Fact: The Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine is one of Florida's first tourist attractions and its 15-acre waterfront park with natural spring remains ever popular today.
But just how magical is the Fountain of Youth and did early settlers discover America while searching for such mystical waters? It's hard to find the true story. Everyone in St. Augustine is a tour guide, from the ticket window clerk to the bartenders and trolley drivers, each with their own version of the urban legend. The very widespread story goes something like this ...
In 1513, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon became the first European to land in Florida and was in search of the Fountain of Youth. Some records from the turn of the 17th century state Ponce de Leon was impotent and wanted to find a cure. Others indicate that standing at 4-feet, 11-inches, he sought more height, power and strength like the native American Indians.
Tales of heroes seeking magical waters have been told over the millennia, from Zeus to Alexander the Great. Searching for magical waters is definitely more romantic and enchanting than a story about a nation's greed for dominance and gold. Another water-related rumor is that Ponce de Leon discovered the Gulf Stream.
Fast-forward to 1565, and Spain still had its eye on Florida to guard its Caribbean territories against the French. The king sent Pedro Menéndez to the New World to settle several colonies up the East Coast. Fifty-five years before Plymouth Rock and 42 years before Jamestown were founded, Menéndez established St. Augustine. He settled on a site on the Matanzas River near a natural spring, on an inlet protected from the Atlantic Ocean near a village of Timucuan Indians, who were helpful and friendly to the Spaniards. Historians, like St. Augustine's Chad Light, credit these two assets for St. Augustine's longevity.
Through the centuries, the site of the Fountain of Youth remained active. A well around the springs was built in 1875, and in the early 1900s the site became a roadside attraction when landowner Dr. Luella Day MacConnell began selling "magical" water for 10 cents a glass. When she died in 1927, Walter Fraser took over the property, and his family still runs it today.
So, is the water really magical? Well, MacConnell died at the age of 56 and Ponce de Leon died at 61, not really considered to be old age. And it turns out that based on his armor swords and personal furniture, Ponce de Leon was around 5-feet, 8-inches tall, which was around the same height as the average male Timucuan Indian. Ponce de Leon also had children, so he was neither short nor impotent. He is properly credited, however, with naming Florida, which translates to "Flowering Easter" in Spanish since he landed around the holiday in 1513.
While many of the Fountain of Youth stories have now been discredited, the Fraser family did discover a gold mine at the site.
While planting citrus trees in 1934, Fraser's gardener discovered a Native American skull, and eventually archaeologists discovered 4,000 Christian burials near a 16th-century church, the Mission Nombre de Dios. In total, 97,000 artifacts have been discovered near the Fountain of Youth, proving its place as a Timucuan Indian village and St. Augustine's original European settlement. The Fountain of Youth is an active archaeological site today, but many of the significant artifacts have been donated to the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.
Though the power of the water is questionable—not to mention the sulfurous taste—the park is worth a visit for the history, the grounds and the fun. Today, the Fraser family has added many more attractions to the site. Dozens of peacocks and peahens roam the property, trailing their emerald green and royal blue feathers along with veils of stunning white. Visitors can see the Indian village there and get a sense of what it must have looked like when the Spanish arrived. They can walk out onto the river on the wooden boardwalk and climb the three-story watchtower for 360-degree views of the area. There is also a planetarium on site, blacksmith exhibits and even historical reenactments. Tourists will pay more than 10 cents today, but for $15 for adults and $9 for children, there is a whole lot to see, not to mention getting a taste of the famed water. Maybe, just maybe, there's something to the legend after all. You never know until you take a sip.