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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.