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THOMPSON: Growing up in a Florida tourist town before Disney World

July 04, 2017 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


This week's column is another excerpt from my book about growing up in Florida in the 1950s and 1960s. Again, despite the distance in miles and time, perhaps it will sound familiar to some readers who grew up here or elsewhere.

When the world’s largest tourist attraction existed only in the mind of visionary Walt Disney, my hometown - Ocala - was Florida’s top destination. If you were a tourist visiting the Sunshine State in the 1950s and 1960s, you travelled in the family car on a patchwork of roads - US Routes 1, 27, 301 and 441, State Roads 41 and 40, among others. Interstates 95, 75, 10 and 4 weren’t even on the drawing boards.

You might walk the narrow streets and tour the Castillo de San Marcos in America’s oldest city, St. Augustine. You might stop a half-hour south at Marineland so your family could see sharks, whales and porpoise before driving another hour south to take a dip in the Atlantic Ocean at Daytona Beach.

You might veer inland another couple hours to Winter Haven in the middle of the state and stroll through Cypress Gardens or watch the world famous water skiing show there. And, if you were really adventurous, you might drive all the way to Miami, hang a right on SR 41 to the Everglades for an airboat ride and see tens of thousands of Flamingos in flight.

In between, you would pass countless roadside attractions claiming to have the world’s largest alligator. Each one offering an assortment of tourist must-haves…salt water taffy, coconuts carved into monkey and Native American heads, a frog made of tiny shells polling a raft made of matchsticks, and, of course, the ubiquitous fresh-squeezed orange juice.

But what every tourist did without fail was visit Ocala for a couple days. Ocala was more or less the geographical centre of the state and home to Silver Springs, one of the world's largest fresh-water artesian springs, and starting in 1963, Six-Gun Territory, a complete re-creation of an old west town.

Six-Gun Territory and Silver Springs were just six miles and seven miles, respectively, east of downtown Ocala on State Road 40, a two-lane highway that an hour and fifteen minutes farther east dumped you in the Atlantic Ocean just north of Daytona Beach. 

Silver Springs was a swimming hole for locals and a popular stop for tourists for nearly 100 years. Even President Ulysses S. Grant spent a couple weeks there after the Civil War. By 1950, 800,000 tourists visited Silver Springs each year...easily the state's leading attraction.

Scores of mom-and-pop motor courts - often run by ex-patriots who displayed the names of their home states in hopes of luring loyal guests - sprang up in small towns from the Florida-Georgia line to Miami on the Atlantic and to Naples on the Gulf of Mexico. The Virginian, The Kentucky Colonel Inn, The Pennsylvanian, The Vermonter. Neon signs advertised "TV" and "Air-Conditioning" and "Pool," snagging carloads of families touring in heat and humidity that was - and remains - Florida in July and August.

I envied the families staying in the motels that sprouted like mushrooms along Silver Springs Boulevard (also known as State Road 40) in Ocala. The Bridges Motel, the Silver Princess, Howard Johnson's Motor Inn, The New Orleans Court…all with swimming pools and restaurants. After all, staying in a motel was as much fun as you could have when you're 10. Every now and then, mom and dad would take us to Howard Johnson's to eat...I loved the fried clams. It was like a mini-vacation. Kids weren't as jaded back then. Today, by the time you're 10 you think you've done everything...and many have.

Silver Springs had everything needed for a family vacation...glass-bottom boats and Jungle Cruise rides down the Silver River, alligators, monkeys, Ross Allen's Reptile Institute, Tommy Bartlett's Deer Ranch, Seminole Indians - led by Chief Billy - selling trinkets and showing white tourists how Indians lived for hundreds of years. There were souvenirs galore, cotton candy and ice cream…perfect.
             
The park surrounding the Springs was manicured like a fine country club and people picnicked and strolled the park by the thousands daily. Photographers shot beautiful models…in everything from swimsuits to the latest New York fashions. But for my brother, Clark, and me, the best thing about the
Springs was the crystal clear water...550 million gallons a day bubbling from underwater crevices at a constant 72 degrees...it was our swimming pool. You could swim all day for a quarter. 

There really was nothing like the Springs...a large white sand beach dotted with palm trees...a huge swimming area marked by three pontoons tethered by ropes with floats. You could wade in shallows near the stone steps and wall...or dive beneath the pontoons some 25 feet to a bottom of beautiful white sand with dense patches of seaweed that flowed with the current. Both Clark and I swam like fish and spent hours collecting snails hiding under the diving board platform or trying to latch on to a 10-pound catfish lurking in the seaweed. We were as brown as biscuits each summer...with tans every teen visiting from up north envied.

Later, when I was 14, three of my friends and I would sneak through the park, swim across the Silver River a half-mile from the Springs and dive from a platform we built in a tree 30 feet above the water. We would dive two and three at a time...swan dives, twisting flips...as the Jungle Cruise and Glass Bottom Boats glided past. "Throw quarters," we'd yell, and they did. We would easily pocket $5 each in a couple hours. Then, back to the swimming area...where we had girlfriends. A hamburger with fries and a coke at the Springs was just $1.25 in 1964. Later that summer the Springs management tore down our platform.                  

Ocala was a magnet for movie and television stars during the 1950s and 1960s because of both Silver Springs and Six-Gun Territory. Stars like Jerry Lewis, Lloyd Bridges, Elvis Presley, numerous actors who played Tarzan in movies, and virtually every western star from Bonanza’s Cartwright family…Michael Landon (Little Joe), Dan Blocker (Hoss), Pernell Roberts (Adam) and Lorne Green (father Ben) to Gunsmoke stars James Arness (Matt Dillon), Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty) and Milburn Stone (Doc). I got to meet some of them...often watching them film all day on location in and around Ocala.

Six-Gun Territory was a living history lesson of sorts. There were 40 buildings…not just facades like a Hollywood movie set. A real bank, a hotel, two saloons, a stable and blacksmith. There were gunfights every hour, with cowboy stunt men falling from rooftops. An “Iron horse” locomotive train took you from the parking lot to the town a half-mile and 100 years away.
                
Silver Springs - and to a lesser extent Six-Gun Territory - defined my summers from the time I was six years old until I was 17. It is a very different place today. Six-Gun Territory doesn’t exist…a shopping centre took its place in 1986. Disney World opened in 1971, and along with the Interstate Highway system, old Florida forever changed.

Silver Springs is now a state park, suffering from a minuscule budget. Weeds outnumber the blades of grass. Yes, the glass-bottom boats still run...and the water while relatively clear...no longer sparkles. Algae fed by steadily increasing levels of nitrates coats most of the once pristine white sand on the Springs bottom, grows slimy on seaweed that was once squeaky clean and forms greenish mats on the water's surface...big and thick enough to support a resting six-foot alligator.
                
Catfish still swim there, as do bream, bluegill and gar...but only about half the numbers of 50 years ago. The water flow has slowed to 350-million gallons a day…a third less than what it once was. Swimming isn’t allowed. When I took my wife, Bonnie, to see the Springs a few years ago, she was excited. But I was a little sad that she saw it through her eyes…and not my memories.

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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