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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!