In the ‘50s there was a boat ramp and a concession stand but the walkway out to the river hadn’t been built yet. Back in the day you could drive your boat right up the spring run to the ramp or even the springs unlike today where motorized traffic is blocked off at the river.
One time we were coming up the run in our little Chris Craft when one of the steering cables snapped and the boat veered over to the right and ran up in the cypress knees. Luckily none of us were hurt and the boat survived with a couple of scrapes in the paint. Daddy fixed the cables and we continued on up into the spring where we tied up and got out to make lunch.
Back then, the pavilions were already in place and local folks had been camping and using the property as a fish camp for quite a while. There was hardly anything better after a hot day swimming in the cold spring than perfect hamburgers cooked on the charcoal grill. Get out of the cold water, wrap your shriveled fingers around that hot juicy burger and take a big bite. There may still not be much better than that.
We were always told to stay away from the nearby water-filled sinkhole now called catfish hotel. Supposedly it was deep and very dangerous. The top was covered by vegetation and the walls went almost straight down to the water. It didn’t take a lot to persuade us to keep our distance. And why go in that nasty looking place when the springs and that beautiful run were just a couple of hundred feet away?
Another favorite thing of mine at Manatee back then were the big vines hanging out of the oak trees. If you couldn’t see yourself as Tarzan or Jane (or maybe Cheetah) you had no imagination. The vines didn’t swing really well but you could climb them and scamper around on the limbs pretending it was your jungle tree house.
My father used to talk about dynamiting the springs when he was a boy. The idea was to use just enough to stun the fish and make them float to the surface so he and his gang of boys could gather up a mess and have a fish fry. One time, so he told it, they must have used too much because it threw up a huge plume of water and shook the caretaker’s house so bad that it knocked dishes off the shelves. He said the caretaker’s wife was mad as a wet hen about her broken dishes and the boys had no fish fry that night.
Just as an aside, my father said he learned to swim in a nearby sinkhole. He said his own father picked him when he was a small boy and tossed him into the water, saying, “You better swim.” And he did, swim.
Today we would be horrified at the thought of throwing a stick of dynamite into those pristine springs or of tossing a small child into a deep sinkhole but I guess those were different times. I know I was surprised and a little sad when the boat traffic was stopped. But we have a habit of loving things to death and the state parks and their rules keep much of our inappropriate love in check.
When I was older, a teenager, I still wanted to spend the day at Manatee. We would get dropped off in the morning and picked up in the afternoon. My cute distant cousin Richard was a lifeguard and my cousin Betty and I spent a lot of time trying to impress him with our dives, svelte one-piece suits and graceful treading of water. When he went off duty we switched to cannonballs and belly flops. And at some point during the day we’d walk up to the concession stand, wash the sand off our feet and order a Coke and some chips that we would eat, sitting on the cement benches with our feet stretched out in front of us.
Today the spring flows up from a deep, 75-foot wide, boil that is connected by a network of caves to the nearby catfish hotel (the duckweed covered collapsed sinkhole) and two other smaller sinkholes . The caves go on for miles and if one is certified for cave diving this is a pretty popular spot. In 1994 a world record for length in cave diving was set with a distance traveled of 11,074 feet.
Where the spring comes up in the boil the color is a gorgeous blue caused by the crystal water flowing up in a big white limestone bowl reflecting the light. The 100-plus million gallons of water a day coming up flows into a run that leads out to the Suwannee River. The bottom of the run is mostly covered in waving grasses and the water is so clear that you can see mullet and bass and bream darting in and out or just hanging in the current.
These days you can rent kayaks or canoes from the concessionaire who also offers BBQ with beans and cole slaw. There is a pontoon tour on the Suwannee from the end of the 300 yard boardwalk that follows the spring run out to the river and the floating dock. Boats can no longer come up the run. Fishing is allowed in the run and the river with a fishing license.
There are campsites and ranger led events, 8.5 miles of nature trails for hiking or biking and you can even bring the dog. It’s not as much of a child’s paradise as it once was but it is still a pretty darned nice way to spend a day.
By the way, there are snakes and the occasional gator but this is nature not a theme park.
This piece first appeared on June 4, 2015 in Levy Living, the ezine of the Nature Coast.
B&W photos above courtesy State Archives Florida/Florida Memory