Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Old Florida Gratitude: Presents from the Past

I was not born in Florida, but it's the only home I've ever known. I was 18 months old when my mom and I flew down to Gainesville to meet my Dad, who had already started his new job for the city. I have no memories of the snowy Midwest and while I know that it's me in those baby pictures in Michigan, there are no memories attached to them.

So in my own internal survey of what I'm grateful for this Thanksgiving, I must put at the top of the list that I'm grateful that my parents decided to move to Florida. Today only 36% of the folks living here are natives, and this state's colorful history is one of folks from other places leaving their mark here – from Ponce de León to Henry Flagler.

Who needs a swimming pool?
I grew up in Gainesville in a suburban neighborhood at the end of the block near the woods. Critters would leave the sanctuary of the woods and explore our yard; gopher tortoises, box turtles, snakes, and fireflies. My mom still lives in the house I grew up in and she still has deer and armadillo amble through the property, but sadly no more fireflies.

The second thing I am grateful for is growing up near those woods. It was our playground and in our young minds live oak branches became jet planes, the paths became motocross trails for our bicycles, and we became army scouts searching for the enemy. It was fertile ground for our  imaginations. I remember signing up for a nature course at the local trail shop with Tom Allen from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom (and son of Ross Allen). To my surprise, they didn't take us to any of Gainesville's well known settings for nature like Paynes Prairie or the San Felasco Hammock. To my surprise, the nature course, led by the famous naturalist, simply explored the woods near my house. I guess our silvan playground was something special.

The woods are still there today, pretty much unchanged.

Mrs. Old Florida in the Gainesville woods, Thanksgiving 2011.

As I started fourth grade my mom went back to work because my parents had made the decision to purchase a weekend retreat. Most Gainevillians had Crescent Beach condos, but my parents chose a different location, the tiny town of Welaka on the St. Johns River. One of my dad's best friends had purchased a place there, directly across from the mouth of the Ocklawaha River, and we soon began making the hour and twenty minute drive from Gainesville every Friday night.

While River Bend Villas was anything but Old Florida, the location was off the beaten path. Tiny Welaka was and is in my mind the quintessential small Florida town – one stop light and the majority of the businesses there were fish camps. Our place was right where the river widened to form Little Lake George at a spot called Beecher's Point. If the tide was low enough we could walk along the water's edge and find Indian pottery. I caught my first bass there, saw my first manatee, and had a close encounter with a cottonmouth that still gives me nightmares. But we also caught blue crabs, had fish fries every weekend, and made trips up the Ocklawaha to swim and picnic.

That's me in the center, clowning around on the Ocklawaha River.
Jumping off the rope swing at Welaka Springs.
That's me with flippers on, in front of the mighty St. Johns River in Welaka.
My Dad with a couple lunkers. 

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to experience Old Florida at places like Welaka, Micanopy, and Palatka. I took it for granted then, but I don't today.

Looking not-too-thrilled to be in my Cub Scout uniform; woods in background
I was a Cub Scout and a Webelo, but I never made it to Boy Scouts as my troop dissolved and for some reason I didn't rejoin another troop. Webelos, the intermediate rank between Cub and Boy Scouts, stands for "We'll be Loyal Scouts." My favorite memory as a Webelo was a camping trip at a spring on the Santa Fe River. I don't remember the name of the spring, if I even knew it, but I remember it was on private property and we had the entire spring to ourselves for the whole weekend. We put watermelons in the spring to chill and when we finally ate them, it was the best watermelon I've ever had. Our entertainment for the camp out was to ride inflatable rafts from the spring head down the run, jumping out just before we reached the Santa Fe's darker water. We did this over and over and over, the force of the current making it a challenge to avoid crashing against the bank.

I'm grateful I grew up around springs and unspoiled wilderness. The Florida I grew up in was tiny towns and mid-sized cities with lots of forests or farmland in between. As a kid, long car rides bored me but today long drives through the country restore my soul.

We took several epic Florida vacations, and I'll always treasure the memories and the photos from our Sunshine State trips. My favorite was staying on remote Sanibel Island in a small cottage. I'd get up early every morning and scour the beach for seashells. We went to Thomas Edison's Winter Home in Ft. Myer's and Edison became my childhood hero. After Sanibel we cut across the state and visited Lion Country Safari on the other coast.

I also remember a vacation to the panhandle with a glorious sailboat trip, staying at little motels on Ormond Beach, and many frequent visits to St. Augustine. There was lots to do in Florida before Disney, and it didn't cost a fortune to do it.

