The Wakulla Swamp Volcano

Floridians know their state isn’t made up just of sandy beaches. There are swamps, sandhills, prairies, and in some places rolling hills that seem more appropriate in a state farther north. It’s nice to have a little variety, of course, but what would you say if we told you Florida once had its very own volcano?

Model Melody May in front of the volcano at Jungle Land in Panama City (1966).

Model Melody May in front of the volcano at Jungle Land in Panama City (1966).

No, not that volcano. A real one, a natural volcano like Mount St. Helens. For generations, people swore they could occasionally see a dark column of smoke rising up out of the forests southeast of Tallahassee. It was too much smoke to come from a single campfire or some industrial process. The smoke was thicker, blacker, more ominous. Folks nicknamed the phenomenon the “Wakulla Volcano,” even though some bearings indicated it was located in extreme southern Jefferson County in Township 4 South, Range 3 East, somewhere near what’s now known as the “Gum Swamp” section of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge.

The swamps in southern Wakulla and Jefferson counties are some of the most beautiful, although they can be difficult to access (photo 1971).

The swamps in southern Wakulla and Jefferson counties are some of the most beautiful, although they can be difficult to access (photo 1971).

Local wisdom has it that stories of the volcano were around even when Native Americans occupied the area. The legend became particularly popular in the late 19th century, when a variety of newspapers and magazines carried stories about the mysterious Wakulla Volcano and its possible explanations. Some said it was some sort of beacon established by pirates. During the Civil War, some believed it might be a signal used by deserters hiding out in the swamps to communicate with the ships of the Union blockade. Moonshiners, hermits, giant pine trees struck by lightning, and Native Americans were all suggested at one time or another as the source of the thick black smoke.

Moonshine stills like this one from Miami could produce a lot of smoke depending on what was used to fuel the fire. Some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1925).

Moonshine stills like this one from Miami could produce a lot of smoke depending on what was used to fuel the fire. Some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1925).

The Wakulla Swamp Volcano seemed to close up shop after the 1886 Charleston Earthquake, which was felt across Middle Florida. Some folks assumed whatever geological formation had opened up to produce the smoke had been closed by the shaking of the ground. Others continued looking for answers, even into the 20th century. As scientific knowledge about the geological formation of Florida became more advanced, notions of an actual volcano became less popular. The best explanation State Librarian W.T. Cash could provide when asked about the volcano in the 1930s was that a mass of peat or vegetation must have caught fire and smoldered, creating the smoke. Marshes and peat bogs do occasionally experience this sort of slow, smoldering fire, although for it to continue burning for so long would be unusual.

A core sample of peat taken by the Florida Geological Survey using the brass cylinder on the right. Peat can become dry and flammable, and some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1944).

A core sample of peat taken by the Florida Geological Survey using the brass cylinder on the right. Peat can become dry and flammable, and some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1944).

We may never know what was causing that enigmatic black column of smoke rising above the trees. We can be thankful, however, that whatever it was didn’t destroy the forest in that area, because St. Marks Wildlife Refuge is a stunning piece of natural Florida territory. We at Florida Memory recommend you visit sometime!

 

Fountains of Youth

The legend of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon’s quest to find the Fountain of Youth is one of the most popular stories in Florida history and culture. Books, paintings, movies, and even live pageants depict old Ponce as the guy who was convinced he would find a fountain in Florida whose waters would turn back the hands of time and keep anyone who drank from it or bathed in it young. He never found the fountain, of course, or else we’d refer you to him for the full story. We can, however, tell you a bit about Ponce’s exploration of Florida and the fountains of youth his journey has inspired over the years since his departure.

Drawing of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon at the Fountain of Youth (date unknown).

Drawing of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon at the Fountain of Youth (date unknown).

You might be surprised to learn that for all the hoopla about Ponce’s fountain quest, no documents from his lifetime survive to prove that the fountain was the object of his mission at all. Stories of such a fountain had already been around for centuries, sort of like that of the Holy Grail. Ponce would certainly have been aware of these stories, but evidence is lacking that he put much effort into finding out if they were true. The legend of Ponce’s search for the fountain of youth seems to start years after his death, when a chronicler of the Spanish court wrote a history of his expeditions. In reality, the explorer was more likely prodded by the prospect of finding gold and land, as well as the Spanish king’s promise to make him governor of the territory he discovered.

