Perhaps the Ichetucknee's greatest historical treasure is the Mission de San Martin de Timucua. This Spanish and Native American village was one of the major interior missions serving the important Spanish settlement of St. Augustine.
The mission, built in 1608, flourished through most of that century. The river and springs were used consistently by even earlier cultures of Native Americans, dating back thousands of years.
During the 1800s, early travelers on the historic Bellamy Road often stopped at Ichetucknee Springs to quench their thirst. Later that century, a gristmill and general store were located at Mill Pond Spring. With high quantities of limestone at or just below the ground surface, the area became early headquarters for North Florida's phosphate industry in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Small surface mines are still visible throughout the park. Continuing through the 1940s, cypress and longleaf pine forests were harvested by the local timber and naval store industries.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park was purchased by the state of Florida in 1970 from the Loncala Corporation to preserve one of the state's outstanding natural wonders. In 1972, the U.S. Department of the Interior declared the Ichetucknee Spring a National Natural Landmark.
Fort White Settlers
Immediately after the Civil War, northern Florida received a great influx of settlers. The area around Fort White was still considered wild frontier when the small community was incorporated in 1870. Soon after, the nearby town of Ichetucknee sprang up along the banks of Mill Pond Spring.
By 1884, Ichetucknee had its own post office, grist mill and smithy.
The Ichetucknee River was the lifeblood of the communities and settlers such as the Dampier family. The Dampiers came frequently to the river banks to swim, bathe, hunt, fish and worship. Before devastating hurricanes, severe winters and a boll weevil infestation ravaged Fort White in the early 1900s, industries included phosphate mining, citrus, cotton and railroad commerce.
During its heyday, Fort White boasted more than 2,000 residents.
Phosphate mining in the park covered two major periods. Exploration mining began prior to the turn of the 20th century, consisting of mule and wheelbarrow-assisted excavation in nearby sinkholes and depressions.
Later, the mine used boilers, pumps and steam shovels for ore extraction. A series of narrow-gauge railroads were installed to cart the ore out to local railroad lines. This early phase of mining was never as intrusive as our present-day methods, but many pits were left in the park and are still present today, especially around the Head Spring area.
Another relic of the phosphate era is the series of tram beds crisscrossing the park, left behind from the railroad conveyances.
During the early 1900s, the towns of Ichetucknee and Fort White began dwindling under the strain of economic hardship. Saw mills and turpentine operations were established to replace the old industries, and forests throughout the area suffered. Most of the original longleaf pine stands in the park were cleared for lumber and turpentine production.
Old catface 'whiskers' and the remnants of clay collecting pots can still be seen near some of the ancient snags and stumps.
Along the lower river, near the Head Spring, cedar trees were harvested and shipped to local pencil factories.
Although tubing the river is a relatively recent innovation, for many decades the springs of the Ichetucknee have been prized by locals as favorite gathering spots. In the days before automobiles, people used to endure hours on dusty, bumpy back roads by horseback or wagon to enjoy the cool waters.
The Head Spring in particular was popular for family reunions, baptisms, picnics and camping. Old-timers tell stories of chilling watermelons in the small feeder springs around the Head Spring. Women used to tie up their skirts to go fishing, trapping their catch bare-handed against logs and throwing them up on shore.
The Loncala Era
Loncala Phosphate Company owned the land surrounding Ichetucknee Springs during the 1950s and 1960s. It was during this time that folks discovered tubing and droves of college students from the Gainesville area crowded into the river and springs to partake of this popular summer ritual.
Loncala allowed recreational usage of the river, but the high volume of visitors soon overwhelmed the company and the natural resources.
In 1970, Loncala, concerned for the protection of this fragile spring-run ecosystem, sold the property to the state of Florida for development as a state park. The state cleaned up the river and built facilities, and in 1972 the river and springs were declared a National Natural Landmark.
The tubing experience is still enjoyed by thousands each year, and the Ichetucknee River remains one of the most pristine bodies of water in the state.