After nearly a century, Wakulla Springs Lodge remains a southern treasure

Four hours northwest of “The Land That Disney Built” sits another Florida gem, a land that time forgot. Instead of tourism on steroids, where fun is measured in how fast the rollercoaster flies or how far it drops, this oasis just south of the state capital prides itself on a low-tech ambience that harkens back to the days when its just being there was reason enough to come. Welcome to Wakulla Springs Lodge.

Southern Vernacular Relying on its natural charms and authentic atmosphere, Wakulla Springs Lodge thrives despite a poor economy because it offers travelers rest, relaxation and a bit of history By Michael Peltier Originally published in the Oct/Nov 2010 issue of 850 Magazine

Four hours northwest of “The Land That Disney Built” sits another Florida gem, a land that time forgot. Instead of tourism on steroids, where fun is measured in how fast the rollercoaster flies or how far it drops, this oasis just south of the state capital prides itself on a low-tech ambience that harkens back to the days when its just being there was reason enough to come.

And that’s why it continues to thrive.

Welcome to Wakulla Springs Lodge, which hosts about 12,000 guests a year, a popularity that comes without a lot of the traditional advertising afforded hotels managed by private companies.

Located 13 miles south of Tallahassee, the lodge remains a throwback to a seemingly simpler time when swimming in a crystal-clear spring, taking a boat ride and enjoying the region’s natural beauty were enough to bring such luminaries as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to this remote cracker region of Florida. Most guests find their way there by word of mouth.

Over the years, the 25-room hotel built by one of Florida’s most powerful men has withstood the test of time by staying true to its roots, an elegantly simple retreat for travelers looking for a respite from life’s hectic pace. In good economic times and bad, it remains popular because of what it is.

“I think Wakulla Springs has survived precisely because it hasn’t changed much — it’s consistently itself,” said Lu Vickers, a Tallahassee-based author and frequent visitor.

Now part of the state park system, the lodge continues to delight its guests, whose comments, logged in guest books located throughout the Spanish-style hotel, easily could have been written 70 years ago.

“Arrived to see mist over the spring in the evening, clouds overhead but leaving,” wrote John and Cheryl, a couple from Spring Hill, Fla., during a recent visit. “Woke and watched dawn over the spring — peace and still water, sun touching the cypress trees. This is a special place and a real piece of old Florida. May it remain so.”

Built in 1937 by the legendary Edward Ball, the lodge faces Wakulla Springs. Every two seconds, enough crystal-clear water is released into the Wakulla River to fill a room as it begins its 9-mile trek to the Gulf of Mexico. On its way, it will pass some of the area’s most pristine habitat, where wading birds, alligators, turtles and other animals thrive under the state’s protection.

Passengers on the park’s fabled boat tours see what visitors saw when the lodge first opened for business, a slice of “real Florida” that avoided the temptation to become a glitzy tourist trap.

“The large property has not been significantly developed, a notable miracle for a place that easily could have been converted into a Silver Springs or Cypress Gardens, twisted into a tacky playground for the reality-challenged,” writes Tracy Revels, author of “Watery Eden: A History of Wakulla Springs.”

“I am always impressed by how the lodge seems “frozen in time,” Revels told 850. “It’s one of the very few places I know of where a visitor could get a sense of how the elite travelled and relaxed in the 1930s and ’40s.”

Most recently renovated in 2001, the lodge has weathered recent economic downturns and continues to draw tourists, business guests and others who hold meetings or family reunions, or even get married in one of the facility’s conference rooms or its outdoor pavilion. Between 50 and 80 employees work at the lodge, depending on the season, with summer being the peak.

Despite a temporary dip in overnight stays, park manager Brian Fugate says day visits are up and reservations are again starting to pick up steam. But as a state park, the lodge’s profitability is not the bottom line.

“We have folks coming from all across the country and around the world to come and stay with us,” Fugate said. “There are a lot of international guests who spend time here.”

From Nomads to Captains of Industry

Believed to have been inhabited by pre-Columbian natives up to 15,000 years ago, the spring tempted speculators and developers to tap the region for commercial gain since the early 1800s. The area’s remoteness, however, would prove too much for even the most determined promoter for more than a century. Efforts to make the spring a tourist attraction languished for decades as the property along the Wakulla River changed hands, at times for as little as $10 cash.

Edward Ball would change all that.

Virginia-born to genteel but modest means, Ball was a furniture salesman when he met Alfred du Pont, the estranged heir to a family fortune. Du Pont married Ball’s sister Jessie, his third wife, in 1921 and brought his new brother-in-law into his growing Florida business empire.

Ball came to the Florida Panhandle in the 1920s and began buying huge tracts of timber-rich land. The purchases would culminate in the creation of the St. Joe Paper Co. in 1936. During his travels for St. Joe, Ball would often purchase tracts himself that the company’s board of directors would not, a sideline career that would prove prophetic. It wasn’t until June 1934 that Ball would form Wakulla Springs Inc. and begin purchasing land along the Wakulla River.