My brother and I on Sanibel Island.
A memorable trip to Cape Canaveral (Kennedy Space Center).
Living less than an hour from Silver Springs, we often took out-of-town visitors there.
As a kid, I absolutely loved Marineland.
With my uncle at Six Gun Territory near Silver Springs. Loved that place too!
With my Mom in St. Augustine.
I'm grateful for these experiences in the other parts of the state, they give me a baseline with which to contrast the Florida of today and it helps me to appreciate the remnants of Old Florida that survive into the 21st century. Looking back into my childhood, I am reminded by how these experiences shaped me into who I am today. I am committed to doing my part to preserve Florida's culture, its history, and its natural environment.

I love hearing the stories from Floridians who have been in the state for generations – it helps me to imagine what the state was like before we arrived in '66. Feel free to leave a comment and share what you are grateful regarding Old Florida.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Smells of Old Florida

It was suggested on my Old Florida Facebook page that I solicit comments for the smells that best reflect the essence of Old Florida. Here are the responses:

Coppertone. Noxzema after the Coppertone didn't work.

Night blooming jasmine or Natal Plum citrus blossoms in the spring; Confederate jasmine.

When you were on your way to the beach and you're starting to smell that salt air.

Coconut scented suntan lotion, fish... and that earthy, swampy smell on the rivers.

Maxwell House Quality Control, Jacksonville, 1950s, State Archives of Florida
Maxwell House coffee traveling the freeway in Jacksonville and roasting Bustelo coffee in Hialeah.

Paper mill in Port St. Joe, 1954, State Archives of Florida
Everglades pines when the sun first hits them in the morning. Hot asphalt as it rains...freshly cut grass. Paper mills.

Sulfur water. An oyster flat at low tide. Red Tide.

State Archives of Florida
Burning off the cane fields. Old time, real Florida tomatoes. And boiled peanuts

State Archives of Florida
Palmetto flowers, Spider Lilies in the swamp, Speckled Perch or Bass on the beds... for me the stinky Anheuser Busch Brewery, low tide estuaries, Deviled Crabs, smoked mullet.

State Archives of Florida

The smell of seashells forgotten in the backseat of the car.

State Archives of Florida
Smoked fish and orange blossoms. Oyster roasts!

The smell of fresh cane juice slowly turning into cane syrup on a cool November morning in North Florida. 

Plant City Strawberry Field, State Archives of Florida
Guavas cooking to make guava jelly. Strawberry fields in Plant City when the fruit gets ripe.

Magnolia blossoms and gardenias. Mangroves! Oak wood smoke. Muck fires!

Leaf tobacco in an Ybor City hand rolled.

Orange blossom perfume. Hot Krispy Kreme donuts. The Wonder Bread factory in Tampa.

Mold and mildew. Wildfire breeze, fresh cut pines, lemons, Wax Myrtle, Cypress, the "left overs" from the neighbors catch tossed in the ditch.

State Archives of Florida
"Off" mosquito spray. A/C unit that hasn't had its filter cleaned in a long time. An oyster bar after a college football victory celebration. Roach spray. Kerosene heaters. Burning melaleuca trees. The smell of mullet frying in an un-air conditioned restaurant.

Frangipani in old town Key West early in the morning.

Afternoon rain showers, you could almost tell time by their arrival. 

State Archives of Florida
When the Cuban neighbors invited you over and roasted a whole pig on a pit all day and you took turns turning it...

State Archives of Florida
Seaweed baking away in the sun. The smell of Clorox bleached shells. Bait, brine and slough.

Pine needles, crushed Palmetto bugs, pool chlorine, little motel rooms on the highway, golf course on a summer night, mosquito trucks, wet Oak leaves, bait wells, backyard cookouts, horse stalls, well water, fried seafood, citrus groves in bloom, mucky spoils islands, fresh lime in iced tea, smoke from fireworks on the 4th of July, turtle tanks at Kresges.

State Archives of Florida
Rotten citrus, bog/muck fires, swamp or dead fish smells around lakes, hot tar paving roads.

Pastures of grazing horses and cattle. Tea olive blossoms. Exhaust from the races and fresh turned soil.

State Archives of Florida
A family fish fry, cornbread baking, the earthy smell of the Everglades. Salt water and diesel.

State Archives of Florida
The dirt around the earthworms in the bucket, and then on your hands when you're fishing at the river. The smell at the docks after the shrimp boats come in. So many more! Dear God, Florida smells good!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hope Springs Eternal: Magnesia Springs

The origins of my partnership in the Springs Eternal Project can be traced to a small spring in Gainesville. My working relationship with artist/professor Lesley Gamble and photographer John Moran began at Glen Springs, where we removed clumps of algae with rakes in an effort to help clean up the tiny spring behind the Elks Club. That chance meeting was the beginning of a collaboration that led to me designing John's Springs Eternal exhibit and several of Lesley's Urban Aquifer buses. The Springs Eternal Project works to inspire Floridians to "value, conserve, and restore our precious waters." Besides being the graphic designer for the project, I include information about the project whenever I have a speaking program for my book.

