well.

At some point, however, swimming at Silver Springs became a popular attraction, and those who desired a plunge into the crystal clear waters found a way to whet their appetites. Perhaps the earliest evidence can be found in photographs showing a bathhouse at the spring. By the mid-twentieth century, swimmers competed with glass bottom boats and photo subs for space in the springs' main basin, which had a floating platform and a diving tower.

I have vague memories of visiting Silver Springs as a young child in the early 1970s, but no memories of swimming – only glass-bottom boats, the statue of Osceola, and the twisted horseshoe palm. I'm not sure when people stopped recreational swimming at Silver Springs – perhaps it was when the adjacent Wild Waters Water Park opened in 1978 – reflecting the public's emerging preference for a more sanitized swimming experience.

Decades passed between my visits to the park. As an adult at Silver Springs, I experienced a Johnny Cash performance during a thunderstorm while standing in several inches of water.  My wife and I witnessed the tail end of the theme park era when there were unhappy animals pacing in captivity. And later I returned to take pictures with my underwater point-and-shoot camera, canoeing up the Silver River, and avoiding alligators who seemed to want to eat my point-and-shoot camera. I've also reveled in the Old Florida experience of a glass-bottom boat ride.

Yesterday,  September 4, 2020, the Florida State Park system announced that in about eighteen months swimming will return to Silver Springs. On one hand, it would be a thrill to actually swim in Florida's most legendary springs, whose amazing waters made Harriett Beecher Stowe claim that there was nothing comparable to on the earth.  But I am nervous about the alligators, who have had the run of the place for quite a long time now. And I am concerned about the impact swimmers might have on the fragile ecosystem of the spring. Perhaps, it will open up the State Park to a whole new group of people – people who will become advocates for protecting the spring and restoring it to a pristine condition. That could be a good thing.

Update: According to this article in the Ocala Star Banner,  swimming at Silver Springs stopped in the 1950s because of liability issues. It returned briefly, however, in the summer of 1998.

It's likely most early visitors to Silver Springs entertained themselves simply looking into the "mysterious depths." Photo by the Detroit Publishing Company via the Library of Congress. 
Image from the State Archives of Florida titled "Silver Spings Florida bathhouse, 1916."
Real photo postcard with the caption "Glass Bottom Boats
on Mammoth Spring – Bathhouse – Silver Spring, Florida."
By the Jazz Age, Victorian modesty was forgotten and postcards
such as this showed the acceptability of public swimming.
Note this postcard uses the term "bathing" rather than swimming. 
There can be no doubt that underwater photography showing the clarity
of the springs had a sizeable role in encouraging public swimming.
This shows underwater pioneer Newt Perry swimming underwater
for Grantland Rice's first underwater film in 1924. 
With an assist from Newt Perry, Silver Springs served as the backdrop
for underwater photography for the "Life Saving & Water Safety" guide
created by the Red Cross that was first published in 1937.
An early underwater real photo postcard.
Photographer Bruce Mozert's surreal underwater images were published
in newspapers across the country, taking advantage of the water's amazing clarity.
Image from the State Archives of Florida.
I used this underwater beauty in the photomontage
for the cover of my first book "Finding the Fountain of Youth."
The water clarity was ideal for motion pictures as well.
Here's Newt Perry with Johnny Weissmuller and Johnny Sheffield
 during the filming of "Tarzan Finds a Son" in 1939.
Image from the State Archives of Florida.
Esther Williams jokes around during the filming of "Jupiter's Darling"
in 1954 at Silver Springs.
Image from the State Archives of Florida.
Howard Hughes 1955 film "Underwater" took advantage of the water clarity
with the world's first underwater premiere of a motion picture.
Jane Russell, however, was upstaged by Jayne Mansfield's "wardrobe malfunction."
Image from the State Archives of Florida.
"Revenge of the Creature" was also filmed at Silver Springs in 1954.
Image from the State Archives of Florida.
Frequent Mozert underwater model and Esther Williams double, Ginger Stanley Hollowell,
 set a record for swimming the entire seven-mile length of the Silver River.
Read more about Ginger here. Image from the State Archives of Florida.
During segregation, a separate attraction for African Americans
called Paradise Park was operated by Silver Springs' owners.
It was located east of the Silver Springs attraction.
Image from the Gainesville Sun.
This rendering shows the bathhouse, swim shop, and bathing area just above the legend.
An early postcard shows the swimming amenities at the spring. 
This postcard from the State Archives almost looks more like a swimming pool. 
A more contemporary postcard view. 

Five photos illustrating swimming at Silver Springs
from the Mozert Collection at the State Archives of Florida.

Silver Springs 2013. 
Silver Springs from a 2009 visit.

To learn more about early tourists to Florida's Gilded Age watering spots, check out my new book, "Florida's Healing Waters."

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Shangri-La Springs: Haven for Health

Florida has at least 1,000 artesian springs and my new book, Florida's Healing Waters, documents twenty-two spas that were built adjacent to mineral springs during the Gilded Age. They range from places so popular that entire towns developed around the facilities, such as Green Cove and White Springs, to others so ephemeral that the only evidence they ever existed is in the travel literature of the time, such as Moncrief Spring near Jacksonville. It is also likely that many springs were used for therapeutic bathing by locals, but never commercially developed. And some facilities were enhanced with the addition of water from artesian wells, or "pseudo springs." 
Most of these spring-based spas tended to be in the northern part of Florida where there is a higher concentration of springs. A handful existed in Central Florida, but one of the few that was built in South Florida was the spa at Shangri-La Springs in Lee County. 
The spa originated when Harvie E. Heitman, a prolific businessman and early developer of Southwest Florida’s Lee County, and his brother built Bonita Springs’ Heitman Hotel in 1921 as a built as a place for potential real estate investors to stay. The town of Bonita Springs is said to be named for a sulphur spring on the hotel grounds (the town was previously known by the unremarkable name, Survey.) It is claimed that the spring was sacred to the Calusa Indians who lived in the area hundreds of years ago.
Heitman died in 1922 and the hotel endured several owners and multiple name changes until osteopath Dr. Charles Gnau bought the property in 1962. It was Gnau who saw the potential of the resort as a place of healing centered around the spring. Gnau believed the water of the spring “compared favorably” to the famed waters of the Baden-Baden Spring in Germany. He was ahead of his time, advocating for a holistic approach to health, including eating organic produce and exercising regularly. Gnau built a spring-fed pool with an Indian maiden statue to the property. The next owner, Dr. R.J. Cheatham renamed the resort the Shangri-La Hotel and developed it into an institute of hygiene.

Today the Shangri-La Springs resort is operated as a day spa, hotel, and restaurant, offering locally grown organic food and a variety of spa treatments including massage, reiki, saunas, reflexology, and aromatherapy.