History of DeLeon Springs

We grow our grapes in DeLeon Springs, Florida. The original inhabitants of this area arrived at least 8,000 years ago. As time passed radical changes to the climate occurred, water tables rose and cultures changed. The river system joining the springs and the river system made the area an ideal place to forage and grow crops. Shell and stone tools left behind indicate cultivation of crops, hunting and foraging have gone one thousands of years before European explores arrived.

The Spanish discovered Florida and made the first attempts at settling the new land, most improvements were limited to St. Augustine in the east and Pensacola and St. Marks in the west portion of what is now the state of Florida. The area between these settlements was inhabited by various groups of Indians that migrated from Alabama and Georgia (Creek or Muscogee) and remnants of the indigenous tribes. Spain passed official possession of Florida to England in 1763 in a swap to recover land lost in a war between England and Spain. Until this time, the upper St. Johns River system had few permanent type Spanish improvements.

The English occupation had a policy of promoting agricultural endeavors and large projects were attempted from Lake George to Lake Beresford. A small agricultural operation was believed to be established near the natural springs and was referred to as Springs Garden. William Bartram visited the area in 1774 as part of his odyssey of East Florida. His notes mention “Spring Garden” run indicating the English probably had some improvements made to the area.

Florida was transferred back to Spain in 1783 and much of the improvements made by the English rapidly returned to its former state. When the United States received Florida from Spain in 1821, many improvements made by the English were in ruins. In the 1820’s, the Woodruff family acquired a little over 2,000 acres surrounding the springs and an attempt at cultivating an area occurred. Colonel Orlando Rees acquired some of the Woodruff land and began farming and used a dam and water wheel system to operate a grist mill. The rebuilt grist mill referred to as the “Old Spanish Sugar Mill” was originally built by Colonel Rees. John James Audubon visited Spring(s) Garden in 1832 making the trip to the area by wagon from the Bulow plantation on the east coast. The Spring Garden mill is believed to have been designed by the engineers that designed or re-designed the improvements at mills and sugar cane operations on the Halifax River.

The operation must have been successful for a number of years until about 1836 when the US policy of relocating the Indian tribes living in Florida boiled over. In 1838 hostilities, probably carried out by the famous Seminole/Miccosukee war chief, Halleck Tustenuggee resulted in the destruction of the improvements at Spring Garden. This portion of the St. Johns and Central Florida was well known to him. Spring Garden was abandoned temporarily until hostilities ceased in approximately 1842. Halleck Tustenuggee was an excellent forager and had secret gardens strategically hidden allowing him to remain a key chief for the entire period referred to as the second Seminole War. One of the staples of foragers of this period were wild muscadine grapes referred to as “fox grapes”. They were used as food and as the base for a dye.

Cultivation of sugar cane, indigo and some cotton eventually started again and continued up to and during the 1860’s. Spring Garden was destroyed by a Federal raiding party in 1863 during the war of Northern Aggression essentially halting commercial mill work and sugar production. The water wheel and grist mill were rebuilt after the civil war and sugar cane was processed into sugar for a number of years.

The civil war introduced many people to the warm and sunny climate of Florida. Interest in planting orange groves, proven earlier to be a sustainable crop by the English settlements on the St. Johns River. Orange production drew many farmers to Florida. Agricultural endeavors in the area include a silk worm operation in the late 1880’s, tongue oil groves, orange groves, celery and water cress plantings. Pine, cypress and cedar trees were harvested and processed at local mills and sent to Palatka and Jacksonville. Many small canals on Spring Garden Run were used to access giant cypress trees, many large stumps are still visible today.

Tourists and land speculators flocked to Florida looking for adventure and profit. The town that came to be known as DeLeon Springs absorbed an earlier settlement known as Spring Garden Center and replaced the proposed name of De Soto as planned by the developer of the area’s first hotel “the De Soto House”. During this time the speculators and developers seized on the idea of promoting the springs as the fabled “Fountain of Youth” sought by the famous explorer, Ponce DeLeon. In all likelihood, Ponce DeLeon never got any closer to these springs than sailing up or down the Florida coast in the Atlantic Ocean. But the association of the area with a historic name makes for a good story and the waters of the spring are refreshing, abundant and pure to this day. The fact that over 19 million gallons of fresh clear water come from the springs is quite amazing.

To this day, one of the most prolific forms of vegetation found on well drained unimproved vacant land in the DeLeon Springs area is wild grape vines of one variety or the other. These vines bear fruit on an unpredictable basis and when they do bear fruit it is small fruit and highly acidic. However, the vines grow to extremely large sizes.

The improved muscadine cultivars available today would have no doubt impressed the Spanish, English and Seminoles that tilled Spring Garden in the past. We have made it easy for you to enjoy this native grapes unique taste and health benefits.

Wanda Lennon and Family