The three of us rarely get a chance to visit a spring together, but it was only fitting that we re-unite to check out a small spring in the Gainesville area. In this case it was Magnesia Springs, located in tiny Grove Park near Hawthorne. Currently for sale, this spring has an interesting history, originally opening to the public in 1928. According to a website called, the spring and 640 acres surrounding the spring was originally purchased by Civil War veteran J.L. Brown in 1882 as a potential place of healing for Brown's extensive war injuries. Brown's son-in-law, G. Hartwell Kelley, developed the property, digging pools in 1929 and expanding them in 1932. The water from the 4th magnitude spring was also bottled and 5 gallon jugs sold for 50 cents each. The Kelley family owned and operated the spring as a recreational facility open to the public for decades; here's footage of the spring from 1941. Gainesville Mayor Gary Junior purchased the property in 1990 and developed it into a summer home, according to the Mixsonian site, and in 1999 it was sold to Tom Dorn. According to this 2007 article in the Gainesville Sun, Dorn hoped the pool could be one day re-opened to the public again. The property is on the market, and the future of this site is uncertain.

G. Hartwell Kelley at one of the two artesian wells flanking the head spring.
From the Friends of Magnesia Springs Facebook page.
Undated entrance photo from the Friends of Magnesia Springs Facebook page.
Magnesia Springs on May 8, 1931 from the State Archives of Florida.
Gainesville Sun image published in 1975 from the
Friends of Magnesia Springs Facebook page.
Entrance marker to the property.

John Moran arranged for our visit, and as we stopped to chat with the couple living on the property we warned about the abundance of water moccasins on the site. After seeing a bag of "Hi-Yield Snake Repellent" in one of the buildings near the spring, I realized she must not be exaggerating!

The spring boils up in a pool that is filled with hydrilla, an invasive aquatic plant. On either side of the pool are two artesian wells where the water bubbles up with enough force to create boils on the surface. From the spring head the water is piped into two other other pools nearby. Those are covered with Duckweed, but the water underneath appears clear. There are several spots in those pools where the surface is free of Duckweed, but I couldn't determine whether or not whether these were the result of more spring vents or merely the locations where pipes entered from the main spring.

The main pool where the spring is said to be located.
Lesley Gamble, left, capturing stunning underwater video
One of the clear spots where water movement pushes the Duckweed away.

The diving board and water slide have seen better days...

Surrounding the pool are several buildings, survivors of the era when the spring saw lots of use as a  recreational facility. My father told me that we visited the property when I was a kid, but I have no recollection of it. There is a rebuilt water bottling facility, a concession area, changing rooms, storage areas, and more. There was evidence the family who owned it still utilized the spring occasionally, but otherwise it was frozen in time with old signs and ephemeral details hanging on from the spring's past. I surveyed the property, being extremely cautious of every step, ever mindful of potential snakes.

The old pump used in the water bottling process.

Bird's nest in a coke machine.

I was inspired by John to experiment with using the fish eye lens attachment on my i phone...

My Springs Eternal Project partners went to work as well, John found interesting compositions to best document the site. Having shot with him on several occasions I am constantly amazed at his technical proficiency and his remarkable vision as a photographer. His experience as an editorial photographer for the Gainesville Sun combined with his unbridled zeal for Florida's springs give him the ability to make magical images everywhere he goes.

The boil on top of one of  the two artesian wells.

John Moran magic...

Lesley, affectionately dubbed the "Turtle Whisperer" for her ability to get miraculous video images of turtles, was fresh off the hugely successful internet debut of her short film "Swimming Through Air." Words cannot express the awe and wonder I felt when first seeing her images projected on a huge screen behind the Gainesville Symphony Orchestra as they performed Frederick Delius' Florida Suite. On this day she was stalking tiny minnows, capturing sublime underwater imagery.

The three of us approached the spring from different angles: John looking for beautiful photos for possible use in his upcoming book, Lesley adding to her library of stunning video images, and I was fascinated with the history and culture surrounding the spring, seeing it as an unexplored commercial archeological resource. Collectively it is our hope that we can move the bar on public awareness and make a difference in protecting and preserving these "bowls of liquid light" as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas once called our springs.

After posting i-phone images on Facebook of the spring, several comments reflected hope that the spring could one day be restored and re-opened to the public. John noted that he is only aware of one pool where the public can still swim in spring water and that is Green Cove Springs. We all agreed that the potential for restoring this spring remained intact but it would be a challenging task. Yet hope springs eternal.

Detail of the surface of the spring head.
Please note: Magnolia Springs is located on private property and we had permission from the owners to visit. On behalf of the owners I want to emphasize that visiting the spring without permission is trespassing (and there are water moccasins everywhere!)