Under the Spring

What’s the best way to explore a cool, crystal-clear Florida spring? Usually, we recommend getting up close and personal by swimming in it yourself, especially during hot weather. There are other ways, of course. Glass-bottom boats, for example, have plied the waters of Florida springs for more than a century, allowing visitors to glimpse into their underwater worlds without needing a change of clothes afterward.

But that just wasn’t enough for the early owners of Rainbow Springs near Dunnellon in Marion County. Around 1940, they decided to put their visitors even closer to the underwater action by offering rides around the spring in a submarine!

Visitors view Rainbow Springs through their own personal portholes in one of the park's

Visitors view Rainbow Springs through their own personal portholes in one of the park’s “scenic submarines” (1956).

Well… it was at least a kind of submarine. The boats didn’t exactly dive below the surface, but the passengers themselves were seated 5 feet beneath the water line, which gave them a breathtaking view of Rainbow Springs and the wildlife that lived there. Brochures called it “America’s most unusual boat ride.” Here’s one of those brochures:

Brochure from around 1959 advertising Rainbow Springs. Click or tap the image to view the entire brochure.

Brochure from around 1959 advertising Rainbow Springs. Click or tap the image to view the entire brochure.

The idea started back in the 1930s when Frank Greene and F.E. Hemphill began making plans to develop Rainbow Springs as a privately owned park and tourist attraction. When they opened for business in 1937 they had a lodge, a gift shop, a dance pavilion, a boat dock and a ticket office. They also put two glass-bottom boats into service, much like the ones a few miles away at Silver Springs. They hired a small staff to run the place, including Dave Edwards, a young African American man who had grown up just south of Rainbow Springs. Edwards did a wide range of odd jobs at the park, even slapping Rainbow Springs stickers onto the bumpers of cars in the parking lot. When he began training to be a glass-bottom boat captain around 1940, he hatched an idea. Why not build a boat that let the visitor actually go beneath the water to see Rainbow Springs at eye level rather than from above? He sketched out some plans, and the owners decided to give the idea a shot.

The Mermaid, one of the

The Mermaid, one of the “submarines” at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1950).

The new “submarines” were a big hit with visitors, and they became a major selling point for Rainbow Springs. Much like the glass-bottom boat tours that came before, the magic came from a combination of beautiful underwater scenery and expert narration from the captains. These guides did more than just run down a list of plants and animals along the tour route. Over time, they developed a spiel that became almost musical in its delivery. “Skipper” Manning Lockett, one of the original employees of the park, earned a reputation as the “bard of Rainbow Springs” for the poetic way he conducted his tours. It was unique and enjoyable enough that the park owners recorded his tour and offered it for sale in the gift shop. The following is an excerpt from one of Skipper Lockett’s tours, although we daresay reading the tour does it no justice. We recommend listening to the recording as well… all of it.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Rainbow Springs.
Rainbow Springs is one of Florida’s most beautiful and scenic attractions.
Rainbow Springs is a beauty, created beneath deep waters, made only by the hands of God.
Now look through your left-side port hole, far as your eyes can see, watch that dreamy sunlit landscape.
Looks like mountains, looks like valleys, looks like green pastures.
And the fish look like birds [winging?] in the air, and the turtles look like cattle roving in the forest.

“Skipper” Manning Lockett aboard one of the “submarines” at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1950).

Rainbow Springs flourished throughout the heyday of the Florida roadside attraction in the 1950s and 1960s, but sales began to decline in the 1970s. Interstate highways siphoned travelers off the smaller routes like U.S. 19 and U.S. 41 where many of the roadside parks like Rainbow Springs were located. Supersized theme parks like Walt Disney World also helped draw the crowd away. By the end of the decade, many roadside parks like Rainbow Springs had closed their doors or were barely hanging on.

Postcard showing the fleet of submarine boats at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1960).

Postcard showing the fleet of submarine boats at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1960).

