The Safety Harbor Resort and Spa has been an attraction in the city since its earliest days. Currently, the spa serves as a relaxing getaway location for tourists, a wedding destination, and a recreational facility for local residents with a membership. In the past though, the natural springs under the modern spa have attracted snowbirds, settlers, the Spanish, and Native Americans to the region.
The early history of the natural springs in Safety Harbor is shrouded by myth and legend. However, they were almost certainly utilized as a source of fresh water by the Tocobaga Native Americans, whose purported capital city is in Philippe Park, just a few miles north of the spa’s current location. Legend also maintains that Hernando de Soto discovered and named the Espiritu Santo Springs in 1539, however it is unclear whether or not his exploring party actually visited.
There are several more myths surrounding how early settlers came to know about the springs, but regardless of these stories Colonel William J. Bailey Jr. purchased the land the springs were situated on in 1855. Col. Bailey made the springs available to the public because he believed in their healing properties. Over time, the springs grew in popularity, aided by stories of miraculous recoveries from those who drank or bathed in the mineral water. One such story is that of Jesse Green, a farmer who was allegedly paralyzed from the waist-down. He came to the springs, drinking and bathing in it for a year, and apparently could be seen plowing and hoeing the fields the next year.
As more people ventured to Florida to assess the healing properties of the water for themselves, Col. Bailey expanded his facilities to accommodate them. They hired a physician, built a swimming tank, and small houses for visitors with pumps to supply spring water. In the early twentieth century, Col. Bailey’s son-in-law continued to build upon the family business and started bottling the spring water for national distribution. At the time, they believed the spring water got its healing qualities from radium, a radioactive property. Fortunately, due to adverse health effects caused by radioactive chemicals, they were incorrect about this assumption and no traces of radium have ever been found in the spring water.
In 1914, Daniel M. Pipkin discovered three more mineral springs on his property northwest of Bailey’s business venture. Pipkin established the Pipkin Mineral Wells Hotel which included lodging and bathhouses. He also supplied mineral water to Dr. Barth’s Hotel and Baths, another healing springs establishment.
According to Warren Firschein and Laura Kepner in their book A Brief History of Safety Harbor Florida, “by the end of the 1920s, Safety Harbor boasted three hotels specifically catering to health through the use of the water from different springs.” Unfortunately though, the onset of the Great Depression hit the city hard and businesses that relied on tourists to the springs mostly closed.
The tough times would not last forever. In 1936, the springs and some nearby businesses and hotels were purchased by a physician named Dr. Alben Jansik. He renovated and added new amenities to the facilities, creating a “Florida haven for those in search of health, recreation and rest,” according to a tourism guide cited by Firschein and Kepner.
World War II would disrupt Dr. Jansik’s business, forcing him to sell the properties to his assistant, Dr. Salem Baranoff, in late 1945. Dr. Baranoff is credited with creating the Safety Harbor Spa known to the public today. Dr. Baranoff was a holistic practitioner from New York who advocated healthy lifestyles in the form of clean eating, exercise, and positive mental health. He brought a seasonal clientele with him for whom he and his family created personalized wellness treatments for throughout their stay.
According to Firschein and Kepner, “the spa gained immense popularity under Dr. Baranoff’s stewardship.” He employed many local residents during the spa’s winter season and a position at the spa was highly desirable. The spa continued to grow and develop and by 1981 was raking in over $6 million in profit.
Unfortunately, in the late 1990s and early 2000s the spa’s patronage decreased as other popular attractions around Florida lured in tourists. In 2004, the spa was purchased by the Olympia Development Group Inc., who poured millions into a full renovation. But the economic recession later that decade forced the group to restructure under bankruptcy protection and sell thirteen acres of waterfront property.
Luckily the spa was able to withstand the tough times and is still functioning today as a popular destination for tourists and locals. In 1998, it became a Florida Heritage Landmark, complete with a historical marker sign that informs visitors of the property’s illustrious past. The spa still offers treatments that include bathing in the mineral springs.