Learning how to swim is a rite of passage for every kid who grows up in Florida. But the manner by which we learned has changed dramatically between the generations.
In my parents’ day, my day and my children’s day, there was no local YMCA, much less “swimming lessons.” No one had a private swimming pool. There were a couple of pits at the Stetson estate where John B. kept alligators, so the story goes. But no swimming pool.
Local lakes and the St. Johns River were where we learned to swim, far more wary of water moccasins than alligators.
Soon after I came along in the early 1930s, Dad bought the Domingo Reyes tract out on Perkins Highway that included Crystal Lake, and that was where he dropped me into the water. Sink or swim. I picked up the family nickname “Submarine Sal” because I stayed underwater more than on top. But in all the years my family lived there, we never saw an alligator.
And then, there were the springs. As a youngster, Dad and his pals cavorted at DeLeon Springs in bathing suits that covered their chests and reached their knees. It was but a watering hole in the wilderness with a diving board and a few benches. No cement.
Bill Mancinik wrote a neat column recently about his generation taking a bus on Saturdays to DeLeon Springs. He had it pretty good, in my book. In the mid-’40s we had no such transportation.<img class="wp-image-3589 size-large" src="https://www.beacononlinenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/5ceced9f53a1b55874dd97a7ba0f659d-scaled.jpg" alt="WATER HAZARD — Those seeking to enjoy a day of swimming in many of West Volusia’s lakes and other waterways should be aware of a variety of animals that make such places their home, like this alligator recently spotted at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.” width=”696″ height=”464″ />
WATER HAZARD — Those seeking to enjoy a day of swimming in many of West Volusia’s lakes and other waterways should be aware of a variety of animals that make such places their home, like this alligator recently spotted at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.
We would gather early with our bikes at Libby Lou Allen’s home on North Woodland Boulevard and, from there, we would take off like a herd of turtles on our fat little tires with nary a gear. It took a long time to pump those 9 miles out to DeLeon Springs.
The entrance fee was 10 cents, as I recall. This was long before there was an underground viewing room beneath the diving station, or a water-skiing elephant, or peacocks strutting the grounds. That all came later.
The beautiful hotel was there, along with a bathhouse that always — always — smelled of wet towels and damp wood. There were no picnic pavilions, or walkways other than the cement sidewalk around the springs.
The millhouse was always running, with the big paddle wheel pushing the water out to the river. The boys used to jump onto it and ride the blades around until, I heard, a youngster, tragically, was killed doing so some years later. That stopped that.
The pancake restaurant was a thing of the future.
What we did have, though, was a three-tier diving platform that separated the men from the boys. I went off the top platform only once. I thought I was going to die.
The third tier didn’t have a diving board like the first and second tier. You simply leaped. And prayed. I believe they took that third tier down as just being too dangerous. I am here to tell you: it was!
Around that time, DeLand had a national-champion swimmer named Mary Ann Walts, and Mary Ann swam 50 laps at DeLeon Springs every day. It was a gorgeous thing to watch.<img class="wp-image-3590 size-large" src="https://www.beacononlinenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/484a3757e3e40bc13654d667d44a3f51-scaled.jpg" alt="A 9-MILE BIKE RIDE AWAY — Back in the day, columnist Sally Landis Bohon and friends would hop on their bikes and pedal some 9 miles from DeLand to DeLeon Springs in order to cool off in the 72-degree water there. The springs also are home to The Old Spanish Sugar Mill, famous for letting customers cook their own pancakes on tabletop griddles. The restaurant building can be seen toward the left side of the photo at left, while people enjoying tubing in the water can be seen toward the right.” width=”696″ height=”522″ />
A 9-MILE BIKE RIDE AWAY — Back in the day, columnist Sally Landis Bohon and friends would hop on their bikes and pedal some 9 miles from DeLand to DeLeon Springs in order to cool off in the 72-degree water there. The springs also are home to The Old Spanish Sugar Mill, famous for letting customers cook their own pancakes on tabletop griddles. The restaurant building can be seen toward the left side of the photo at left, while people enjoying tubing in the water can be seen toward the right.
My favorite feature of DeLeon, however, was not the springs, but the swings. I don’t know when they disappeared, but those big old oak trees once were strung with fabulous swings on long chains. You could sail to the clouds on those swings, they were so long.
So we would ride out on our bikes, swim for a while, swing to dry off, and then ride our fat-tired little bikes back to town. And that was a good Saturday.
Blue Spring was a different matter for a kid on a bike. It was in the boondocks!
Homer Smith owned Blue Spring. He was the county tax assessor, and I don’t know what year he acquired the spring, but it became something of a family affair.
The Smiths had six children: Bill, Donna, Bradford, Walter (known as Red), Olive and Mary. My sister Margaret married Brad, and that is how I got dragooned into helping out at the Blue Spring concession stand in the summertime.
I think most of the Smith children at one time or another helped run the place. Bill and his wife, Rose, were the mainstays as I recall.
Except for the iconic Thursby House, you would not recognize anything by what is there today. I’m not sure there were even flush toilets. Maybe. Probably.
There were no boardwalks, for sure! But along the banks were several rustic screened cabins with bunk beds. In front of one was a long rope tied to a branch that you could swing on out over the “run” and drop into the icy water.
The trail to the boil was just that: a trail. Well-trod, it was not a hard hike, but it was not the pleasant stroll on a wooden platform with handrails that you have today as part of the state park.
The point of risking a sprained ankle or getting snakebit on that trail was to get to the boil, where you jumped from the bank and drifted back down to the cabins. There you climbed up the bank hand over fist to do it all over again.
I never recall seeing an alligator in the springs, but then I only recall a very few manatees. That is likely because the manatees are predominantly winter residents. And we were not.
My kids all learned to swim much the same way I did in Crystal Lake. A hand under their bellies until they got the swing of gulping air to stay afloat.
And I expect scores of other kids learned the same way in lakes Daugharty, Mamie, Horseshoe, Hires, Ruby, Helen, Winnemissett and so many more.
Like I said, it was a rite of passage.
— Bohon’s grandfather, Cary D. Landis, who came from Indiana to DeLand to start a law school for Stetson University, was among the founders of the Landis Graham French law firm that still serves Volusia County today. Her father, Erskine Landis, also was a lawyer with the firm.