“The way others imagine a place is the way we market it,” said Dr. Tom Berson, who presented “The History & Significance of Florida’s Springs” as part of the Estero Island Historical Society (EIHS) Speaker Series to roughly 50 people at the Fort Myers Beach Public Library’s Community Room on Monday evening, March 11. Dr. Berson taught Florida and Environmental History at Stetson University and currently teaches American History at Santa Fe College.
“Florida is many things to many people,” he explained, “so it is tough to describe what makes it unique. We have fantastic beaches and a great coastline, but California has great beaches and Alaska a much longer coastline. Florida has over 7,000 lakes, but Minnesota has 10,000, so damn you, Minnesota! Florida has numerous wetlands and swamps but Louisiana has a lot more. Sure, we have Lake Okeechobee but it is not a Great Lake nor even a Great Salt Lake so count that out! You could say it is the Everglades but the River of Grass in this day and age is something we re-engineered and de-engineered into a shadow of its former self. So what makes Florida the special place it is? It is our limestone artesian springs, as we have more of them and they are bigger than anywhere else in the world! Florida has over 900 measurable ones with names, with the biggest in North Florida or the Panhandle.”
“No, You Idiots!”
Dr. Berson explained that Florida became home to all these springs due to Climate Change! “Glaciers covered most of North America thousands of years ago, some over 2 miles high, then it got warm and they melted, forming the Florida Aquifer from South Carolina through Florida, with over 4.4 quadrillion gallons of water. I ask my students where their water comes from and they usually say, ‘the tap,’ and I respond, ‘No, You Idiots!’ When fissures form in the limestone, the aquifer water that is under pressure pops up to the surface as clean and beautiful freshwater that is usually a crisp and cool 72 degrees that people and animals love! Of the 90 largest 1st magnitude springs in the nation, 33 are in Florida, including Silver Springs and Rainbow Springs that produce roughly 500 million gallons of water a day, with another 200 of the 2nd magnitude.”
A “Spring Health Craze” broke out in 19th Century America, Dr. Berson related, “but Florida was almost entirely forgotten, but how? The reality is Florida at that time had just a five-figure population. It was the last eastern seaboard state to settle, remaining an afterthought first due to the Second Seminole War then the Civil War, but then railroads came and promoters sold it through its springs, appealing to the American vision of Manifest Destiny! Americans were well on their way to setting The Old West, leading many to discover that there remained a southern frontier, where they could spread their Divine Mission and Christian Values, to bring civilization to the wilderness of Florida that most people still thought of as savage, exotic, and different, and this is the image Floridians showcased to the rest of the nation!”
No area did this better than Silver Springs, the largest of all Florida springs. “By the 1880s, it attracted over 50,000 visitors a year,” said Dr. Berson, “and would remain Florida’s largest tourist attraction for almost 100 years, becoming famous for its glass-bottom boat rides that became pure Florida and something everyone had to do! It expanded its appeal to everything that fit the American imagination of Florida by adding fountains, exotic animals and gardens, whether it naturally occurred there or not.”
Freshwater is Not Infinite
Florida’s springs, however, lost their allure for roughly a quarter century, as railroads expanded to Miami, making the beaches the popular destinations, until springs experienced a revival due to the automobile and highways. “Certainly money exchanged hands during this era,” Dr. Berson offered: “How else do you explain four major highways intersecting at nearby Ocala! This helped make Silver Springs perhaps the best known tourism destination in the United States and possibly the world, parlaying its fountains, exotics, and gardens into places like Cypress Gardens.”
Highways, however, became Interstates 95 & 75, “meaning rather than going through the center of the state,” said Dr. Berson, “moving down the road in no particular hurry, you now drove fast down each coast, meaning Florida trips were no longer about the journey but the destination, spurred by a sameness where you slept in a hotel just like you had in New Jersey or bought a hamburger just like you had in Ohio, bypassing the springs and closing many Mom-&-Pop tourism attractions.”
The final straw occurred in the 1970s, with “The Arrival of The Rat,” exclaimed Dr. Berson! “Fortunately, many springs became Florida State Parks, preserving not only their scenic and historic natures but our drinking water. Sadly, though, there are now algae blooms in the formerly clear and clean water, due to nitrate runoff and other human incursions. This is why I encourage everyone to never use your sprinklers; God will care for your lawn, as freshwater is not infinite and is hard to make. Florida’s natural beauty is everywhere – it is a godsend, gift, and blessing – so get off the beaten path and enjoy it by visiting a spring, as they are wonderful!”
Final Program & Garden Party
The EIHS Speaker Series concludes on Monday, April 8, with Elliot Kleinberg presenting “Florida in The Civil War? Believe It!” Kleinberg will detail how Florida was the third state to secede from the Union, and played a much more strategic role than most history books let on. The EIHS Speaker Series is free, though it appreciates donations, with reservations unnecessary. The Florida Humanities Council sponsors them with the Florida Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Florida Council on Arts. For information, contact the EIHS at 239-463-0435 or the FMB Public Library at www.fmb.lib.fl.us or 239-765-8162.
In addition to its Speaker Series, the EIHS operates its free Museum & Nature Center in the Davison Cottage at 161 Bay Road, down the street from the FMB Public Library, on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to Noon. The non-profit EIHS began in 1990 when island residents recognized how rapidly Fort Myers Beach was losing its historic cottages, landmarks, wildlife, and habitat. Its mission is “Archival, Educational, and Historical.”
In other business, EIHS Vice President Linda Meeder announced that the “Springtime Garden Party” will be Saturday, April 13, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. “We will sell afghans made especially for us from Virginia, as well as homemade quilts from Ann Alsop’s studio, along with books, notecards, and other items. Admission is free, with cookies and lemonade, but we appreciate donations.”
The EIHS elected its 2019-20 officers: “Of course,” said Linda, “the late FMB Public Library Director Dr. Leroy Hommerding was our Treasurer. As we all continue to grieve his recent passing, the current officers volunteer to serve another term.” With that, President Russ Carter, Vice President Meeder, and Secretary Peg McCloskey were unanimously re-elected, with Russ remaining as Acting Treasurer.
By Gary Mooney