When staying a few nights in Cedar Key a great day trip is to Manatee Springs State Park. A pleasant 30 minute drive from Cedar Key.
By Sue Harrison of Levy Living Magazine
When I was growing up Manatee Springs (at the end of SR 320 six miles west of Chiefland) had not yet become a state park like we know it today. It was privately owned until 1954 when the state acquired it for a park but even after that it remained much more informal and relaxed in terms of what you could do and not do.
In the ‘50s there was a boat ramp and a concession stand but the walkway out to the river hadn’t been built yet. Back in the day you could drive your boat right up the spring run to the ramp or even the springs unlike today where motorized traffic is blocked off at the river.
One time we were coming up the run in our little Chris Craft when one of the steering cables snapped and the boat veered over to the right and ran up in the cypress knees. Luckily none of us were hurt and the boat survived with a couple of scrapes in the paint. Daddy fixed the cables and we continued on up into the spring where we tied up and got out to make lunch.
Back then, the pavilions were already in place and local folks had been camping and using the property as a fish camp for quite a while. There was hardly anything better after a hot day swimming in the cold spring than perfect hamburgers cooked on the charcoal grill. Get out of the cold water, wrap your shriveled fingers around that hot juicy burger and take a big bite. There may still not be much better than that.
We were always told to stay away from the nearby water-filled sinkhole now called catfish hotel. Supposedly it was deep and very dangerous. The top was covered by vegetation and the walls went almost straight down to the water. It didn’t take a lot to persuade us to keep our distance. And why go in that nasty looking place when the springs and that beautiful run were just a couple of hundred feet away?
Another favorite thing of mine at Manatee back then were the big vines hanging out of the oak trees. If you couldn’t see yourself as Tarzan or Jane (or maybe Cheetah) you had no imagination. The vines didn’t swing really well but you could climb them and scamper around on the limbs pretending it was your jungle tree house.
My father used to talk about dynamiting the springs when he was a boy. The idea was to use just enough to stun the fish and make them float to the surface so he and his gang of boys could gather up a mess and have a fish fry. One time, so he told it, they must have used too much because it threw up a huge plume of water and shook the caretaker’s house so bad that it knocked dishes off the shelves. He said the caretaker’s wife was mad as a wet hen about her broken dishes and the boys had no fish fry that night.
Just as an aside, my father said he learned to swim in a nearby sinkhole. He said his own father picked him when he was a small boy and tossed him into the water, saying, “You better swim.” And he did, swim.
Today we would be horrified at the thought of throwing a stick of dynamite into those pristine springs or of tossing a small child into a deep sinkhole but I guess those were different times. I know I was surprised and a little sad when the boat traffic was stopped. But we have a habit of loving things to death and the state parks and their rules keep much of our inappropriate love in check.
When I was older, a teenager, I still wanted to spend the day at Manatee. We would get dropped off in the morning and picked up in the afternoon. My cute distant cousin Richard was a lifeguard and my cousin Betty and I spent a lot of time trying to impress him with our dives, svelte one-piece suits and graceful treading of water. When he went off duty we switched to cannonballs and belly flops. And at some point during the day we’d walk up to the concession stand, wash the sand off our feet and order a Coke and some chips that we would eat, sitting on the cement benches with our feet stretched out in front of us.