From Village to Plantation
The site had been a village of the Mayaca people long before the Europeans came. But the British were the first to claim the spring and the surrounding property. By 1783, Spain ruled Florida. The king gave out land grants to settlers to encourage them to tame the wilderness. The grantee of this spring developed a plantation and called it Spring Garden, growing cotton and sugarcane. In 1831, John James Audubon visited the plantation owner, Colonel Orlando Rees. Audubon painted a limpkin and a gallinule for his portfolio, and saw Florida’s first and only water-powered sugar mill of its time.
By 1835, the Seminoles grew tired of the uninvited guests who gave themselves the writ of ownership of the springs. Shell mounds would prove that native peoples had already been living there for thousands of years. Attacking the plantation, the Seminoles destroyed the mill. It was rebuilt and put back into operation in 1849 after the Seminole Wars ended.
Becoming a Destination
Florida promoters stepped into the picture in the late 1800s, pushing the spring as the Fountain of Youth and the town as Ponce De Leon Springs. When steamboats and the railroad showed up, it was time to build a tourist destination.
The sugar mill was rebuilt, and along with it came construction of a new draw for tourists: the 14-room Ponce De Leon Springs Hotel and Casino, which opened in 1925.
When the bottom fell out of real estate in the Florida bust, the springs and the mill languished. It wasn’t until after World War II that it revived. Servicemen who trained in Florida brought their families down on vacation. Sometimes they stayed and bought homes: this was Florida’s next big period of growth. Roadside attractions popped up statewide.
Ponce De Leon Springs was one of them, opening in 1953 to cater to this new crowd of tourists. Among its delights were alligator pens, a Jungle Cruise, Oriental Gardens, an underwater observatory, and a water-skiing elephant named Sunshine Sally. The old hotel was turned into an inn with a restaurant.
But when the interstate highways opened, tourism changed. Tourists no longer lumbered along Florida’s back roads. No tourists, no business! The attraction struggled until it was sold to the state in 1982. It is now one of the most popular Florida State Parks, not just because of the spring.
The Schwarze family opened the Old Spanish Sugar Mill and Griddle House inside of the restored sugar mill building in 1961. It is a unique restaurant because you cook your own breakfast on a griddle built in the center of each table.
Things haven’t changed much since they opened, although they do have vegan options now.
Now before you say “I’ve got to cook my own meal?” it becomes half the fun of eating there. Most days, especially busy weekends, people sign their name to the waiting list and wait. And wait. And wait for their name to be called. It’s that popular.
For years I have tried to eat breakfast here. One time, after I arrived after a long drive with my car club, the electric service failed. When we were at the park this winter, I put my name on the list but by the time they called me, Sandy wasn’t back from the Wild Persimmon Trail yet. Since the family who runs the restaurant also runs the boat tour, they will save your place on the list until you get back from the tour.
Sandy had eaten here a few times in the past. But in May, I finally succeeded at my quest to eat at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill, thanks to an old friend, Georgia Turner. We showed up bright and early, and the place was empty. I took quick advantage to get some photos of the interior sans people.
The quiet didn’t last long. By the time we sat down, the stream of people began. And there were folks waiting for our table as we finished.
We took turns cooking, having fun along the way. They brought Georgia and I two pitchers of different pancake batters, and for Sandy, two eggs still in the shell. The extremely hot grill makes quick work of cooking breakfast. Our thick cut bacon was delivered to the table ready to enjoy.
If you want another serving of pancakes, there is no need to call a server. We just poured more batter on the grill and started the cooking all over. Still, our server Jonas kept a close eye on us, making sure our coffee mug and water glasses were always full.
For a unique dining experience, you won’t want to miss making pancakes at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill. Believe it or not, you can get breakfast all day! The restaurant is open until 4 PM daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas. They open at 8 AM on weekends and 9 AM on weekdays. And they do offer other items like sandwiches, salads, smoothies, eggs, and French toast, if you don’t want to make pancakes.
You do have to pay an entrance fee to enter De Leon Springs State Park, but there is plenty more to see and do in the park. The park will close its gates when it reaches capacity, so plan to show up early, or come on a weekday.