The first known American to establish himself at Suwannee Springs was Francis J. Ross, formerly of Jacksonville. In 1831, he purchased the springs and surrounding property from the United States for $5,000 (about $115,000 today) and began constructing a resort there. By 1835, a Jacksonville newspaper reported that Ross’ establishment could hold 150 guests, with the main building having a hall large enough to accommodate 200 people at once. Spring baths and showers allowed the old and infirm to enjoy the healing waters, and stagecoach travel between Tallahassee and Jacksonville allowed weekly access to the springs. However, the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842 severely curtailed activities at Suwannee Springs, and a nationwide financial panic in 1837 finally encouraged Ross to sell the resort in 1838.
The end of the Second Seminole War in 1842 and the addition of ferries and bridges that sprang up at or near Suwannee Springs allowed greater access. Guesthouses at Suwannee Springs were advertised in regional newspapers as being “the very best fare that can be obtained in this section of the country”, and that “beds will be properly attended to and kept clean and airy”. Guests were served such local delicacies as gopher gumbo while they relaxed in the mineral springs or hunted on the property.
After the Civil War, the proprietors of Suwannee Springs gradually expanded the resort to include a spacious hotel, a trolley line that ran down to the bathing area, exercise courts, a bowling alley, a water bottling plant, and the stone walls around the springs that still exist today. The first major postwar hotel at Suwannee Springs (shown in the drawing) was a massive five-turreted wooden structure with 125 rooms and a great open central square built by Levi Scoville and Jesse Culpepper. Unfortunately, the magnificent hotel burned down on January 17, 1884, just after completion. A report in the New York Times stated that the building was “probably the finest structure of the kind in the State”. Details from the Times show that the fire started about 4:30 in the morning on the second floor, above the kitchen, and quickly spread to the rest of the building due to winds. The estimated 100 guests included a good number of invalids, and most were from the North. All the guests were reported saved, although a few had broken limbs due to having to jump out of their second-story windows. An African-American servant girl and boy were reported missing, and it was feared that they were killed in the fire. So traumatic was the loss that a special train was sent from Jacksonville to help in relief efforts for the many displaced guests. The hotel was underinsured, being valued at $95,000 (approximately $2.5 million today) but with only $51,000 in insurance.
After the destruction of the first postwar hotel, the owners decided that putting all their eggs in one basket had not been the wisest move; a second hotel completed in 1885 had only 25 rooms, was built of brick, and had numerous cottages around the premises so that the entire guest capacity would not be lost in one fire. Unfortunately, this hotel burned down in November of 1901; however, the owners did not lose the 18 surrounding cottages or the hotel annex, which was more than 100 feet away. The second hotel’s annex then became the third postwar hotel, with the cottages continuing to receive guests through the first decades of the Twentieth Century. As scientific evidence began to show that sulfur did not hold miraculous healing powers the visitors became fewer and fewer, and the community of Suwannee Springs eventually dried up; fire finally destroyed the third hotel in 1925 and most of the guest cabins have since vanished. Repeated discussions to rebuild a hotel and cabins have met with little commercial interest, and the site is now a local park.
Eric Musgrove is a seventh-generation native of Suwannee County, Florida. Growing up on the family’s country homestead, he quickly developed a love for history that has remained strong throughout his life.
The 1996 salutatorian of Suwannee High School, Eric was also a December 1997 valedictorian of Montgomery, Alabama’s Faulkner University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in history at the age of nineteen. Returning home to Suwannee County in 1998, Eric began working for the Suwannee County Clerk of the Court. He remains there today as historian and records manager, among many other duties.
Eric has been the youngest member of the Suwannee County Historical Commission since he was appointed to it in 2003. He was treasurer from 2008 to 2014 and since October 2014 has served as its chairman. Eric is a frequent presenter of local history and has been mentioned in the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, among hundreds of other prominent national and international newspapers. In early 2012, Eric was awarded the 2011 Trailblazer Award by the Suwannee County Chamber of Commerce in recognition of his work in preserving and presenting local history. Since 2013, he has also published a weekly historical column for one of Suwannee County’s local newspapers, the Suwannee Democrat.
Eric married his college sweetheart, Sarah, in 1998, and they live near Live Oak on part of the old family homestead with their two children, Alex and Abby. Eric has authored five published books: Reflections of Suwannee County, Suwannee Memories, There Let Me Live and Die, Images of America: Suwannee County, and Lost Suwannee County.