The town of White Springs sits on the eastern shore of the
Suwannee River in the southeastern corner of Hamilton County. Today the town is
a quiet, sleepy community with a population of less than a thousand. While the annual folk festival draws thousands to
the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park on the town’s edge once a year, on the average day the streets
and the park are fairly quiet. However, things were once quite different.
The Timucuan tribe, the first recorded residents of the area
(as documented by Spanish explorers of the 1500s), considered the springs to be
sacred and to contain healing properties. While European settlers displaced the
Native Americans who once called this area home, they retained the local belief
in the healing powers of the springs. Plantation owners Bryant and Elizabeth
Sheffield purchased the property in the 1830s, and were the first to market the
springs' purported health benefits, including treatment of nervousness, kidney
disease, and rheumatism. They named the springs Upper Mineral Springs and
constructed a log springhouse and hotel. For this reason, the springs are
considered by many to have been Florida’s first tourist attraction.
The original springhouse, photographed in the 1890s (source)
The Civil War and the following Reconstruction period
stifled the town’s burgeoning tourist industry. However, the 1880s saw the
beginning of a massive influx of tourists to Florida for the purpose of “taking
the waters” at various high mineral content springs throughout the state. (I
have written previously about such tourist destinations as Suwannee Springs, Worthington Springs, and Hampton Springs.)
At this time, the springs and the community which had sprung up nearby were
renamed White Springs. The connection of the town to nearby rail lines spurred
the growth of the town’s tourist industry. In 1903, the spring was enclosed in
a three-story bathhouse constructed from coquina and concrete; the bathhouse
contained changing rooms, doctors’ offices, concessions facilities, and even an
elevator. Fourteen luxury hotels, numerous boardinghouses, and all the
amenities of a modern community of the time sprang up around the springs.
Today, only one of the fourteen hotels remains (and it is
closed and up for sale at the time of this writing), and few of the community’s
“downtown” structures remain. The spring itself stopped flowing in the
mid-1990s, although in recent years heavy downpours have triggered short
periods of spring-flow. The springhouse, located adjacent to the entrance to
the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, can be explored to this day,
although it is now only one story, and a shadow of its former glory.
Many of the town's old homes are still maintained and inhabited:
Sophia Jane Adams House, built 1893
Although there are also plenty of abandoned structures:
The Riverside Filling Station, built in 1914, was recently the site of the White Springs Public Library, although from what I can tell the building now sits empty, except for the books piled inside.
The springhouse today
The view of the interior of the springhouse from the remaining walkway
Looking out from the walkway over the Suwannee River
The springhouse as seen from the Suwannee River
The exterior of the springhouse where water once flowed out into the Suwannee River. A gate system could once be closed at this location to prevent backflow from the Suwannee entering the spring during periods of flood.
The interior of the springhouse as seen from inside
My house was built in 1920; my mom's house was built in 1905. I love old homes, but I also understand that the older the structure, the more expensive the upkeep. For many families with roots in north Florida, purchasing a newer home may very well be cheaper than maintaining and/or updating their family homestead. As many families are unwilling to either sell or tear down their historic family home - often the home in which older family members were born and raised - it is common to see many old homesteads slowly decaying into the ground next to newer family residences. Abandoned homes in varying states of decay dot the rural landscape of north Florida. Below are images of a few.
If you've been following this blog for a while now, you may remember that back in December 2015, I went in search of the Drew Mansion in what remains of the community of Ellaville, Florida. If you read the post (which can be found here), you'll know that while we found all sorts of interesting things that day, we found neither the remains of the mansion nor the Ellaville Cemetery. I knew that I would need to return again with better information as to where the mansion and the cemetery were located, and I was finally able to do just that. I am not going to get into the history of Ellaville in this post, as I covered that pretty extensively in my first post on the community; if you're interested in the community's history, please read my initial Ellaville post, where I covered Ellaville's history in depth.
The Drew Mansion was built in 1868 and was the home of George F. Drew, who was the governor of the state of Florida from 1877-1881. I have even less information on the cemetery; all I can tell you is that it is located just to the northwest of what remains of the mansion. Unlike my previous trip, where my plan had essentially been 'wander around until I find it' - this time I came armed with a map and rough GPS coordinates (approximately N30.39218° W83.18306°, if you're interested).
Note the cemetery and the Drew Mansion in the northwest quadrant (source) My explorations on my initial visit had been in the area near the center right where you can see the number 60.
You can park in the parking lot down by the old bridge and take the hiking trail marked with blue blazes, or you can park on the dirt road paralleling the power lines which is much closer to the mansion site, and pick up the trail where it crosses the dirt road alongside the railroad tracks. I did the latter as it was Florida in August and the temperatures were in the upper 90s and I wanted to minimize my time in the heat as best I could. Finding what I was looking for was certainly much easier with GPS coordinates and a blazed trail, but even so, it was not easy. Given the location of the mansion site relative to the road, I had assumed that I would discover it before I found the cemetery. While unnatural topography resembling old roads and the existence of plants such as crepe myrtles at the GPS coordinates I'd brought led me to believe that I was indeed in the right place, I saw none of the ruins I'd come to find.
I continued to follow the blue-blazed trail, however, and it did lead me to the cemetery. I wish I knew more about the cemetery; if any of you have information on how many graves are actually there and who is buried in them, I would love to know! Only two graves had readable inscriptions, and most seem to have had their headstones removed from their bases. At some point a survey must have been conducted of the site, as the graves (both the marked and unmarked) had been flagged... but the flags seem to have been out there for a long time.
I counted seven other base stones, all missing their headstones.
Leading into the woods from the cemetery in the direction where I knew the ruins of the mansion were said to be was an unmarked footpath. I set off down it, and even though it petered out rather soon, the woods were open enough that walking through them wasn't difficult. I headed back in the direction of the GPS coordinates that I'd brought with me, and eventually I did stumble upon the ruins. They weren't exactly at the coordinates I'd brought, but they were close. So, what was this mansion that I'd come looking for? Well, as I mentioned above, it was built in 1868 and was the home of Florida Governor George F. Drew. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, the community in which the mansion had been built was already in decline, and the mansion was clearly in the early stages of decay by the 1930s. It sat, crumbling in the woods, victim of nature and vandalism, until it succumbed to arson in the 1970s.
In every image I have seen of the Drew Mansion, it is built on brick pilings up off the ground. It does not have extensive walled foundations. The mansion itself was built almost entirely of wood, with the exception of the aforementioned brick pilings and its chimneys and fireplaces. One would, therefore, expect the mansion's post-arson ruins to consist of brick pilings, brick fireplaces, and brick chimneys. However, the ruins that I (and apparently everyone on the internet who has visited the ruins that are, ostensibly, of Drew Mansion), have found extensive brick foundations which do not match anything I have seen in any of the pictures of the mansion. So what is it that we have found? What is it that everyone who visits this site proclaims to be the ruins of the Drew Mansion? I have no idea. It was big enough, certainly. Here are my pictures; you be the judge:
It was something, alright, but the Drew Mansion? I have my doubts.
For more on the history of Ellaville, including a comprehensive set of links,