In 1973, the owners of Rainbow Springs told the managers to close the park on Sundays and Mondays as a cost-saving measure. Less than a year later it closed to the public entirely. The property sat neglected for a number of years until a company called Chase Ventures bought it in 1984. By then, nature had reclaimed much of the area around the springs, but the new owners allowed local garden clubs to go in and spruce things up. In October 1990, the State of Florida purchased the 55-acre site, plus a 600-acre buffer zone, and turned Rainbow Springs into a new state park.

A few things have changed since the old days, of course. Skipper Lockett and Dave Edwards have passed away, and the “submarines” they piloted are no more, except for one the park is saving as the centerpiece of a historical exhibit. The springs themselves go on, however, reminding visitors of Florida’s majestic natural beauty.

Man holding a model of a Rainbow Springs submarine boat (ca. 1950s).

Man holding a model of a Rainbow Springs submarine boat (ca. 1950s).

Looking for more information about Florida springs that became popular roadside attractions? We recommend Glass Bottom Boats & Mermaid Tails: Florida’s Tourist Springs by historian Tim Hollis.





The Legend of Spook Hill

The weather is getting cooler (finally), and it’s almost time for Halloween–that special day for thinking about all that’s creepy, crawly, scary and mysterious. We think it’s the perfect time to take a look at a curious tourist attraction in Central Florida that doubles as one of the state’s most unusual (super?)natural phenomena, Spook Hill.

Sign advertising Spook Hill in Lake Wales (1953).

Sign advertising Spook Hill in Lake Wales (1953).

Spook Hill is located on 5th Street in Lake Wales, a city in Polk County. For years, signs have invited motorists to stop their car at a white line on what appears to be the bottom of a hill, put their car into neutral, and watch with terror as their car appears to creep its way back up the hill, as if moved by some unseen force.

Ask most folks who study such phenomena and they’ll tell you it’s all an optical illusion, that the unique pattern of changes in elevation along 5th Street plays a trick on your eyes, making it seem as though you’re at the bottom of a hill when you’re actually at the top. But is this really what’s happening?

Many locals have offered much creepier explanations over the years. A popular restaurant in Lake Wales called Barney’s Tavern, for example, was kind enough to publish a leaflet in the 1950s explaining the “real” story behind Spook Hill. According to this legend, it all began when a Spanish pirate named Captain Gimme Sarsparilla decided to hang up his cutlass and retire to Lake Wales. He was joined by fellow pirate Teniente Vanilla, whose surname was an acronym for a much larger mouthful of a name–Vincento Alfredo Nieto Isidoro Lima Llano Alvarez. We’ll stick with “Teniente Vanilla” for the sake of brevity.

Postcard showing a photograph of Barney's Tavern, a popular restaurant in Lake Wales (ca. 1950).

Postcard showing a photograph of Barney’s Tavern, a popular restaurant in Lake Wales (ca. 1950).

According to the good folks at Barney’s, when Vanilla died he was buried at the foot of Spook Hill. Captain Sarsparilla, for whatever reason, ended up nearby at the bottom of the lake for which Lake Wales is named. All was well for a couple of centuries, but then one day in the early years of the automobile age a man decided to park his car right at the bottom of Spook Hill and go fishing. The car–which the crew at Barney’s estimated to be approximately the weight of 16 men–was parked directly over the grave of the long-forgotten Teniente Vanilla. And you know what they say about pirates and 16 men on a dead man’s chest. This was bound not to end well.

Vanilla, his rest now disturbed, was said to have called out to his old friend Captain Sarsparilla, who emerged from his watery tomb in Lake Wales and pushed the unlucky fisherman’s car up the hill and off of the dead pirate’s chest. And–legend says–that’s what will happen to your car as well if you dare to stop at the bottom of Spook Hill as that fisherman once did.

Leaflet describing Spook Hill, sponsored by Barney's Tavern in Lake Wales (1954).

Leaflet describing Spook Hill, sponsored by Barney’s Tavern in Lake Wales (1954).

Now that’s not the only explanation that has been put forward to explain this chilling peculiarity. At some point local tourism promoters put forward a completely different legend involving a struggle between a Native American chieftain and a particularly bothersome alligator. Someone else proposed a theory involving an underground lode acting as a magnet that draws automobiles up the hill.

