Saturday, December 14, 2019

Revisiting Warm Mineral Springs

I have a mental wish list of ideal places where I’d like to give presentations and Warm Mineral Springs is at the top of my list. My reasoning is that the North Port, FL spring incorporates two aspects of Florida history that interest me the most – the myth of the fountain of youth and the practice of taking the water at mineral springs. Florida has over 1,000 freshwater springs, all of which are unique and have their own magic. But there is nothing quite like Warm Mineral Springs. The spring's geology and archeology separate it from other Florida springs, but it has an interesting history and exciting future as well.

The spring's remote location, in southwest Florida, meant it missed Florida's Golden Age of Bathing in the late 19th century. Much of that part of the state was considered dangerous Indian territory at the same time steamboats were traveling up and down the St. Johns River delivering patrons to elegant spring-based spas. Englishman F. Trench Townsend visited the spring on a hunting and fishing trip and published an account of his journey called "Wild Life in Florida" in 1875. His rustic camp along the Myakka River is a dramatic contrast to the Victorian splendor of the accommodations at springs on the opposite side of the state. He wrote of the spring “To the taste, the water was salt and sulphurous, peculiarly nasty and offering a strong contrast to its marvelously clear and tempting appearance.” The author attempted to bathe in the spring but spied "the scaly body" of an alligator on the opposite bank, and changed his mind.

The spring was utilized by settlers in the area for years and a 1922 ad claims it to be the best place in Florida for the "right man to build a hotel, sanitarium, and city," noting that its medical waters were especially potent for curing skin diseases. The "right man", turned out to be the right woman, when Philadelphia millionaire George K. Brown purchased the spring for his wife Lillian in 1923. It is likely that the Browns knew of the property because of George's brother, Franklin Quimby Brown, who at the age of 29 became president of the Florida Southern Railroad. Brown's railroad was absorbed by tycoon Henry Plant in 1896, and after Plant's death in 1899, it was Brown who arranged for Plant's luxurious Tampa Bay Hotel to be sold to the City of Tampa. Despite Lillian Brown's wish to develop the property surrounding the spring, as evidenced by a classified ad she placed in 1924 soliciting investors, she did little to enhance the site during her ownership. 

By 1950, it was apparent new owners had big plans for the springs, now dubbed the "original Fountain of Youth," and by 1954 lots surrounding the spring could be purchased for just $25 down and $7.50 per month! The facilities that are present today were developed in 1959 in time for the state's Quadricentennial celebration and they were recently added to the National Historic Register of Places due to the outstanding architectural design by Jack West. The spring was added to the register in 1977.

The Warm Minerals Springs/Little Salt Spring Archeological Society graciously paid for me to stay in the Warm Mineral Springs Motel, (future post coming), so I had the opportunity to visit the spring early the next morning after my presentation. The spring didn't open until 9 a.m., so after breakfast, I walked the road between the motel in the spring for exercise. It was misty and damp, and the fog-obscured road helped create a mysterious atmosphere. On the walk back I noticed kids waiting by the road for the school bus, each with their own electronic devices, in their own introverted bubbles that prevented any social interaction with each other.

By the time I got to the spring shortly after nine, the regulars were streaming in, and the steaming spring was peaceful and serene. I waded into the water, circling the ancient cenote in the shallow, wading portion of the spring and made a clockwise circuit, taking photos and observing the other bathers. Like on my first visit, I observed that many of the visitors to the spring spoke Russian, Polish, or some other Eastern European dialect. In stark comparison to the children waiting silently for the school buses, there was a great deal of verbal interaction between the mostly-elderly bathers, and it was clear that the social aspect is an important part of the bathing tradition. After about an hour, I left the water, changed clothes and returned to Orlando.

The facilities were, for the most part, unchanged since my first visit in 2011. There was a refreshing absence of branding and marketing, a sharp contrast from my visit eight years earlier. The space occupied by the Evergreen Cafe is now headquarters for lifeguards and some of the new-age artwork has been removed from the park. The gift shop was sparsely stocked and I saw no bottled spring water for sale this time. The price to take the waters, $20 for a non-resident, seemed consistent with the price I paid to bathe on my first visit.

I learned a great deal about the spring from my new friends in the Archeological Society, and I gathered that there was a sense of cautious optimism with the master plan to upgrade the facilities there. The plans include a trail system and an outdoor amphitheater. The City of Northport also paid for a survey of the architecture and have seemed to decide it is worth preserving. It is possible the Cyclorama may even be restored, a subject which I'll delve into in a future post. 

When I think of Florida's springs, I picture amazing pristine natural resources – cerulean jewels hidden deep in the woods of north Florida. Many springs are better known as recreational resources – county and state parks that attract swimmers, divers, picnickers, and fun-loving Floridians. A few are historical sites such as Suwannee and White springs in North Florida. But beyond the one-of-a-kind archeology, geology, and architecture, Warm Mineral Springs is a cultural resource, the closest thing we have in Florida to taking the waters at a mineral spring in Europe. I imagine that the conversations and rituals that occur in Budapest's famed SzĂ©chenyi Thermal Baths are not all that different from the ones that occur on a daily basis in North Port. Studies have shown that one of the most important components of longevity and happiness is social interaction. From what I've seen the folks taking the waters at Warm Mineral Springs get as much from connecting with each other as they do from the minerals in the water. Perhaps it is the Real Fountain of Youth.

Note: I will explore Warm Mineral Springs history in my book "Florida's Healing Waters" to be released in Fall 2020. Stay tuned for details