Why do they call it that? Ulele Spring and Magbee Spring: Peaceful spring named for big jerk

8:28 AM, Dec 7, 2011   |    comments
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Water bubbles from Ulele Spring, formerly Magbee Spring, in Tampa Heights



Next week marks the anniversary of the death of a pioneering Tampa judge. But many people also considered that judge to be one of Tampa's biggest jerks.

Why do they call it Magbee Spring?

The gurgling spring just north of Downtown Tampa doesn't look quite as natural as it did more than 100 years ago, when it served as Tampa's first source of drinking water.

It's still surrounded by pretty green foliage, but the clear water now bubbles up into what looks like a sort of concrete fountain -- the result of decades of changes and "improvements" to nature.

And to get the story behind the name of the spring, you have to go away from the bubbling water and into a silent cemetery.

A stone memorial marker lists quite a resume for Judge James T. Magbee -- it says he was Tampa's first lawyer, and also a legislator and state constitution contributor.

But it doesn't tell you that many folks in early Tampa considered him a traitor.

During the Civil War, Magbee backed the Southern side and the Democrats. But once the gunfire faded... so did Magbee's loyalty.

After the war, Magbee the Southerner switched sides. He started backing the Northerners -- the Republicans -- and snagged a sweet job as judge in the process.

The spring that flows into the Hillsborough River in Tampa Heights was named for Judge Magbee, but it's most likely because he owned that land -- not because anyone here particulary respected him.

"There's one story where he was drunk and he passed out in the street and some of his enemies covered his body in molasses and corn," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center.

"At the time, pigs roamed fairly freely in what we now know as Downtown Tampa. And those pigs basically ate all of Magbee's clothes."

Kite-Powell says while Magbee liked politics, he loved liquor.

"There's another story about him passing out in his carriage -- kind of an early version of drinking and driving -- and again, his local enemies took the wheels off of his carriage," Kite-Powell said.

"So when he woke up in the morning, his horse was still attached to it, but it wouldn't go anywhere because the wheels were gone."

But, even often inebriated, Magbee was a clever guy.

"He, again, was drinking. And he was arrested by the sheriff, who was one of his enemies. And so Magbee being the local judge, he actually had a [legal order] written by himself, for himself -- to appear before himself," Kite-Powell said.

"The person of James T. Magbee was to be brought before Judge James T. Magbee for a hearing. And once he was brought before himself -- he released himself from jail."

Despite the shaky reputation, his name stuck on this spring until 2006. That's when a Boy Scout named Chris Longo pushed for a new, more upstanding name not tied to a falling-down drunk.

In honor of an Indian woman fabled to have cared for a stranded Spanish sailor what was called Magbee Spring is now Ulele Spring.

Why do they call it that? Now you know.

We feature new "Why do they call it that?" stories each Wednesday on 10 News at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Check out previous editions of the Emmy-nominated series at our "Why do they call it that?" website: wtsp.com/callitthat.

Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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