Seventy years before Walt Disney was born, a man named Bryant Sheffield bought some land around present-day White Springs, Florida and began to champion the curative and restorative powers of the water. Branded as White Sulphur Springs, the town became Florida’s original tourist destination.
And what a destination it was! By 1880 there were fourteen luxury hotels, prosaic boarding houses, boutiques, tea rooms, a bowling alley and a skating rink. Consider how high-tech that rink was in steamy Florida, in the age before refrigeration and Zambonis. White Sulphur Springs thrived while the riverboats ran the Suwannee. The riverboat era dried up but the springs did not; they are today a quiet tourist attraction that can be viewed but not entered.
White Springs is a tiny town whose Victorian health-spa past is still architecturally in evidence. We walked down a staircase at the edge of the Nature & Heritage Tourism Center to visit the original spring. Halfway down the stairs, I noticed a fat and very active bumblebee zooming near my neck and I made a mental note to stop exploring parks while wearing gardenia perfume. More bees swarmed around a flowering bush to the side of the staircase. I paused and shrieked something highly effective like, Go away! and then rushed past them while swatting wildly at the air. An observer might have mistaken my performance for avant-garde dance, which, in hindsight, was totally in sync with the vibe of the town. I admit that I am not one with nature; nature is probably more one with me but I do have my reservations.
After peering down into the springs and wondering if the water was always this brown, we had a mini-tour of White Springs that included the historic Telford Hotel (the last remaining lodging from the boom era), and the Adam Brothers Store. We saw the whole town in 15 minutes, leaving plenty of time to explore other local attractions and to have other local insects explore me.
I am curious about what ended the mania for springs and Turkish bathhouses. “Taking the waters” has been in practice since Ancient Egypt, and it has evolved into today’s spa experience, which is often just a beauty or exercise junket and does not involve any communal bathing. I suppose Victorian (and pre-Victorian) medical beliefs had a lot to do with the popularity of the spas, but beyond this there was a large social element involved that also seems to have been absorbed into history. I can shakily observe that as we became more committed to fact, we became more insular as people.
There’s not much retail in White Springs. This one store and a nearby yoga studio gave me the impression of a hippie vibe, or at least a New Age one.
It appears as if someone is going to some trouble to restore an old tourist court as an apartment complex. After taking this picture, I backed up into a large discarded television by the side of the driveway.
Adam Brothers Store on the far right.
Excellent signage! I’ve noticed this attention to detail all over Florida.
I’m including this sign not to prove my point about the quality of the signage in White Springs, but to make a fashion comment: My shorts ride up on one leg. This would never pass muster in Manhattan, but no one looks askance at me in Northern Florida.
From health to danger in a mere century.