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon (date unknown).

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon (date unknown).

Whatever his motivation, Ponce set out from Puerto Rico on March 3, 1513 to explore. On March 27th the crew spotted land, and after a few more days they went ashore and Ponce claimed the land for Spain. All of this took place during Pascua Florida, the traditional “feast of flowers,” and accordingly Ponce decided to call the new territory Florida. The exact location of his landing is uncertain, although plenty of theories exist. Most guesses have him going ashore somewhere between St. Augustine and the mouth of the St. Johns River. After claiming possession of Florida, Ponce and his ships moved down the east coast, along what is now the Florida Keys, and then into the Gulf of Mexico. Depending on which historian you ask, he then made it as far as Charlotte Harbor or maybe even Pensacola Bay before returning to Puerto Rico.

A man poses as Juan Ponce de Leon during the Ponce de Leon Festival in Punta Gorda (circa 1960s).

A man poses as Juan Ponce de Leon during the Ponce de Leon Festival in Punta Gorda (circa 1960s).

Ponce later made a second voyage to Florida, this time equipped to stay for a while. He brought two ships, 200 colonists, 50 horses, cows, pigs, and everything necessary to set up a permanent colony. Florida was no empty territory at this time, however. The fledgling settlement, likely located near Charlotte Harbor, came under fierce attack from the native Calusa Indians, who did not appreciate the Spaniards’ intrusion. Several settlers were killed, and Juan Ponce was badly wounded by an arrow. The expedition decided to cut its losses and retreat. The ships sailed to Cuba, where Ponce died of his wound. His remains were shipped back to Puerto Rico for burial, and it would be several more years before another permanent Spanish settlement was attempted.

 

Statue of Juan Ponce de Leon near the historical marker in Punta Gorda commemorating his establishment of a colony near Charlotte Harbor (photo 1972).

Statue of Juan Ponce de Leon near the historical marker in Punta Gorda commemorating his establishment of a colony near Charlotte Harbor (photo 1972).

While Ponce may not have actually done much searching for the famous fountain of youth, the romantic allure of the story has been irresistable to generations of Florida visitors. Business owners have capitalized on this trend, too. Take, for example, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine. Since the 1860s, the park has delighted visitors with its collection of Old Florida attractions, all centered around a spring reputed to be mentioned in accounts of Ponce’s original landing in 1513.

Fountain of Youth Park in St. Augustine. The

Fountain of Youth Park in St. Augustine. The “Luella Day” who signed the photo was Luella Day McConnell, known locally as “Diamond Lil.” She purchased and enlarged the attraction in the early 1900s (photo 1907).

 

An old water mill, one of the attractions at the expanded Fountain of Youth park in St. Augustine (1946).

An old water mill, one of the attractions at the expanded Fountain of Youth park in St. Augustine (1946).

Another would-be Fountain of Youth appears in this postcard, which depicts the “Tomoka Cabin” near Ormond Beach. Shortly after the Hotel Ormond opened for business in 1888, the proprietors built this small structure next to the serene waters of the nearby Tomoka River. Hotel guests would often bring picnic lunches to this spot and spend the day exploring. The fountain seen here was part of the mystique of the place. At least one visiting group probably wished it was purveying something other than youth or mineral water. Local legend has it that a group of visitors was once stranded here when the hotel staff left them overnight. The weather became so cold they burned the furniture for heat!

A worn postcard depicting the

A worn postcard depicting the “Fountain of Youth” at the Tomoka Cabin near Ormond Beach (circa 1910).

The Gulf Coast has its share of candidates as well. St. Petersburg features a “Fountain of Youth Park,” complete with a fountain fed by a mineral spring.

Postcard depicting the

Postcard depicting the “Fountain of Youth” at Waterfront Park in St. Petersburg (circa 1950s).

To the south in Sarasota County, Warm Mineral Springs has its own Fountain of Youth. The proprietors were quick to note that this was the “real” one. Unlike most of Florida’s springs, this one is quite warm. Each day, about 17,000 gallons flow from the springs every three minutes. The temperature is about 87 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

Promotional literature for Warm Mineral Springs, located near Venice in Sarasota County (1956).

