Fraser family keeps city history alive at Fountain of Youth

A weekday morning rife with early spring coaxed tourists into the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, where towering trees offset sunshine with shade.

 

The comedic trill of the park’s notorious peacocks reverberated across the picnic area, instigating craned necks and curious glances. The cacophony didn’t distract John Walter Fraser, though, who sat at one of the tables with a Coca-Cola in hand.


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“Now this is the place where legend meets history,” said Fraser, third-generation owner of the Fountain of Youth.

Admittedly, Fraser said the fountain’s claim to endless life and youth is, at best, a tall tale.

Ponce de Leon might have fumbled through Florida wilderness to reach the magical spring, he said, but it’s hard to prove.

“There’s no absolute proof he landed here,” he said. “Except for one account and some circumstantial evidence.”

But tall tales aside, the site did catch the eye of Fraser’s grandfather, Walter B. Fraser, nearly a century ago.

In the late 1920s, infatuated with St. Augustine’s history and land, Walter packed up his life in Georgia and moved to the sleepy city, brimming with ideas.

“He just fell in love with the place,” John Fraser said. “He absolutely loved it.”

Walter knew a tourism venue when he saw one.

He also knew that St. Augustine, despite a tumultuous and riveting past, wasn’t promoting its right as the birthplace of Florida.

After purchasing the estate of Dr. Luella McConnell, the previous owner of the Fountain of Youth, Walter began his political and business careers in the city. As the years ticked by, he would join the St. Augustine City Commission and serve as mayor for several years.

Walter purchased more of the city’s iconic pieces, including the Oldest School House. He built WFOY radio, served in the Florida Senate and introduced bills that later formed the bedrock of the state’s tourism marketing initiatives.

“He was the guy that was outside of the fishbowl and while looking in said ‘wow, what beautiful fish. If we can just keep them alive and decorate the bowl, we could make it so nice,’” Fraser said. “He recognized that, and he put his money where his mouth was to preserve and promote this place.”

John Fraser said his grandfather was most passionate about preserving the city’s history. He formed historical preservation committees, which later formed the present-day Historical Archaeological Review Board (HARB) , and set to work unearthing the park’s artifacts starting in 1934.

Various entities, including the Smithsonian Institution, Yale University and the University of Florida, made discoveries in the park’s soil throughout the years.

And while evidence of Ponce de Leon’s presence remains speculative, digs on Fountain of Youth grounds have produced remains of Pedro Menendez’s settlement site, America’s first colony.

“Really, the Fountain of Youth was the linchpin,” Fraser said. “It was the beginning.”

The park, as well as several other properties acquired in Walter’s day, have been handed down from generation to generation. John R. Walters was second to maintain the properties and now John Walter Fraser, along with his siblings Bryan, Elaine and Elizabeth, call the shots.

The siblings continue to maintain the historical integrity of the park’s past while growing it as a tourist attraction. They also maintain four blocks of property on St. George Street, from the City Gate to the iconic Milltop Tavern and Oldest School House.

As a child, John recalls spending evenings in the gift shop, selling tickets and ice cream.

“Our dad was always trying to keep us into it,” he said.

These days, the siblings have to balance business with historic preservation.

Archaeological digs can make it difficult to improve or develop current sites such as the Milltop Tavern and Fountain of Youth, while stringent guidelines provided by HARB make the building and reviewing process cumbersome.

Buildings in the city must fall under one of three styles approved by HARB — First Period Spanish, Second Period Spanish or Colonial.

“To keep everything authentic,” Fraser said.

From a business perspective, it’s more profitable for property owners to build colonial-style houses because the three-story buildings have wide open porches and offer more square footage compared to one-story First Period or compact two-story Second Period Spanish buildings.

Fraser said if his grandfather was here today, he’d be pleased to see the park and school house thriving. He’d also appreciate the existence of HARB and the city’s dedication in maintaining St. Augustine’s past.

He added that Walter might not be as enthusiastic about the increase in colonial buildings, though.

“I don’t think he would have liked so much colonial style. Maybe he would have liked, at the beginning of the street, to have all First Period Spanish,” Fraser said. “I don’t know.”

But Walter’s original intentions, bringing visitors into a city overflowing with rich history and exotic intrigue, still stands.

And the Fountain may have, after all, granted everlasting life — at least to St. Augustine’s past.

PRISCILLA BENNETT 6 months ago
A great place for visitor and resident alike.  THANK YOU to this wonderful family!
David Cash 6 months ago
Used to go and bring paying friends when it was free to residents. Dont go anymore since they changed the policy. Too bad, it was a good time for all. 
Dion Moore 6 months ago
John Fraser is an incredible person and very down to earth. This man has done nothing but try to help people including myself. A generous, loving, and into his family. What a person he is. You go John Fraser your family help make this city what it is today. Thanks John.  Dion. 
PS The Fountain of Youth is a wonderful place to take the family for a picnic. History at its best. 
 

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