Find­ing the Foun­tain of Youth

Florida’s heal­ing wa­ters, old­est tourist at­trac­tion, orig­i­nally re­solv­ing dis­putes

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY HI­LARY HEM­ING­WAY

If you are over 50, there is a good chance sil­ver hairs grace your head and a few wrin­kles bracket the eyes. And you’ll swear it hap­pened overnight. The puz­zle is some­how slow­ing the ag­ing process. Per­haps the most fa­mous rem­edy dates back some 500 years, when ex­plorer Juan Ponce de Leon was en­tan­gled in a tiff be­tween Christo­pher Colum­bus' son, Diego Colon, and Spain’s King Fer­di­nand. To keep the peace, Fer­di­nand of­fered Ponce de Leon a gov­er­nor­ship for claim­ing new lands.

So it was not to find the Foun­tain of Youth that led Ponce de Leon to set sail in 1511. In fact, there is no men­tion of heal­ing wa­ters in his cor­re­spon­dence with Spain. In­stead, the quest for the mag­i­cal spring arose on the deck of Ponce de Leon’s own ship. And it came from a young na­tive claim­ing that his fa­ther had been made young by bathing in a fresh­wa­ter spring on Bi­mini, off Florida’s east coast.

Though the boy had no idea how to find Bi­mini, the story is said to have so fas­ci­nated Ponce de Leon that his ships stopped at all the is­lands along the Western Ba­hamas, dis­cov­er­ing 13 had fresh­wa­ter springs. Some have spec­u­lated that the ex­plorer’s keen in­ter­est was to im­press King Fer­di­nand, who had taken a

new and con­sid­er­ably younger wife. Oth­ers be­lieve his in­ter­est was that an is­land with fresh wa­ter was eas­ier to col­o­nize.

Florida to­day has some 900 fresh­wa­ter springs in such places as Sil­ver Springs near Ocala, Green Cove Spring south of Jack­sonville, and De Leon Springs west of Day­tona Beach. Each boasts heal­ing agua. Ponce de Leon, in fact, dis­cov­ered a fresh­wa­ter spring in St. Au­gus­tine that later be­came a ma­jor Florida tourist at­trac­tion sell­ing, what else, bot­tled wa­ter. In fact, a guest-book at the Spring House lo­cated at Ponce de Leon’s Foun­tain of Youth Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Park in St. Au­gus­tine shows its first paid vis­i­tors be­gan in 1868, of­fi­cially making it Florida’s old­est con­tin­u­ally run tourist at­trac­tion.

The mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion is whether

PONCE DE LEON’S ST. AU­GUS­TINE SPRING DID NOT MAKE HIM YOUNG.

spring wa­ter has any heal­ing abil­i­ties. It’s high in min­er­als and may in fact be health­ier than tap wa­ter, which has been chlo­ri­nated and fil­tered to kill bac­te­ria and other mi­crobes. These treat­ments also re­move the good min­er­als that come from nat­u­ral springs. The wa­ter tested from the St. Au­gus­tine spring is, for in­stance, a great vin­tage, ac­cord­ing to the St. Johns River Wa­ter Man­age­ment District in Palatka―the spring is fed from the Florida Aquifer that dates back 17,000 to 26,000 years. So while fresh wa­ter is al­ways a good thing for those work­ing to es­tab­lish a new colony, Ponce de Leon’s St. Au­gus­tine spring did not make him young, and by 1521 the lo­cal Timu­cua In­di­ans of St. Au­gus­tine had grown tired of be­ing en­slaved by the Span­ish. The chief di­rected him to­ward a mag­i­cal spring that In­dian leg­end said healed those who drank from it. Ponce de Leon again set sail with a rough map, this time headed around the Florida coast­line for an area we to­day call Port Char­lotte.

What Ponce de Leon didn’t know was that Char­lotte Har­bor was al­ready oc­cu­pied by the Calusa, con­sid­ered Florida’s fiercest In­dian tribe. It is not clear if the Timu­cua chief knew what the re­sult would be―send­ing Ponce de Leon to visit an arch en­emy―but his­tor­i­cal records show that the Calusa at­tack on Ponce de Leon’s land­ing party was dev­as­tat­ing. Most of his sailors were killed and Ponce de Leon him­self was struck by a poi­soned ar­row. He would die from the wound in Cuba.

But Ponce de Leon’s legacy does not end there. It turns out that just a few blocks from Char­lotte Har­bor, in the town of Punta Gorda, on the cor­ner of West Mar­ion Av­enue and Tay­lor Street, is an arte­sian heal­ing well. Lo­cals con­sider it the real Foun­tain of Youth, or at very least, a Foun­tain for Bet­ter Liv­ing. The well had de­liv­ered since 1894, its pump han­dle re­placed in 1926 with a hose spigot to bet­ter serve the lo­cals lin­ing up two abreast down the street to get their wa­ter jugs filled.

Who knows how long old Ponce de Leon might have lived had he made peace with the lo­cal Calusa, and drunk from their Foun­tain of Youth.

SOME HAVE SPEC­U­LATED THAT THE EX­PLORER’S KEEN IN­TER­EST WAS TO IM­PRESS KING FER­DI­NAND.

Hi­lary Hem­ing­way is a writer and di­rec­tor in TV and film, has pub­lished five books and pro­duces mixed-me­dia works of marine life.

Mossy St. Au­gus­tine is where vis­i­tors first sought the Foun­tain of Youth. An early 20th-cen­tur y post­card (inset) at­tests to the at­trac­tions that in­clude the Foun­tain of Youth Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Park (be­low).

Ponce de Leon’s Foun­tain of Youth Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Park in St. Au­gus­tine is Florida's old­est tourist at­trac­tion.

An arte­sian well in Punta Gorda (above left and inset) was long con­sid­ered by lo­cals as a Foun­tain of Youth for its heal­ing pow­ers. To­day it's a tourist at­trac­tion. A 19th-cen­tury draw­ing (above right) de­picts Juan Ponce de Leon search­ing Florida for the myth­i­cal wa­ters.

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