Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Florida Cabinet votes to buy Blue Springs, saved by long-ago secret love affair

Florida's Cabinet voted this week to acquire 407-acre Blue Springs Park in Gilchrist County, a jewel of a spring that's been privately owned since 1958.

The spring was saved from development thanks to a long-ago secret love affair involving a St. Petersburg business mogul and his faithful assistant.

The Cabinet approved the purchase for $5.25 million, which state officials said was 10 percent below the owners' asking price The parcel includes a set of six springs and a mile of land along the Santa Fe River.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Spring for sale is a legacy of a long-ago love affair

Recently state officials have mostly bought development rights to environmentally sensitive land, rather than the land itself. But in this case the sellers didn't want to keep operating the place themselves, although they are the ones who kept it in such pristine condition.

In the 1950s, Blue Spring belonged to a St. Petersburg business mogul named Ed C. Wright, who owned some 20,000 acres spread across 20 counties.

Times files

Ruth Kirby and Ed C. Wright in 1966.

Wright, a short and solid man, had made a fortune investing in municipal bonds, railroad stock and radio stations. One newspaper story described his profession as "capitalist." He preferred "speculator." In Pinellas County alone, he owned the north end of Sand Key, half of Weedon Island and the Belleview Biltmore Hotel.

Wright's longtime secretary was a reserved woman named Ruth Kirby. Wright hired her from a secretarial pool for a day of filing papers. Then he asked the teenage girl to take a letter.

"I was scared to death," she recalled years later. But Wright was impressed by how quickly she worked and how meticulous she was. "He said he could use a girl full time, and he hired me for $9 a week."

Kirby's duties included listening in on all those calls and taking notes. Soon she was trading bonds and buying land too. She proved to be as savvy an investor as her boss.

In 1969, a stumble on some stairs left Wright with a serious head injury. Kirby kept a vigil at his bedside for 21 days. When he died, unmarried and childless at age 77, his will named her executor of his $50 million estate.

Overnight, Kirby became one of the most powerful wheeler-dealers in the state. She negotiated with U.S. Steel over land for condos on Sand Key. She flew to Tallahassee to pressure the governor into buying Weedon Island.

People wondered how Wright's fortune had landed in the hands of this quiet woman with the pageboy haircut, but Kirby wasn't giving interviews.

A clue to her secret lay in Blue Spring. According to Kirby's family, Wright gave her the deed to Blue Spring and the undeveloped land around it as an engagement gift.

Yet the couple somehow never made it down the aisle. Every time they set a date, Wright got sick or found some other excuse to avoid marriage, the family said. Eventually she settled for companionship rather than wedded bliss.

Kirby could have sold Blue Spring to developers, but she relished visiting such a tranquil place and believed others should get the same opportunity. She built a diving dock and boardwalk, then charged the public a dime for admission. Blue Spring quickly became popular with swimmers, campers and canoeists.

Since Kirby's death in 1989 at age 78, her family has labored to keep the springs looking the way Great-Aunt Ruth wanted them to, niece Kim Davis told the Tampa Bay Times in 2013, when she and her brother put the place up for sale.

Thanks to those efforts, nature photographer John Moran said then, "the water here still has the power to shock you with its stunning hues of electric blue."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

Florida Cabinet votes to buy Blue Springs, saved by long-ago secret love affair 06/15/17 [Last modified: Thursday, June 15, 2017 7:13pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Cooking challenge: Making homemade edible Christmas gifts

    Cooking

    Should I infuse this vodka with bacon?

    That's not a question I expected to ask myself on a Sunday morning, but here we are. This Christmas, I'm giving homemade gifts: infused liquor and chocolate fudge. But I didn't realize it would be so hard to find an appetizing recipe for infused alcohol.

  2. Tyre McCants, USF's brawny bruiser of a receiver

    College

    TAMPA — Having spent 11 games watching Tyre McCants in the flesh — all 236 pounds of it — USF coach Charlie Strong seems convinced his team's leading receiver down the stretch could be someone's leading rusher down the road.

  3. To test for climate disasters, like hurricanes: build stuff, then blow it apart

    Hurricanes

    WEST GLOCESTER, R.I. — In the backwoods of Rhode Island, a team of researchers spends whole days trying to destroy things: setting boxes on fire, shattering chunks of ice, hurling debris through the air at hurricane speed.

  4. From the food editor: How to make perfect, hot Crispy Roasted Potatoes

    Cooking

    Sometimes, you just want a hot, crispy potato.

  5. Kathy Fountain, from anchor chair to therapist's chair

    Business

    A knowledgeable voice and familiar face beamed into Tampa Bay homes when Kathy Fountain delivered the 5 o'clock news and chatted with talk show guests on WTVT-Ch. 13. She created some news of her own as co-anchor of the first female team in the Tampa Bay area, "so radical at the time," she says.