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

To see a Florida spring that looks the way Florida springs used to look, travel up to Gilchrist County, pay $10 and walk to the end of a wooden diving dock. Then, in the words of artist Margaret Tolbert, you just "jump off into wonderland."

At Blue Springs, the water is so clear that the hundreds of turtles that call it home appear to be swimming through air. The white sand on the bottom shines like a beacon, and the current blasts up from the limestone caverns as if it were squirting from the world's biggest fire hose.

Other Florida springs are suffering from pollution, toxic algae blooms and a loss of flow, but Blue Springs has largely been spared from those woes.

Since 1958, the same family has operated Blue Springs as a private park, open to anyone with a few bucks and a swimsuit. But now they're putting it up for sale. The spring — and the 400 acres around it — can be yours for a cool $10 million.

The decision to sell Blue Springs Park wasn't an easy one, said Kim Davis and Harry "Matt" Barr, the sister and brother who inherited it earlier this year when their parents died.

After all, the spring was a gift of love — a secret love.

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

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, Wright owned the north end of Sand Key, St. Petersburg's Gateway area, half of Weedon Island and the Belleview Biltmore Hotel.

Wright's longtime secretary was a petite, reserved woman named Ruth Kirby. Around 1931, soon after Kirby's family moved down from Alabama, 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."

At the time, Wright's St. Petersburg office was filled with constant clatter: Teletype machines spitting out stock prices, Western Union machines clackety-clacking with the latest financial news, phones ringing so much that his phone bill ran to $1,000 a month.

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

When a stumble on some stairs in 1969 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.

Suddenly Kirby — described in Wright's obituary as "his longtime personal secretary and friend" — became one of the most powerful wheeler-dealers in the state, negotiating with U.S. Steel over land for condos on Sand Key and flying to Tallahassee to pressure the governor into buying Weedon Island. People wondered how Wright's fortune had landed in the hands of this woman with the pageboy haircut who lived in a two-story log cabin with her sisters, kept a stable of horses not far from downtown St. Petersburg and drove a gold Cadillac, but she wasn't giving interviews.

The best clue lay far to the north, in Gilchrist County. In 1958, according to Davis and Barr, Wright had given Kirby the deed to Blue Springs and all the undeveloped land around it as a gift.

An engagement gift. From the groom-to-be to his fiancee.

Yet the couple never walked down the aisle. "Four or five times they were going to get married," Barr said. "But every time he got sick or something like that." After a while, Davis said, "they just remained companions." This sort of arrangement was never openly discussed back then, though, so in public Kirby remained a mere employee.

Kirby relished visiting the springs, Davis said, and believed others should get the same opportunity. She built the diving dock and boardwalk, then charged the public just a dime for admission. The place quickly became popular with swimmers, campers and canoeists.

In 1971, she persuaded her nephew, Barr and Davis' father, to sell his Tampa moving business and move his family to Blue Springs Park to run the place. The siblings, then teens, adapted well to the change. Their after-school chores now included cleaning the park's restrooms and picking up trash, but they could also ride dirt bikes through the woods for hours.

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, Davis said.

"It's hard in this day and age to keep it natural," she said. "It's a daily struggle to protect the water and the watershed."

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

Shortly before Davis and Barr's parents died earlier this year, they urged their children to sell the springs and get what they could for it, rather than hang onto the family heirloom any longer.

"People say it must be cool running a spring, but the trick is to never let that spring run you — and I think it's doing that," Davis said.

She said state officials have expressed an interest in buying Blue Springs but, thanks to budget cuts, they may be unable to afford its operating expenses. Tolbert and other fans of the park fear it will be sold to some heartless asphalt addict, but Davis said that won't happen.

"We're picky about that," she said. "We'd love for somebody to come in and run this place as well as it's been run up until now." After all, she pointed out, "they don't make springs like this any more."

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @craigtimes.

Spring for sale is a legacy of a long-ago love affair 11/27/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 27, 2013 10:17pm]
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