The makers of this sign at Spook Hill in Lake Wales seem to have some doubts about the legend of Sarsparilla and Vanilla (ca. 1950).

The makers of this sign at Spook Hill in Lake Wales seem to have some doubts about the legend of Sarsparilla and Vanilla (ca. 1950).

So what’s the real story behind Spook Hill? We’ll leave it for you to visit Lake Wales someday and decide for yourself… if you dare!


So you’re vacationing in Central Florida, and you’ve seen the big parks already. You’ve got one day left on your trip: What are you going to do?

Small tourist attractions fight hard for that “last-day dollar.” Many regional attractions around Florida have closed over time, but Gatorland has operated in Central Florida for almost 70 years.

Entrance to Gatorland, 196-

Gatorland was founded in 1949 by Owen Godwin, a colorful character known for his habit of dressing in full safari gear. He saw an opportunity for a wildlife-based, Old Florida roadside attraction, so he and his family established Gatorland along the Orange Blossom Trail (US 441). The property they purchased even had ready-made pits, perfect for alligators! Alligator pits, also called alligator holes, retain water during the dry season and attract prey for the alligator.

Owen Godwin wrangling a python


Alligator at Gatorland, 19–

Godwin’s over-the-top approach to marketing was well suited for the new attraction. He visited the northern states each summer to woo new customers, complete with his live alligator, Cannibal Jake, in tow. Meanwhile, visitors to Gatorland could walk above alligator pits on elevated boardwalks and observe other Florida wildlife, all for free!

Sightseers on footbridge, 1979

Gatorland’s donation-based business model was never particularly effective, but the park got by when it was just one of many roadside attractions in Central Florida. However, two things changed in the 1970s. First, Interstate 4 and Florida’s Turnpike, which began operating in the 1960s, bypassed Gatorland. Consequently, the Godwins had to find a way to draw tourists to the park. Second, once Disney World and other mega-parks arrived on the scene, they provided entertainment to tourists over multiple days rather than just for a few hours.

Tourists on train, 1979

How did Gatorland respond? By charging admission, of course! While this did lead to a drop in attendance for a while, it got them membership in the Florida Attractions Association (FAA) and thus listed in the FAA brochures found at every hotel.

Gatorland brochure, ca. 1971

In addition to more aggressive advertising, new CEO Frank Godwin (son of Owen) added attractions such as alligator wrestling and “Gator Jumparoo,” where gators jumped out of the water and snatched store-bought chicken from a trainer’s hands. Gatorland even became a major alligator farming and husbandry operation over the years.

“Gator Jumparoo,” 19–

Alligator wrestling, 19–

Responding to Florida’s tourism boom in the 1970s, Gatorland successfully made the transition over time from a family-owned roadside attraction to a small theme park run as a major corporation. You can find the park’s full history in Dorothy Mays’ 2009 article in the Florida Historical Quarterly, “Gatorland: Survival of the Fittest among Florida’s Mid-Tier Tourist Attractions.” If you’re ever in the Orlando area, it’s worth a visit!

Do you have memories of visiting Gatorland? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Some Trees Have Knees

If someone asked you to name something that lives for centuries, can grow over a hundred feet tall, and can have dozens of knees, what would you say it was? It might sound like some hideous creature, but most Floridians would know it’s actually the majestic bald cypress.

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a familiar sight near Florida’s many lakes, rivers, creeks, swamps, and springs. The trees generally take their time to grow, but that’s not really a problem for a cypress. They can live for hundreds of years. The Senator, a bald cypress that grew near Longwood in Seminole County until it was tragically burned in 2012, was estimated to be about 3,500 years old at the time of its death. (More on the Senator Tree here).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

One of the bald cypress’ most unusual characteristics is its “knees.” The knees are conical growths protruding up from the root system that radiates out from the tree’s trunk. They often have a knobby, knee-like appearance at the top. Their function is unknown, although studies suggest they may help the cypress absorb oxygen and remain stable in loose wet soils.

