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'Take a sip, hairy man!
"Take a sip, hairy man!" Chief Saturiwa reveals the Fountain of Youth to Ponce de Leon in 1513.

Fountain of Youth

Field review by the editors.

St. Augustine, Florida

In the late 1800s Florida had several natural springs that were said to be the fabled Fountain of Youth, supposedly sought by Ponce de Leon in 1513. One was in St. Augustine, on the property of Henry H. Williams, who cultivated flowers and fruit in a place he called Paradise Grove. Tourists came -- to see the plants. Henry thought so little of the spring that he walled it into a well and used the water to mix mortar.

If they drank from the Fountain of Youth, they could still be alive.
If they drank from the Fountain of Youth, these 1909 tourists could still be alive.

In the early 1900s the land was sold to the eccentric Luella Day McConnell (1860?-1927), who went by various names and sometimes claimed to be targeted by assassins. Maybe she was crazy, but she was sane enough to realize that people would want to see a Fountain of Youth.

Luella called the place Neptune Park, and opened a small museum of what she said were priceless artworks and artifacts. But by 1909 she had shifted her focus, built a "Fountain of Youth" gazebo over the well, and was selling postcards. A dipperful of what she called "rejuvenating waters" cost a nickel. She unearthed a large Christian cross made of rocks 15 high and 13 across, and an embossed silver urn holding a parchment supposedly penned by a member of de Leon's crew. Luella showed these marvels to St. Augustine's elite, who embraced them as proof of the Fountain's authenticity.

Gated entry protects the property from after-hours guzzlers and other water thieves.
Gated entry protects the property from after-hours guzzlers and other water thieves.

Vintage souvenir decal features the neon arch, youthful Spaniards.
Vintage souvenir decal features the neon arch, youthful Spaniards.

By 1927 the Fountain of Youth had become the most popular attraction in St. Augustine, even though Luella hadn't done much to the property besides adding a plaque, an entry arch, and a bigger gazebo. Then she drove her car into a ditch and died.

The land was purchased by Walter B. Fraser (1887-1972), who recognized that something as important as the Fountain of Youth needed to look impressive. He built a faux-colonial Spanish building over the well, named it the "Spring House," and modified the well to make it appear more spring-like. He erected a big neon "Fountain of Youth" arch across the entry road to draw traffic from a nearby highway. He vigorously promoted the Fountain's legitimacy, labeled it "Florida's Oldest Attraction," and even sued the Saturday Evening Post for defaming its character (He won a settlement of $5,000).

Over the years the Fountain of Youth expanded its offerings to include a heroic-size bronze statue of de Leon and a monument claiming to mark the approximate spot where he stepped ashore. A diorama of custom-made wax dummies was added to the Spring House, recreating de Leon's supposed visit to the Fountain. A planetarium was built to show how the stars looked when de Leon arrived. A little theater housed a 30-foot-wide, rotating "Historical Space Globe" (now renamed "Discovery Globe") onto which were projected the routes of the Spanish conquistadors.

Native American objections came too late to stop the conquistadors.
Native American objections came too late to stop the conquistadors.

Timucuan grave pit was reburied in 1991. An estimated 1,000 skeletons lie beneath the surface.
Timucuan grave pit was reburied in 1991. An estimated 1,000 skeletons lie beneath the surface.

All of these early embellishments -- including the globe, the neon arch, Luella's plaque, and the cross of rocks -- are still at the Fountain of Youth and entertaining visitors, some over 100 years after they were introduced. A trip to the Fountain of Youth is a trip to a time before you were born, and you can't get any younger than that.

Unexpected discoveries on the property have boosted the Fountain's historical bona-fides. A burial ground of hundreds of Timucuan skeletons was unearthed by accident in 1934, and was later found to be the site of the first Roman Catholic Mission in the U.S. (The burial pit was a must-see on any Fountain of Youth visit until it was reburied in 1991). Subsequent digs have discovered a 16th century Timucuan village and the original 1565 settlement-spot of St. Augustine itself. The early inhabitants of these sites may not have recognized the Fountain's youth-giving magic, but they knew a good spring when they saw one.

The Fraser family still owns the Fountain of Youth and has steadfastly refused to sell its land to developers. As a modern attraction it offers a range of diversions, from "living history" interpreters to live-fire demonstrations of cannons and crossbows. But the first stop on any tour is still the Fountain itself, where everyone gets a tiny cup of the regenerative elixir -- tiny, perhaps, to prevent them from growing too young, too fast -- and the last stop is still the gift shop, where tourists can fill their own bottle of Fountain of Youth water to take home with them, ready for the day that they start to feel old.

Also see: Water: Wonder Temples and Miracle Springs

Fountain of Youth

11 Magnolia Ave., St. Augustine, FL
North side of downtown. From FL-A1A turn east onto Williams St. at the Fountain of Youth sign and arch. Drive three blocks to the entrance, straight ahead. , at the corner of Williams St. and Magnolia Ave.
Daily 9-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $18.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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