Rainbow Springs State Park manager focused on education
Published: Sunday, March 9, 2014 at 8:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 9, 2014 at 8:51 p.m.
For millennia, the headsprings of the Rainbow River have attracted humans to the crystal clear water that bubbles up from the depths of the earth.
The history of the place, both ancient and recent, is not lost on Charles Smith, the new park manager at Rainbow Springs State Park.
“I understand the importance of this area. It’s a special place. It’s one of the biggest springs in the state of Florida,” said Smith, who took over the post Sept. 1, after the previous manager, John Smyth, retired.
The headsprings are at the bottom of a bowl-shaped depression, at the top of which the full grandeur of the springs can be appreciated. The turquoise color produced by the clear water and white sand almost beckons. There are no deep caverns, only gentle-looking, roiling areas of sand where the water comes forth. The flow is about 425 million gallons a day.
Smith, who has been with the state Division of Recreation and Parks for 10 years, said his focus will be on educating the more than 250,000 annual visitors to the park about the importance of protecting the springs.
“Educating them on protecting the resources, while at the same time enjoying the park,” he said of his goal.
Smith never thought he would become a park ranger but, looking back, he realizes how much the state park system was a part of his life.
“When I was a junior in high school I did a summer job at Florida Caverns State Park. My family were advocates of the state park. We would go out there pretty much every Sunday after church,” Smith said of his childhood growing up near Marianna, in North Florida.
After six years in the Army, Smith got a job at the Caverns State Park and eventually became assistant park manager, before taking over at Rainbow Springs.
“It’s been fantastic. We have a great friends of the park group who really advocate for the park. The park staff is phenomenal. It’s been nothing but a blast,” Smith said.
Before becoming a state park, Rainbow Springs was a theme park from the 1930s to the mid-’70s when it closed after Interstate 75 bypassed Dunnellon and Walt Disney World opened.
The park fell into disrepair, but was never forgotten. The state, at the urging of many in the community, purchased 1,500 acres in and around the headsprings in 1990, but did not have immediate plans to open the site as a park.
That’s when residents formed the Friends of the Rainbow Springs group and began clearing the more than 15 years of overgrowth and inattention. The volunteers opened the park to the public on the weekends and continued to operate the park until the state took over full time in 1995.
“This park is important to the community. It’s awesome to be surrounded by people who understand the importance of what we have here,” Smith said.
Marylou Klein, current secretary of the Friends of the Rainbow Springs, joined the group in 1994.
“When I first went to the park, the area was still covered with vines. You could only go to the first waterfall, but slowly the volunteers kept clearing the walkways and got further and further back,” Klein said.
The park currently has about 3 miles of walking trails.
“We’ve been working closely with Charles. We’re just excited about some of the things that he has already brought to the park. He has a real awareness of how the park should present itself. The park is looking very nice,” Klein said.
Smith has also spent time transitioning his family into the community. He and his wife, Takiyah, have settled into their new home with their three children, Chariyah, 14; Charles III, 11; and Charleston, 10.
“We’ve had nothing but good experiences here. The people have been very friendly and helpful,” he said.
Since his arrival, Smith also oversaw the re-opening of the visitor’s center and gift shop, which were damaged by a fire in early 2012. The small fire did not do much damage to the structure, which was part of the old attraction, but it did uncover asbestos-containing materials that required an extensive cleaning.
“The gift shop is open on a smaller scale, but there are plans in place to expand the gift shop,” he said, adding that the plans also call for replacing some of the building’s columns.
On a recent visit, the park was busy with walkers, a group having a lunch meeting in one of the pavilions and a swimmer in a wetsuit. The park is a popular place for weddings and draws visitors from all over the world.
Klein said she thinks Smith is a good fit.
“It’s always good to have a fresh outlook on things. He’ll be a good steward for our park, I’m sure,” she said.