Book Review–Finding the Fountain of Youth

Kilby, Rick. Finding the Fountain of Youth: Ponce de Leon and Florida’s Magical Waters. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 2013. Bibliography, color & b/w photos. ISBN 9780813044873, $14.95.

I imagine in some ways we are all searching for the Fountain of Youth. We may want to have the wisdom of being a few years older but for most of us we want to hang on to our youth as long as possible.

In his beautifully illustrated book, author Rick Kilby  lets us in on the myths and legends surrounding Juan Ponce de Leon, the Fountain of Youth, and how this dream has been, and continues to be, used in marketing.

Mr. Kilby points out a common narrative in regards to many of the springs in the state. First is that these sites are sacred to Native Americans who lived near them for years before colonial settlers take up residence near them, drawn by the cool and pure water. As tourism becomes more important to Florida, entrepreneurs such as steamboat owners, begin using the “fountain of youth” myth to draw visitors to the healing waters. With family travel becoming more common these springs were often turned into tourist attractions with highlights such as waterskiing elephants (De Leon Springs), glass bottom boats (Silver Springs), mermaids (Weekie Watchie), and more. In the days of segregation African-Americans could visit locations such as Paradise Park, which was “For colored people only” according to period advertisements.

The myth of Juan Ponce de Leon searching for the “fountain of youth” is laid out and addressed thoroughly by Mr. Kilby. Let’s also be honest; how was Ponce supposed to find the real “Fountain” when it seems to have been located in so many places. Florida cities as diverse and far away from each other such as St. Augustine, St. Petersburg, Sarasota County, De Leon Springs, and Venice, have use the “fountain of youth” motif in advertising and promotion. But let us not forget that drinking a glass of Florida orange juice may also be the key to staying young.

While this book is fun, enjoyable, and upbeat, there is also a sadness to be recognized when one realizes much of what Mr. Kilby puts forth is no longer available. The interstate system, along with the ease of flying, have put many of these locations out-of-the-way and no longer relevant to today’s visitor to the state. The quaintness of these attractions make them seem outdated and boring when compared to billion dollar theme parks with every bell and whistle imaginable. A cell phone in hand is oftentimes more interesting to not just the young but their parents as well. In addition, the reality is that today’s world is doing considerable damage to springs and our underground water reservoirs. Fertilizers, pesticides, and septic field runoff, have changed many springs from clear and beautiful to overgrown with algae and murky to the eye. Fish, which were often abundant, can be difficult to find in some locations.

All is not a lost cause however. Many of the springs are now part of state parks so they have a measure of protection. Many of them are regularly open and can be used for recreational purposes and these are often full of visitors to whom the water seems clear because they do not know better. It will take a large turnabout however to fully save and replenish these natural beauties. We need to look at and address population growth. Further, the use of native plants should be encouraged rather than trying to all have lawns that look like manicured golf courses. Fertilizers and pest control are large problems for our spring systems.  Nature is resilient and these wonders can return to their former state if we allow them to.

While not a large book this is a book that packs a wallop. It is full of dozens of vintage images including brochures, photos, post cards, and more. There is a retro, or maybe kitsch, vibe here that is quite appealing. The writing is easy to follow and presents a lot of interesting information. Those interested in natural Florida, those interested in the history of tourism in our state, and those with a nostalgic bent, would be wise to pick up a copy of this book and enjoy a couple of hours of reading! You won’t regret it.

Rick Kilby is the President of Kilby Creative, a graphic design and advertising firm.

You may keep up with Rick by reading his Old Florida blog.

Other reviews of University Press of Florida books may be found here.


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