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress wood has long been admired for its beautiful grain, durability, and the ease with which it can be shaped and cut for building purposes. In the early 20th century, logging companies bought up vast tracts of land and cut much of the bald cypress growing in Florida swamps. The hearts of these trees, some of which were likely approaching a millenium in age, were sawed into lumber and marketed as “tidewater cypress.” The cypress industry is still in business, although the supply of available trees has dwindled considerably. Many cypress stands are now part of publicly owned protected wetlands.

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

As for the knees, they too have been a prized commodity. Their distinctive shape, natural broad base, and easy carvability make them perfect for creating figurines, birdhouses, and other small knick-knacks. Tom Gaskins of Palmdale, Florida made a career out of carving and shaping cypress knees for sale. He developed a Cypress Kneeland museum in Palmdale, featuring a collection of carved, peeled, and otherwise altered knees, plus a catwalk zig-zagging through an actual cypress swamp.

Along the path, visitors could see some of Gaskins’ experimental methods for shaping the knees as they grew. At various times, he tried flattening the knees with weights and carving designs into them so that the wooden flesh of the knees would grow around the cuts. Gaskins passed away in 1998, and the Cypress Kneeland Museum closed in 2000.

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins' creations (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins’ creations (1987).

Cypress trees and their unusual knees are just one of the features that make Florida a unique environment and all the more interesting. Which of Florida’s distinctive characteristics is your favorite? Share this post on social media or leave a comment below and get the conversation started!

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).

Aunt Aggie’s Unusual Garden

In the early 20th century, visitors to Lake City in Columbia County were often encouraged to visit the local gardens owned by an African-American woman known as “Aunt Aggie.” The plants were nice enough: calycanthus, oleander, crepe myrtle, spirea, wild azaleas, and at least eight varieties of roses. But that’s not what made the garden unique.

Aunt Aggie's

Aunt Aggie’s “Bone Yard” garden in Lake City (circa 1910).

What made Aunt Aggie’s garden such a popular place to visit were the thousands of creatively arranged animal bones that decorated the space.  For years, Aggie Jones and her husband Jenkins collected the bones of various animals, allowed them to dry and bleach out in the sun, and then arranged them into trellises, gateways, arches, flower bed borders, and other structures. Skulls topped many of these unusual features.

Agnes Jones, also known as

Agnes Jones, also known as “Aunt Aggie,” in her unusual bone-decorated garden in Lake City (circa 1908).

Aggie and Jenkins Jones had both been born into slavery. Aggie came to Florida in 1844 with her owner, Elijah Mattox, who built a plantation near present-day Rose Creek in Columbia County. After Aggie was emancipated following the end of the Civil War, she continued to work for the Mattox family until she moved to Lake City. She bought property from one of her employers, Louise Cathey, in Lake City in 1883. It was on this property that Aunt Aggie began constructing her gardens.

So why the bones? There’s no clear answer, really. Bone meal is an excellent fertilizer; maybe this was part of Aggie’s motivation. Maybe it was just a bit of creative flair. At any rate, the “bone garden” became a popular tourist spot for travelers passing through Lake City by railroad or automobile. A pamphlet describing the garden says it was also a popular “lovers’ retreat.” Visitors would sometimes write their names and addresses on the bones – perhaps one of Florida’s most unusual guest books. Plants and fresh vegetables were almost always available for sale.

Aunt Aggie with a visitor in her garden (circa 1915).

Aunt Aggie with a visitor in her garden (circa 1915).

Time changes all things, and with Aunt Aggie’s garden it was no different. Aggie Jones died in 1918, and her garden and home were subsequently demolished to make way for a school. All that remains now are a handful of postcards and photographs, plus a few recollections written down by various visitors to Aunt Aggie’s mysterious creation.

What is the most unusual tourist attraction you’ve ever seen? Let us know by commenting below, or commenting on our Facebook page!


