Every November my brother and I head down to the southern U.S. on our annual adventure, part business and part fun. We’ve hiked the Grand Canyon, explored the Alamo in Texas and spent time with cowboys in Tombstone. This year we ended up is St. Augustine, Florida, the “oldest continuously occupied European-established city in America,” which upon consideration seems to be a rather large amount of variables.
Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, its primary claim to fame actually goes back a few years before that. In 1513, Juan Ponce de Léon, the first Governor of Puerto Rico, went looking for the fabled Fountain of Youth; according to ancient legend anyone who drank from the Fountain would remain perpetually young. Although he had heard the Fountain was located in Bimini, his voyage ultimately took him to the area now known as St. Augustine.
Sadly, Ponce de Léon never mentioned discovering the Fountain in any of his writings and even though his name has traditionally been attached to the story, in reality the two became connected only after his death.
Jump ahead to 1904, when a local St. Augustine character known as Dr. Luella Day McConnell ("Diamond Lil" to her friends, due to the diamond in her front tooth, a sure sign of elegance and gentility, then as now), claimed to have conveniently discovered an official document from the King of Spain on her property stating that this was the actual site of the Fountain of Youth. Not only that, she also uncovered a crucifix that Ponce de Léon had apparently constructed while there.
There were a few small problems with Diamond Lil’s claims; the supposed Spanish document remained hidden in the possession of a family member (although one can see a copy of it at the location) and the crucifix was manufactured out of coquina, a limestone consisting of seashells and corral, a popular building material in Diamond Lil’s day but one that Ponce de Léon most likely had no access to during his short stay there.
Although her evidence was what some might call questionable, Diamond Lil managed to turn her Fountain of Youth into a major tourist attraction where thousands lined up to pay for a drink of the fabled water. Ironically more recent excavations have provided proof that this very property was also most likely the site of Pedro Menéndez’s first colony in 1565. Apparently Diamond Lil actually did own a truly historic site without even knowing it; but I imagine her aim was not so much history as profit.
To this day it remains a featured attraction in the city, and why not? Although no one is likely to admit it, the thought of regaining one’s youth by simply drinking a cup of water is an intoxicating draw.
As we lined up to taste this miracle elixir, I noticed that the suspicious Spanish document described the water from the Fountain as “sweet.” Now I don’t know about your definition of sweet but for anyone who grew up drinking well water, the pungent aroma of sulfur is instantly recognizable. Perhaps Ponce’s water back home was even worse but if he thought this stuff was sweet OR magical, he had clearly set the bar pretty low.
However, never let it be said that I turned down the possibility of eternal youth through blind stubbornness. If millions had trekked to this location over the decades just to drink the water and stay forever young, who was I to disagree?
As I tossed back my third glass of the magical water, I pondered the fact that Diamond Lil died in 1927 at the age of 57. Fountain of Youth? Call me suspicious, but something seemed a little off here, and it wasn’t just the sulfur.