Back when the town of Safety Harbor had only a few hundred residents and its famous spa was closed during the summers, things got so slow that weeds would grow on Main Street.
Today, nearly 17,000 people live within the 5-square-mile city limits and there are nearly two dozen places to eat and drink in the 10-block business district.
But Safety Harbor still has a small-town feel.
Often seen by visitors as a quaint retreat on the shores of Upper Tampa Bay, the city used to promote itself as “a hidden gem” and “the best kept secret in Florida.”
“Now it’s not such a secret, and they don’t want people to think it’s a secret,” says Laura Kepner, who co-authored the recently published “A Brief History of Safety Harbor, Florida” (History Press, $21.99).
The book recounts how the town grew from a small settlement in the citrus groves to an interesting city with its own personality and a health spa with a rich history.
Why write a book about a little town that is surrounded by larger burgs like Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater?
The book was commissioned by History Press, a niche publishing company in Charleston, S.C., that specializes in historical paperbacks about small towns, places or businesses with specific histories. Since 2004, the company has produced more than 2,000 titles.
Freelance writers Kepner and Warren Firschein have each lived in the area for more than six years. He moved with his family from Maryland. She and her husband moved down from Seattle.
Both are writing fiction for middle-grade children, and both are members of a local writers group founded by Kepner. They worked closely with the Safety Harbor Museum and Cultural Center as well as the Safety Harbor Library and city officials.
The Safety Harbor book was released this fall and it has been warmly received by residents, Kepner says. “The response has been wonderful and exciting because the people who live in Safety Harbor feel that it is a special place,” she says.
Firschein says what fascinates him is the varied and layered history. The city has survived fires, hurricanes, boom and bust periods, and even bankruptcy during the Great Depression.
Their book begins with the Tocobaga Indians, who settled in the area more than a thousand years ago and left a massive mound in what is now Philippe Park, named after plantation owner Odet Philippe, who introduced citrus trees to the area.
And there is the legend of explorer Hernando de Soto who, in the 1500s, discovered the natural mineral springs that bubble up near the shore. Of course, the Indians had discovered it first. According to local (but unproven) lore, de Soto thought he may have found the fountain of youth Ponce de Leon was searching for, so de Soto named them “Espiritu Santo Springs” (where the healing waters flow).
Much of the history of Safety Harbor is tied to the springs that now flow under and through the Safety Harbor Spa and Resort. The book relates that by the 1890s the area was known as Green Springs, and people were making pilgrimages to bathe in and drink from the springs.
When the city was incorporated in 1917, the name was changed to Safety Harbor to avoid confusion with Green Cove Springs in northern Florida.
During the decades that followed, the springs gained national and international fame, drawing tourists from throughout the world. By the mid-1940s, the Safety Harbor Spa was established,
Firechein and Kepner say they found much material in archived copies of the town’s weekly newspaper, which started publishing in 1915. They also interviewed many of the city’s oldest residents, including 98-year-old Goldie Banks, who came to the city with her family when she was 5.
“My favorite line from her is that she was told by her mother than she was so little, she could be put in a jar,” Kepner says. “She was so tiny, her family worried she wouldn’t survive, and they came here for the mineral water at the spa.
“We have some good accounts from people who have seen a lot of change.”
For information and where to buy, visit http://www.historyofsafety harbor.com/.