A Tribute to Lost Love

It’s getting close to Valentine’s Day, and thoughts of love are in the air here at the State Library and Archives. As a tribute to Valentine’s Day, we’ve searched our collections and found several stories from across Florida history that demonstrate the power of love and the special memories it creates. Today, we look at Coral Castle, an impressive but unusual structure in Miami-Dade County made entirely of enormous blocks of coral rock. The story of how one man single-handedly engineered this massive undertaking is perhaps one of saddest yet most remarkable tales of unrequited love in Florida’s history.

A postcard depicting Coral Castle in Homestead (circa 1950s).

A postcard depicting Coral Castle in Homestead (circa 1950s).

It all began in 1913 when a man named Edward Leedskalnin of the European country of Latvia was jilted by his betrothed, generally thought to be the beautiful 16-year-old Agnes Skuvst. The day before their wedding, Scuvst called off the engagement, saying the ten-year age difference between her and Leedskalnin made him too old for her.

Edward was heartbroken. He left Latvia, never to return, and sailed to Canada. He traveled around North America for several years before finally arriving in Florida around 1918. He purchased an acre of land in Florida City and began carving large pieces of stone furniture out of chunks of coral. He later explained to visitors that he hoped Agnes, who he referred to as “Sweet Sixteen,” would someday come to Florida to join him and make use of these pieces.

Ed Leedskalnin sitting in one of his carved coral chairs at Coral Castle, then called Rock Gate Park (between 1923 and 1936).

Ed Leedskalnin sitting in one of his carved coral chairs at Coral Castle, then called Rock Gate Park (between 1923 and 1936).

In 1936, as more people began moving to the Florida City area, Leedskalnin moved his creations to a 10-acre plot near Homestead. There, he arranged them within an enclosure of coral walls, creating themed “rooms” of solid stone furniture. There was a bedroom, a bathroom, a dining room, a children’s play area, and even a “throne room” with large solid-stone rocking chairs for himself, “Sweet Sixteen,” and a small child.

The mystery in all of this is that Leedskalnin managed to do all of the labor involved with creating these masterpieces by himself. The furniture bears no discernible tool marks, and the elements of the castle intended to move do so with very little effort. The solid-stone rocking chairs Leedskalnin created could be rocked even by a small child, and the 9-foot front gate could be opened with the push of a finger. The design of the chairs and other furniture provided adequate comfort, save for one chair, located behind the coral “thrones” he had created for himself and his lost love. Leedskalnin liked to joke that this chair was reserved for the mother-in-law he never had.

A young visitor at Coral Castle in Homestead (1963).

A young visitor at Coral Castle in Homestead (1963).

Scientists and engineers have studied the designs closely, even using computers, but they cannot account for how Leedskalnin did it. Nothing in the designs is impossible, per se, just extremely precise. And let’s not forget that these pieces of furniture were made from blocks of solid rock, some of which weighed as much as half a ton apiece. When Leedskalnin was in the process of building or moving the pieces, he insisted on being completely alone. When asked about his methods, Leedskalnin would often crypitcally reply either that he understood the “secret of the Pyramids,” or that to move large stone was easy if one only knew how.

For years, Edward Leedskalnin personally managed his creation as a tourist attraction called Rock Gate Park, charging ten cents a head for admission. In 1951, he died without leaving a will, whereupon the property fell to a nephew from Michigan named Harry. The property changed hands several more times over the years, acquiring the catchy name “Coral Castle.” It was added to the national Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Front of a brochure for Coral Castle - part of the State Library's Florida Ephemera Collection (circa 1960s).

Front of a brochure for Coral Castle – part of the State Library’s Florida Ephemera Collection (circa 1960s).

In 1983, the manager of Coral Castle told a reporter he had learned that Leedskalnin’s “Sweet Sixteen” was alive and knew about the massive stone monument built in her honor. To his knowledge, however, she had never seen it. So far as we know, she and Leedskalnin never communicated. Clearly, however, the heartbroken Edward got his point across. His undying (if unrequited) love for his “Sweet Sixteen” is to this day still embodied in the massive stone magnificence of his creations.