Promotional literature for Warm Mineral Springs, located near Venice in Sarasota County (1956).

We at Florida Memory are convinced that all of Florida’s beautiful springs qualify as fountains of youth. They might not erase wrinkles and sun spots, but they do help roll back the years by providing a place for the entire family to relax and have fun. Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more images of Florida’s many spring systems!

 

Florida’s Barefoot Mailmen

The next time your computer takes a few extra seconds to send an email message, just be thankful you didn’t have to hand-deliver it yourself. Be especially grateful you didn’t have to deliver it by walking sixty miles barefoot in the blazing Florida sun.

That challenging scenario was a reality for the first men to carry mail between what is now Palm Beach and Miami. The United States Postal Service established a route between these two points in the 1880s, but the “route” was only on paper. It certainly didn’t follow a railroad, road, or even a trail. None of these existed at the time. The only reliable trail from Hypoluxo near Lake Worth to Miami and Biscayne Bay lay along the Atlantic coast.

One of six panels in a mural commemorating the barefoot mailmen of South Florida. The mural hangs in the West Palm Beach post office on Olive Avenue (photo circa 1950).

One of six panels in a mural commemorating the barefoot mailmen of South Florida. The mural hangs in the West Palm Beach post office on Olive Avenue (photo circa 1950).

Hence the barefoot mailman. The Postal Service hired mail carriers to walk the mail down from Hypoluxo to Miami, using the firmer sand along the beach as a highway. Shoes were more hindrance than help, so the barefoot mailmen simply didn’t use them. The entire expedition took about a week, the carrier leaving Monday morning and returning Saturday evening. He was typically issued a tin pail, a cup, hard biscuits, coffee, a hatchet, and some matches, all of which he carried along with the mail in a sack slung over one shoulder.

Excerpt of an 1883 map showing official postal routes through Florida. No route connected Miami with the Lake Worth region at this time. Instead, mail for Miami had to come from Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, or Cedar Key via Key West. The "barefoot" route along the Atlantic coast shortened the time required to deliver mail to Miami.

Excerpt of an 1883 map showing official postal routes through Florida. No route connected Miami with the Lake Worth region at this time. Instead, mail for Miami had to come from Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, or Cedar Key via Key West. The “barefoot” route along the Atlantic coast shortened the time required to deliver mail to Miami.

The trip required crossing several rivers and inlets. Carriers stashed boats near all of the crossings so they could get across safely without damaging the mail. Sometimes other travelers would accompany a carrier so they too could use the boats.

One of these crossings was the scene of a most unfortunate tragedy. James “Ed” Hamilton, a young mail carrier, was headed for Miami in October 1887 when he discovered that the boat he normally used to cross the Hillsboro Inlet was tied up on the opposite side. He secured his mailbag in a tree, removed his clothing, and apparently attempted to swim the inlet and retrieve the boat. What happened next is uncertain, but young Hamilton met his end, possibly carried out to sea by a current or attacked by an alligator. He was never seen again. His memory is honored by a memorial plaque at Pompano and a six-panel mural by artist Stevan Dohanos entitled “Legend of James Edward Hamilton, Mail Carrier,” which hangs in the West Palm Beach post office.

Another panel from the Olive Avenue post office mural in West Palm Beach, this one depicting James Edward

Another panel from the Olive Avenue post office mural in West Palm Beach, this one depicting James Edward “Ed” Hamilton rowing his boat carefully past a few alligators (photo circa 1950).

In late 1892, contractors completed the first county-maintained road between Lantana and Lemon City along the coast. The U.S. Postal Service ended the “barefoot” route the next year. Interest in the tradition of the barefoot mailman lives on, however. Theodore Pratt, an author of Florida fiction who lived in the Lake Worth area, penned a successful novel called The Barefoot Mailman in 1943. Columbia Pictures made the story into a movie in 1951, starring Robert Cummings, Terry Moore, Jerome Courtland, and John Russell.

Actress Terry Moore during the filming of Columbia Pictures' film adaptation of Thedore Pratt's The Barefoot Mailman (1951).

Actress Terry Moore during the filming of Columbia Pictures’ film adaptation of Thedore Pratt’s The Barefoot Mailman (1951).

Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more images relating to the early days of Miami, Palm Beach, and other cities along Florida’s Atlantic coast. And don’t forget to share your favorites on Facebook or Pinterest!

The Yaupon Holly

The yaupon holly, or cassina, is an attractive verdant plant native to the southeastern United States. Its red berries give the plant a festive look similar to that of other plants in the same genus, which we tend to use for holiday decorations. The scientific name for yaupon holly is Ilex vomitoria, which to some folks might suggest something not worth celebrating. As it turns out, however, yaupon was a crucial part of a Native American ceremony performed by tribes in Florida and across the region.

The yaupon plant, Ilex vomitoria (1964).

The yaupon plant, Ilex vomitoria (1964).

Purification was a common theme in the religious ceremonies of many Southeastern natives. One such tradition, called the “black drink” ceremony, involved the men of a town imbibing a tea made from the leaves of the yaupon holly. European observers associated the consumption of this tea with vomiting among those who drank it, hence the name Ilex vomitoria, although there is some debate among scholars as to whether that reaction was to the tea or to other factors.  At any rate, part of the significance of this practice was the belief that it helped purify the mind and body. The frequency of this ceremony varied; in some contexts it was performed daily, while in others it was reserved for when guests arrived or for other special occasions. Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, a member of the short-lived French colony at Fort Caroline, depicted the tradition in a watercolor painting in the 1560s. Theodor de Bry later incorporated the image in his Grand Voyages, published in 1591 to entice Europeans to further colonize the Americas.

DeBry engraving depicting a ceremony involving the

DeBry engraving depicting a ceremony involving the “black drink” (1591).

Osceola, the Anglicized name of a prominent 19th century Seminole, is derived from the Creek, asi-yahola, which means “black drink cry.” Curiously, Osceola is often remembered as “Chief Osceola,” although he was neither born nor selected as such.

Illustration of Osceola (here spelled Aseola), a 19th-century Seminole leader (1842).

Illustration of Osceola (here spelled Aseola), a 19th-century Seminole leader (1842).

Check out the Florida Photographic Collection for more images relating to topics such as Florida’s diverse plant life and the history of the Seminoles!

It’ll Cure What Ails Ya!

These days, most of Florida’s visitors come because they want to relax, see some beautiful scenery, or just have fun. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, a number of tourists arrived with more pressing business. Many came not on a whim, but with a prescription. That’s right – mosquitoes, heat, and hurricanes notwithstanding, Florida was widely believed to be an excellent place for folks up north to recuperate from a wide range of medical problems.

A warm climate helped give Florida this reputation for healthfulness, but the state was much more than just a sunny spot at the southern tip of the country. It was also home to a number of mineral springs whose cold, clear, and often strongly scented waters were thought to have medicinal properties. As a result, part of the state’s fledgling tourist industry developed around providing facilities for enjoying these springs while living in the lap of luxury. Today we’ll take a look at three North Florida resorts that enjoyed high popularity in the heyday of the mineral spring cure.

Map showing the locations of several mineral spring resorts in North Florida.

Map showing the locations of several mineral spring resorts in North Florida.

Green Cove Springs

Green Cove Springs was one of the first mineral springs to catch on as a vacation destination for the wealthy but unwell. In 1853 a superintendent from a New York asylum for the mentally ill, Dr. Nathan Benedict, moved to Florida and established a hotel at nearby Magnolia Springs. The water emerging from underground at this location smelled strongly of sulfur, which had been infused into the water during its time beneath the surface. The odor might have been a bit strong, but Dr. Benedict advertised the springs as one of the healthiest places in Florida for invalids to regain their vitality.

Stereograph of the original hotel at Magnolia Springs, near Green Cove Springs (circa 1870s).

Stereograph of the original hotel at Magnolia Springs, near Green Cove Springs (circa 1870s).

The Civil War put a damper on Benedict’s business, and he decided to sell the place shortly after the war’s end. The new owners expanded the hotel in 1872 and began building cottages along the St. Johns River. Several more hotels, including the Union, St. Clair, and Clarendon hotels, opened to visitors. Guests at these resorts enjoyed fine dining and lavishly decorated rooms, in addition to the waters of the nearby springs. Brochures recommended taking the water by mouth and by bathing for “Neuralgia, Nervous Prostration, Rheumatism, Liver and Kidney Complaints.”

