RUSKIN — They come bearing buckets.
Young, old, gullible, oblivious. Day by day, they turn the handle of a scrawny spigot and let the water rush out.
Yes, folks, here it is — beside a boat ramp alongside U.S. 41 — the Fountain of Youth.
Or so say the locals.
Drive by the county-owned Ruskin Commongood Boat Ramp on First Avenue NW without slowing and squinting and you might miss the lonely little faucet. It juts out of an unremarkable concrete block on the right side of the ramp. The other day, a plastic foam cup and Wonka Bar wrapper floated nearby.
Officials insist it spews plain old county water. It comes out warm and tastes like water from a garden hose — not quite flavorless, but bland enough.
But as the sun climbs, here comes the parade. They park, pop their trunks and fill their vessels.
Ruskin resident Robert Cordes loaded a couple of full jugs into his van one morning not long ago. "It seems kind of crazy," he said, "but you know, people come here nonstop to get it."
Cordes likes this water because his well water at home smells like rotten eggs. But he has heard the stories.
"They say back in the '40s, people came all the way from up north for this water, thinking that it had these magic powers."
Cordes isn't sure he believes all that, but, "It tastes pretty good."
• • •
Local historian Arthur "Mac" Miller, a descendent of one of Ruskin's founding families and a professor emeritus at New College of Florida, doesn't believe the fountain of youth stuff. But he offered a guess as to why some people do.
Until 1967, the boat ramp and little surrounding park were property of the Commongood Society, a cooperative community founded on principals of arts, education and working toward a greater good, as outlined by English philosopher John Ruskin.
The community printed its own money, which was redeemable in land, and members shared public property and the Ruskin College grounds. Everyone could attend school through college for free. There was an emphasis on a positive and healthy lifestyle, which meant no alcohol and no cigarettes.
Perhaps people drink the water at the Commongood Park in remembrance of those ideals.
Or maybe, Miller said laughing, because it's free.
• • •
James Miller, who drives from Brandon every few days for a taste, has his own theory. Miller, no relation to the historian, thinks the water flows from a special underwater spring — making it purer than a sweaty bottle of Zephyrhills.
"I bring home all I can get," Miller said the other day, hauling 10 gallon jugs to his truck.
Never mind that he's paying for the county tap water at home.
When the morning grew hotter, the visitors waned, and the parking lot was briefly still.
Drip, drip, drip …
• • •
Two neighborhood boys, the Balderas brothers, skidded their bikes to a stop and bounded into the murky basin.
"This is like our secret place," said 7-year-old Matthew. "You know, we kind of have good times out here."
"We do this every day," said Junior, 13.
They swam for a while, talking about school and their last rock-throwing contest and the fish down below.
Then Junior got a nosebleed. It happens sometimes when it's hot out, he explained. The boys waded over to the famed old tap.
Water rushed out fast and strong — a wet fist in Junior's little cupped hands.
He rinsed his face. After a few minutes, the bleeding quit.
Capt. Art Paiva of Snooky Bear Charters had just pulled his boat off the ramp when he noticed the brothers splish-splashing.
He chuckled, turned to his truck and then turned back.
"You know those were a couple 80-year-olds when they first got here," Paiva joked. "I saw them drinking out of that fountain."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2442.