I’m a small town girl. My roots are in the Midwestern village (it’s now a much larger town)of Bourbonnais, Illinois. It is rich in early history intertwining the Pottowatomi tribe of Native Americans; French Canadian fur traders; and Jesuit priests. Early recorded historical records date back to 1679; it wasn’t until 1830 when Bourbonnais Grove was established.
Going through school, I was not really that interested in history other than that of my town and family. My family descends from the French Canadian settlers and I am proud of my ancestry. My skin bronzes in the sun; I was often asked if I was part Pottowatomi as a kid. Who’s to say that I’m not? No one ever officially spoke of any American Native blood in our lineage. Although for many years I have been fascinated by the Native American philosophy, culture, and shamanism.
Small towns have their advantages – the adage “It takes a village.” is readily practiced, or at least it was during my 1950s childhood. That can also be a disadvantage – and will be discussed my book. As a young adult wanderlust filled my spirit and I moved to St. Louis, Missouri; Skokie, Illinois; Miami, Florida where I settled for more than thirty years. I had a fulfilling career with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Bascom Palmer Eye Institute for which I am extremely grateful. BPEI also has a very rich history in ophthalmological breakthroughs in treatment and instrumentation design.
As it goes, “You can take the girl out of the small town, but not the small town out of the girl.” I retired from UM/BPEI and felt a need to find my new small hometown, Safety Harbor, Florida. The name conjurs up a good feeling, doesn’t it? As some of you may be aware, I am on a quest to collect ‘firsts’ now that I’m retired. Looking through the local newspaper for things to do I stumbled upon walking tours of downtown Safety Harbor. Recently, I took the tour. Prior to relocating here, I did a cursory internet history search and learned a few interesting facts about explorer Hernando de Soto’s discovery of the ‘fabled Fountain of Youth.’ 1 Eventually, the natural mineral springs evolved into the world famous and historical Safety Harbor Spa. Four of the five springs are identifiable today.
During the tour, Laura, my guide – I was fortunate enough to be the only person touring that day – shared bits and pieces of the very rich history with me; enough to pique my interest and buy the book. I was nearly shocked to learn that historical facts can be traced as far back as the year 900. Then Laura introduced me the the Tocobaga tribe who are considered to be the first permanent residents of Safety Harbor (p41). Archeological evidence of Tocobaga settlements seem to have been scattered through out the five square miles now known as Safety Harbor.,
Tocobaga had a diet rich in seafood and plentiful shell fish, manatee, turtle, deer and other small mammals in addition to aquatic plants. They grew pumpkin, beans and maize which was uncommon to the surrounding areas at the time. The Tocobaga are thought to have been peaceful people but did use weapons and spears for hunting and defending themselves when necessary. They were also open and supportive of sexual preferences expressed during puberty. The more Laura shared about the Tocobaga, the wilder my imaginings became. I immediately identified with their reputed peaceful ways and accepting openness. I wonder if I may have lived as one of the tribe hundreds of years previously and have some how been lured or called back to an earlier home.
In addition to the early families of settlers who made a name and left their marks in Safety Harbor, there are stories of adventures, a fire, criminal acts, weekly newspaper, food markets, the building of schools, the library and attracting artists of various talents. I had previously discovered the majestic live oak, also fondly known as the Baranoff Oak, which is believed to be the oldest in the county and in the national registry of oak trees. The tree is fenced off in the downtown district, in front of the library. The sprawling branches extend far from the massive trunk. Spanish moss gracefully drips from the massive growth. Some of the buildings not destroyed during the town’s fire are still in use as different business.
There is so much more to Safety Harbor than the mineral springs, also known as Espiritu Santo Springs which translates to Springs of the Holy Spirit. The tour ended at the Chamber of Commerce building where I purchased a history book authored by two Safety Harbor residents. On page 85 of the book is a photo from the cover of a pamphlet printed in 1910. A caption reads, “These Famous Springs Boast of Being the Original “Fountain of Perpetual Youth,” Sought for by Ponce de Leon, and Discovered by Hernando De Soto in May, 1539.” The verbiage continues to tout the benefits of the Espiritu Santo Springs, including “After Reading, Please Hand to Your Sick or Afflicted Friend.” At one point in history four of the springs bottled the water, each proclaiming to treat different illnesses and enhance wellness. Within the spa, there is still a bottling process, but the water is available only to guests of the spa now. The Catholic Church, Espiritu Santo and school sit on the site of another of the four Springs.
So much more history to be learned – I’ve only shared tidbits here. If you are visiting or passing through the tour is highly recommended; reservations are required. In addition to the above mentioned historical tour, there is another tour which features the population of ghosts – I can hardly wait!
1 Firschein, Warren & Kepner, Laura. A Brief History of Safety Harbor Florida. www.historypress.net; 2013