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Skinny Dipping in the Ichetucknee!
By Patricia C Behnke   

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Earl Kinnard goes skinny dipping in the Ichetucknee River every New Year's Day.

Earl Kinnard begins each new year by skinny-dipping in Ichetucknee Springs on New Year’s Day.

“I realize I got a tradition going,” said Kinnard who was born in 1930. “And I got to keep it going. During the cold weather, the water is warm at 72 degrees, like a hot tub.

“But you had better have a towel ready for when you get out,” he warned.

He won’t reveal what time of day he goes to the springs on Jan. 1, but he does say it is “very early.”

Kinnard and others gathered at Ichetucknee Springs State Park on Jan. 24, 2004, to reminisce about their connection to the Ichetucknee River and its springs at the eighth annual Old Timers’ Reunion.

Members of the elite Old Timers’ group must have known the Ichetucknee prior to 1970 when it became a state park. Others in attendance at the Old Timers’ Day came to hear the stories of a simpler time when tubing was not the main event of a day spent on the crystal clear river fed by an abundance of springs.

Several members of the Martin family gathered at the reunion and remembered how their daddy, known as Constable Martin of Fort White, would come to the river every Wednesday afternoon to fish. He would bring cooking oil, meal, and coffee. He made lunch from the fish he caught and most often would be joined by the judge of Columbia County and others.

Elsie Wilkers, 59, gives her residence as “from around here,” and remembers that the Ichetucknee was much better before it became a state park.”

“It’s the ‘Estucknee’ River,” said Wilkers. “Anyone who pronounces it any other way was not born or raised around here.”

Wilkers remembers that the springs were important to the teenagers as the “make-out” place. When she brings up the topic at the reunion, the rest of the Old Timers leave the table, telling her they didn’t use it for making out.

“If they were born and raised here, they made out here,” Wilkers insisted. “We’d come with a whole bunch of kids so nothing happened. We just went swimming; it was our social gathering place.

“Every kid was known by every parent so you didn’t get away with much,” she concluded.

Jim Stevenson, head of the Ichetucknee Springs Working Group and proponent of the Old Timers’ Reunions, spoke to the group before lunch about the importance of the quality of the springs and the role that those still living in the area play.

“These are the finest springs in the world,” said Stevenson. “We are the premier tubing river in the US with over 200,000 visitors coming here every year.

“We know about the early history and the Spanish mission and we know about the mining operations, but until now we haven’t known about the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s and that is what we need from you,” he told the group.

He presented the findings of studies that have been recently conducted on the sinkholes and creeks and lakes north of the Ichetucknee Head Spring. Two days before the reunion, Stevenson led a meeting at the state park of the Ichetucknee Basin Group, which first formed in 1995. This group concentrates on educating the public on the issues facing the Basin area, conducting research on hydrology of the water and connectivity of the underground system, monitoring the water quality, helping governmental entities with land use planning and development in the area, acquiring land in the Basin, regulating through DEP the activities surrounding the basin, mapping the basin and watershed area, and restoring and protecting the area.
All of these efforts have been successful through partnerships with government, businesses, and residents.

“We have recently found an 1829 map that shows this was all one river from Alligator Lake in Lake City down to the Ichetucknee,” Stevenson told the Old Timers. “When a hurricane stalls over Lake City, it will be possible to take a boat from Alligator Lake all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The care of the Ichetucknee depends on you folks who live between the river and Lake City,” Stevenson said.

Loye Barnard, Ichetucknee Springs Ambassador, moved to the area in 1964 from Savannah. She purchased the Collins house and ten acres in 1967 for $6,500.

Barnard said, “We are just a small group of people who are all interconnected.”

The namesake for her house comes from William Henry Collins who owned the Mill Pond store and gristmill on the Ichetucknee in the late 1800s. For a short while Ichetucknee even had a post office, run by Collins. His descendants still live in the area and attended the reunion.

William Maxwell is a fifth generation Ichetucknee resident. Collins was his great grandfather. He said the first Collins was born in 1821. Maxwell’s father, Carlos, also played a role in the history of the Ichetucknee. Carlos was instrumental in Loncala selling the property to the state in 1970. Loncala had run phosphate mines on the land since 1920, but when the property became overrun with University of Florida students in the late sixties and the phosphate industry waned, Loncala looked for an opportunity to find an “ecologically minded” buyer, according to Maxwell. Carlos knew the owner, Sam Kelly, of Loncala and helped bring the $1,850,00 sale to fruition.

Barnard said that Russell Platt also played a role in the early conservation efforts at the Ichetucknee prior to the state’s purchase.

“He knew more history and wanted the Ichetucknee protected,” said Barnard. “He was the living legend of the Ichetucknee and his house was a living museum until it burned down.”

Barney Barnard remembered how the house burned. “Russell put a pot on the stove and went down Liquor Run Road to buy a bottle of gin and the pot caught on fire,” he said.

Wilkers said the Old Timers always protected their springs and never threw things down into the holes.

“We learned to swim here,” she remembered. “My older brothers threw me in the Head Springs and said, ‘Swim or drown.’ I learned to dog paddle real quick.

“My fondest memories are when my family, the nine of us, would come to the Ichetucknee for a picnic and swimming and chill our watermelons in the water.”

When Stevenson asked why the Old Timers had come to the Ichetucknee in their youth the answers varied, but all recalled a time when staying cool and socializing with friends and family was the most important activity of all.

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