When du Pont died in 1935, Ball became trustee of the du Pont estate, then worth $34 million. He immediately turned his attentions to Wakulla Springs and the lodge, and construction material began arriving there that year. At last, the spring was to become a bona fide vacation destination.

Ball apparently spared little expense. The Moorish-inspired lodge, said to have cost more than $75,000 to build, was made of stucco and roofed in red tile. Ball imported marble from around the world but relied most heavily on Tennessee marble, the pink tones of which still grace the floors, stairs, guestrooms and public changing rooms surrounding the spring.

Other amenities included a 70-foot marble countertop in the lodge’s gift shop and soda fountain. An Art Deco elevator still scoots guests to the second floor. The hotel was opened to guests in September 1937.

The lodge quickly became the place to be for celebrities and was used for a series of “Tarzan” movies and Army training exercises during the 1940s. The state springs and lodge would continue to be the Hollywood of Northwest Florida in the 1950s as it served as the underwater backdrop for such films as “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and two sequels.

Politicians also flocked to the lodge. Among other things, Ball, one of the state’s most powerful men, was a kingmaker. Considered the power behind the “the Pork Chop Gang,” a group of rural North Florida politicians who ran state politics for decades, Ball held political fundraisers at the lodge, and more than a few hopefuls launched their candidacies from under its roof.

But Ball’s overriding reason for building the lodge was as a place of personal refuge that reminded him of his Virginia upbringing, Revels said.

“It was somewhere that he came to relax, but he also liked to show it off,” Revels said. “ There was something in Ball that demanded he try and turn a profit on any place he owned.

Hotel Maintains Its Subtle Appeal

The lodge’s high-beamed lobby continues to showcase Aztec and Toltec designs first commissioned from a German painter living in Wakulla County who was said to have done work for Kaiser Wilhelm. An enclosed porch facing the spring was roofed in cypress and also remains unchanged.

Scattered around the lobby are marble checkerboard tables, complete with oversized checkers stacked or scattered across the table tops. A single large-screen television, the lodge’s only TV, sits amid comfortable couches that round out the décor, which has otherwise changed little.

“The lodge has been here for more than 70 years,” manager Fugate said. “We try to maintain it as best we can to reflect that heritage.”

Such attention to detail goes down to the silverware and china, the patterns of which are identical to those used when the lodge was built. Guest rooms also retain porcelain ceiling-lamp fixtures, sinks and deep, water-logging tubs.

“A lovely old lodge, not ritzy, but just comfortable and clean as it should be,” writes Margie Rebben, a guest from Apollo Beach. “We love the ‘old’ hotels, the Biltmore, the Hotel del Coronado. God bless you for not allowing this sanctuary to get modernized.”

Following Ball’s death in 1981, the property was transferred to the Nemours Foundation, formed after the death of Alfred du Pont to operate children’s health facilities in Florida. Board members quickly discovered that the property was not a profit-making venture, even with the lodge. In 1986, the state of Florida purchased the site and other Wakulla River acreage from the foundation for $7.15 million and has been operating the lodge ever since.

Restaurant Retains the Menu, If Not the Prices

Another permanent fixture of the lodge is the restaurant. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the restaurant, like the park and lodge itself, tries to emulate the past while adding some nice modern touches. White linen tablecloths lay the canvas for such traditional Southern evening meals as liver and onions, fried chicken, braised pork shanks, prime rib and other steak cuts from off the grill.

The dinner menu includes other Southern traditions such as deep-fried oysters, shrimp, and locally caught seafood complete with sides of fried okra, mashed potatoes or cheese grits. While the 1946 menu touted many of the same entrées (a porterhouse with all the sides went for $2), some of the items now have a more distinctly modern face.

While iceberg lettuce and cucumber with French dressing was enough to dazzle the table following World War II, the modern salad includes a few new touches, including alfalfa sprouts and a host of dressings on the side. Missing from the modern menu are such 1940 standards as kraut juice and buttermilk. County lawmakers in the 1970s also allowed for the addition of beer and wine.

Poised for Another 100 Years

As customers lined up for boat tours of the spring and a few diners headed into the restaurant for breakfast in early August, one visitor sat down to flip through a voluminous scrapbook highlighting the lodge and park’s history going back decades.

During his ownership of the Park, Edward Ball fought to keep it from becoming a gaudy “honky-tonk” of an attraction like those that had begun springing up farther south at other parks established in the mid-1900s.

He appears to have succeeded, which historians say was no small feat given the trend in Florida by other developers such as Dick Pope (Cypress Gardens) and Newt Perry (Silver Springs and Weeki Wachee) to exploit natural surroundings. Instead, the lodge and surrounding park remain a haven for tourists from around the globe.

“Wakulla persists because it is democratic,” Vickers, the Tallahassee-based author, says. “It welcomes everyone from French tourists in Speedos to country boys in cut-offs, from the timid who can only put their toes in the water to the wild ones who back-flip off the high dive. In the end, it takes everyone’s breath away.”