St. Augustine is all about history and very old buildings which suits me well since I love both of those things. In this blog I wanted to talk about several historical sites I explored beginning with the spot where the city first began, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. It was on this site that Don Pedro Mendez de Aviles came ashore in 1565 to claim Florida for Spain and establish the St. Augustine settlement. At the time, the Timucuan Indians had lived here for generations. Archaeological discoveries have been ongoing in this park for years with artifacts from Native Americans as well as early European settlers.
Many people have heard about the legend of Ponce de Leon searching for the “fountain of youth.” Although it hasn’t been proven for certain that he actually searched for or drank these waters, the spring has been flowing in this park since the days when he arrived in 1513 leading the first official European expedition to Florida. If he did drink the water, it didn’t seem to help his longevity as he died at the age of 46. In the early 1900’s, the landowners created a roadside attraction selling the magical water for ten cents a glass. The park considers this to be Florida’s oldest attraction based on guest books signed from 1868 (everywhere seems to claim they have the oldest something 😊). Visitors can still take a sip in the 60 year old spring house, drinking water that supposedly contains over 30 minerals.
I did my duty and had a cup. I found it amusing that a day or two after my visit, I came down with one of the worst upper respiratory viruses of our RV traveling. We had left St. Augustine for our next location at Jekyll Island, Georgia. We were too sick to do the activities I had hoped like biking the island, visiting the turtle hospital, etc. So, the healing water didn’t do me much good although I had little expectation in the first place 😊 .
The park has a variety of other activities including a planetarium, excavation and other historical sites, a Native American village and weapon demonstrations.
St. Augustine has the oldest and largest masonry fort in the United States – Castillo de San Marcos located on the shore of Matanzas Bay. It is operated by the National Park Service and visitors are welcome to walk all around the inside courtyard as well as on top of the walls. Some of the rooms can be viewed including storerooms, a chapel, and barracks set up with furnishings and artifacts. It is really a beautiful fort in amazing condition, although not my favorite of our travels. That goes to Fort Morgan located at the end of a peninsula near Gulf Shores, Alabama. Fort Morgan was so atmospheric and fun to explore with lots of rooms and passageways. The Castillo had so many visitors and a less mysterious and adventurous feel about it.
The Fort is built in a star shaped design called “bastion” and has thick walls, battlements, towers and a moat. The star design made it effective for mounting cannons and to withstand attacks from cannon projectiles. The Fort has stood for so many years thanks to the material it was made from – a rare type of limestone called “Coquina” which is found in the area. Because the rock is porous and light it doesn’t shatter like granite or brick and therefore cannon balls would just lodge in the walls.
The main part of the Fort was completed in 1695 and it remained in military service for 251 years before being deactivated in 1933 and turned over to the National Park Service. Possession of the Fort changed six times among four different governments: Spain, Great Britain, the Confederate States and the United States.
St. Augustine claims to have the oldest wooden schoolhouse in the United States. It was built before 1763 during the first Spanish occupation and has never been reconstructed. It was handmade from bald cypress and red cedar logs bound with wooden pins and iron spikes. The first students were immigrants from Minorca, an island owned by Spain located in the Mediterranean Sea. They came to the school to learn English and it cost 12-1/2 cents a day to attend. If they had no money, they paid by bringing food or wood for the teacher. The schoolmaster lived with his family upstairs from the classroom. A kitchen was located in a separate building out in the courtyard.
Inside the building, a photograph and news clipping shows the class of 1864 having a reunion in 1931. There were nine students present and their combined ages totaled 708 years! At the reunion, the former students arranged the classroom as they remembered and this is the way visitors continue to see it today.
Some times misbehaving students got sent to the dungeon located under the stairwell. Life was a little harsher for students during those days.
My favorite part of the school building was the floor. It was made from “tabby,” a type of concrete popular during the time period. The concrete was made by combining water, sand, ash and broken oyster shells. I thought it was neat to see a floor filled with shells.
Since St. Augustine has so much old, there has to be the oldest house to visit. It is called the Gonzalez-Alvarez House and was built about 1723. The house really did look and feel old when I stepped inside and toured the rooms. Many different families lived here until 1918, when it was turned over to the St. Augustine Historical Society who did some renovations and made it into a museum.
I loved all the old walls around St. Augustine and most are made from Coquina – a type of rock filled with shell fragments. I will close with a photo of one of the walls.
Stay tuned for more exploring in St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S.