The Lewis Plantation

With summer on the way and the school year coming to a close for many districts, Floridians can expect an uptick in the number of tourists coming into the state to enjoy its many natural and man-made attractions. Over the years, Florida has been home to a wide variety of tourist attractions, some beautiful, some exotic, and some that would be quite shocking if they were around today.

The front gate of the Lewis Plantation (1930s).

The front gate of the Lewis Plantation (1930s).

The Lewis Plantation, a tourist stop just south of Brooksville on U.S. 41 in Hernando County, falls squarely into the last category. After operating for a number of years merely as one of Florida’s many turpentine distilleries, its owner, Pearce Lewis, hit upon a scheme in the 1930s to tap into the booming tourist industry. After making a few adjustments to the buildings and adding a few vintage objects, Lewis rebranded the distillery as an “authentic” antebellum plantation, and invited visitors to come see what life had been like in the South before slavery was abolished. So far, this may not sound too different from most other historic plantation sites and museums, but with the Lewis Plantation there was a twist. Because Lewis already had dozens of workers, mostly African-American, operating the turpentine distillery on the site, he decided to incorporate them into the tourist attraction, so that his employees doubled as reenactors of antebellum slavery.

The Lewis Plantation turpentine still near Brooksville (circa 1930s).

The Lewis Plantation turpentine still near Brooksville (circa 1930s).

For a nominal fee (fifteen cents in the early days) visitors to the Lewis Plantation could take a tour of the grounds in a mule-drawn wagon. Along the way, they could see the actual homes where the African-American employees lived, which were mostly without electricity or running water. Newspaper accounts of the tour commented cheerily on the quaintness of these scenes, noting how closely they resembled what life must have looked like in the slave quarters of the South’s antebellum plantations. Although it was something of an anachronism, the tour usually included a trip to the distillery, where the people who lived in these ramshackle houses carried out the tedious process of extracting turpentine from the sap of nearby stands of pine trees.

Employees of the Lewis Plantation on the porch of a home on the grounds (circa 1940s).

Employees of the Lewis Plantation on the porch of a home on the grounds (circa 1940s).

Along the way, the tour guide would often stop and have one of the African-American employees tell a story to the visitors. “Uncle Doug” Ambrose, born into slavery in 1860 just before the outbreak of the Civil War, was one of the more popular storytellers, and was at one time featured in the popular Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” column. The entertainment also sometimes included singing from some of the employees, some of whom were organized into a “harmony quartet.”

“Uncle Doug” Ambrose, born into slavery just before the Civil War, at the Lewis Plantation (circa 1940s).

The Lewis Plantation had other amenities, including overnight lodging and a restaurant called “The Plantation Kitchen.” Blanche, an African-American woman who did the cooking during most of the attraction’s lifetime, was described in advertisements as being the “personality” of the kitchen, dressed as a typical antebellum African-American “mammy.” In the souvenir shop nearby, visitors could purchase tradition plantation handicrafts, as well as “pine perfume” and miniature barrels of rosin, a by-product of the turpentine distillation process.

“The Plantation Kitchen,” the restaurant of the Lewis Plantation (circa 1930s).

Blanche, the cook at

Blanche, the cook at “The Plantation Kitchen,” the restaurant located at the Lewis Plantation. Blanche is standing outside the main building that housed the restaurant and gift shop (circa 1940s).

Although the Lewis Plantation did very well for a number of years, its days were numbered as the tides of history continued to shift. The labor-intensive process of extracting turpentine from pine sap gave way to other methods, and the idea of reenacting slavery as a tourist attraction was increasingly disturbing to Floridians and visitors alike. By the 1960s, the Lewis Plantation had faded away. Some of the buildings still remain at the old site, although they are overgrown with weeds. Only a handful of postcards, placards, and photographs remain to remind us of the vibrant if somewhat unusual institution that once operated there.

Did you ever visit the Lewis Plantation? How about another “unusual” roadside tourist attraction in Florida? If so, we want to hear about it. Leave a comment, or email us your story.