The banks of the Suwannee River in north central Florida around White SSulphur Springs have been a place of refuge and restoration for its visitors and residents for centuries. To this day, evidence in the form of shards of pottery, hunting and cooking tools and even weapons are found in places where the early visitors to the peaceful region spent their time.
Timucuan Indians were living on the banks of the Suwannee River in White Springs, when the Spanish explorers came to what is now North Florida in the 1530s. The Suwannee River formed the boundary between the Timucuans on the east and the Apalachees on the west, ane even then it was considered special, and historic.
White sulphur Springs was considered to be a sacred healing ground and warring tribes could come to bathe in and drink the mineral waters here while putting aside their disagreements.
In 1835 Bryant and Elizabeth Sheffield bought land for a plantation in the Suwannee River valley region, including the spring and most of what is now the Town of White Springs. Mr. Sheffield’s testimonials about the good effects the sulfurous springs water had on his health brought others to the ancient healing place who visitors, and Florida’s first tourist destination was in business. A log spring house surrounded the spring until 1903, when Minnie Mosher Jackson built the concrete and coquina wall still standing along with a four-tiered structure that included treatment rooms, a concession area, and an elevator.
With the attraction of the springs, the excellent land that grew Sea Island cotton, and the vast forest resources that provided lumber and naval stores, the Town of White Springs grew.
During the Civil War, White Springs was a refuge for displaced southerners fleeing the ravages of war along Florida’s coasts. After the war, White Sulphur Springs continued to attract visitors seeking to restore their health “By swimming in the healing water”.
In the late 1800s, there were 14 luxury hotels and many more boarding houses to accommodate the visitors who came by special excursion train to enjoy the river, the spring, and the climate at White Springs. Farmers brought their cotton to Adam Brothers Store to exchange for goods or for store credit. The Broward cotton gin and gifts mill were in full operation. Camp’s Lumber Mill and Basket Factory were rolling and the woods around White Springs were teaming with turpentine camps full of workers. There was a bowling alley, a skating rink, moving picture shows and boutiques filled with the latest fashions in gowns and hats. The town incorporated in 1885 and soon provided its citizens with waterworks, sidewalks and a night watchman.
In 1950, the Museum of the Stephen Foster memorial was dedicated in 1953, the First Florida Folk Festival was held, an event that still draws thousands to White Springs each year to enjoy the culture and musical heritage of the Sunshine State. The park is now called the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center. Traditional arts are kept alive at the Stephen Foster Center through year-round events.
With the demise of the riverboat era and economic changes, the town became a time capsule of an earlier, innocent time. Much of the original town still stands, including the Adams Brother General Merchandise Store (since 1865), three turn-of-the-century churches and scores of homes. The White Springs Historic District, with its 88 contributing structures, was placed in the National register of Historic Places in 1997.
White Springs surrounded by thousands of acres of public lands, offers multiple recreational activities, canoeing, biking, and hiking trails and excellent hunting and fishing. The Historic District with lovely homes, crafts, folk art and antique shops offers visitors a relaxing chance to browse.
Prepared by John Scott Dailey
Institute of Government of Florida State University