Bathing pool at Green Cove Springs (circa 1870s).

Bathing pool at Green Cove Springs (circa 1870s).

The Clarendon Hotel, Green Cove Springs (circa 1890s).

The Clarendon Hotel, Green Cove Springs (circa 1890s).

Panacea Mineral Springs

A similar enterprise emerged in the 1890s off to the west near the Ochlockonee River Bay. In 1895, a man named W.C. Tully founded a town called Panacea, named for the supposed curative powers of the small mineral springs located in the area. Tully built a post office and several cottages, and then a hotel.

Panacea Mineral Springs Hotel (circa 1929).

Panacea Mineral Springs Hotel (circa 1929).

While not as large or as prosperous as the resorts at Green Cove Springs, the mineral springs at Panacea had their share of visitors in the early 1900s. In 1901, local entrepreneurs completed a mule-drawn tram line to carry visitors between Sopchoppy and Panacea. The tram was crude and often jumped its tracks, but it remained in service until World War I.

Panacea-Sopchoppy tram car (circa 1900s).

Panacea-Sopchoppy tram car (circa 1900s).

The proprietors began bottling water from the springs and selling it locally and by mail order. One advertisement for Panacea Mineral Springs offered the water at 50 cents per 5-gallon bottle.

One of the springs at Panacea is channeled through a wooden stump to create a fountain (circa 1930).

One of the springs at Panacea is channeled through a wooden stump to create a fountain (circa 1930).

Hampton Springs

One of the longest-lasting mineral spring resorts was located at Hampton Springs in Taylor County, Florida. The property, once known as “Rocky Creek Mineral Springs,” was sold to the Hampton family in 1857, just as Taylor was emerging as an independent county. As with Green Cove Springs, the Civil War and the economic malaise of the ensuing years prevented any immediate development of the site. In 1900, however, the Hamptons formed a corporation with local shareholders, and by 1908 a hotel and bath house were in place.

The Live Oak, Perry & Gulf Railroad ran east and west near the hotel, but this did little to attract visitors from points farther north. J.W. Oglesby, a railroad magnate from Adel, Georgia, recognized the problem and offered to take on Hampton Springs as an investment. In 1915, he and the original shareholders reorganized the springs’ corporation, and Oglesby extended his South Georgia Railroad down into nearby Perry to facilitate better access to the hotel, which he also expanded. By 1920, the Hampton Springs Hotel was one of the finest hotels in the vicinity, with indoor baths, manicured lawns, a golf course, and elaborate facilities for enjoying the waters of the mineral spring.

Front of the Hampton Springs Hotel (circa 1916).

Front of the Hampton Springs Hotel (circa 1916).

As with the Panacea Mineral Springs, the Hampton Springs proprietors sold their water in bottles by mail order. An advertisement from the 1920s offered cases of 12 half-gallon bottles for six dollars, or 5-gallon demijohns for four dollars. Buyers who returned the empty bottles to the springs received a rebate.

An early bath house at Hampton Springs, built in 1906 (photo circa 1916).

An early bath house at Hampton Springs, built in 1906 (photo circa 1916).

Whereas a number of Florida’s mineral spring resorts had faded by the end of the 1920s, Hampton Springs survived until it burned in 1954. Part of its longevity rested on the owners’ willingness to change with the times. As medical experts began discarding “water cures” in favor of more modern methods and prescription drugs, mineral spring resorts as such were not nearly as popular. The facilities, however, were still as luxurious as ever. The trick was to renovate them into something people would want to use.

Toward this end, the owners of Hampton Springs focused on building up their popularity as a golf resort, hunting and fishing lodge, and a wilderness retreat. Promoters referred to Taylor County and the surrounding area as Florida’s “last frontier,” with Hampton Springs as an island of luxury in the middle. This business model extended the life of the resort, which became more like a club in its later years.

The old-style mineral spring resorts are gone now, but the springs they once made available to health-seeking visitors are still around for the most part. They remind us of Florida’s historic reputation as a place of rejuvenation. Sometimes, it seems, a little Florida sunshine (and mineral water) is just what the doctor ordered!