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The wild man of Lilly Spring

Ed Watts is at home in his own skin - and little else. In return for skinny-dipping privileges, he welcomes guests and watches over a remote piece of old Florida.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 13, 2000


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[Times photos: Carrie Pratt]
Ed Watts ties on his "uniform,'' a loincloth, at his North Florida hut, complete with baboon head. "I'd rather be nekkid,'' he says. ""But I don't like to makefolks uncomfortable.''
LILLY SPRING -- "Simplify, simplify," advised Henry David Thoreau, the philosopher who said he'd rather sit on a pumpkin all by himself than have to share a velvet cushion with unwanted companions.

Ed Watts, who enjoys his own company most of all, values economy, too. When I find him -- he lives in the remote woods near North Florida's Santa Fe River -- he materializes out of the gloom, gives me the once-over and utters a brief "Howdy."

I have no trouble maintaining strict eye contact. Except for his glasses and necklace, he is buck naked.

" S'cuse me," he says, modestly vanishing into his palm hut. He emerges clothed in his official Ed Watts uniform: a loincloth.

"I'd rather be nekkid," he says. "But I don't like to make folks uncomfortable."

Ed is a throwback to an era mostly gone. Once every corner of our state boasted a genuine eccentric living in the woods or on the water. But like panthers and crocodiles, few were able to survive civilized Florida.

Yet Real Florida hangs on. There are woods and swamps just big enough to harbor endangered wildlife, and a few hidey holes that can shelter an endangered hermit or two.

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Ed's "mailbox,'' proclaiming him a "wild man … naked … crazy,'' greets canoeists when they
arrive at Lilly Spring. They're welcome to leave comments, suggestions or even money inside.

Ed is 50, lives alone, has never married or had children. He was born in Lake City, has run a bar, fished commercially, worked in a grocery, delivered newspapers and even cut trees.

Like his father and his father's father, he was born with brittle-bone disease. He broke so many legs and arms and hips, it became dangerous for him to work. He got government disability and wondered what he would do with the rest of his life.

"Well, I liked the water, especially springs," Ed says. "And I liked skinny-dipping."

He was canoeing on the Santa Fe River in 1985 when he paddled down a creek and found Lilly Spring. It's more pond than anything, the water clear and cold. It also was full of litter. Ed located the owner and volunteered to clean it up for the privilege of swimming -- in the buff.

Eventually, Ed got a no-cost lease. He's the unofficial caretaker of an unofficial campground that shows up on no maps and in no brochures. Most find it by accident or because a canoe livery on the river has issued directions.

Ed puts up with visitors as long as they are sober. "Had to chase away people last week when their four-letter words got real reg'lar," he says. "I told them, "Just quit now. I don't mean maybe.' "

When he chews the fat with the sober, he sits on the bench under the stuffed baboon head mounted on the hut he built from palm fronds. His hut has no windows and nothing to stop mosquitoes from flying through the open door.

"They don't bother me much," he says. "Now, ticks'll get on ya in the summer, but at least I don't have no problem finding them."

Ed's loincloth -- synthetic fur -- covers only modest sections of his torso. Visitors who make the mistake of voicing their admiration for his wardrobe sometimes regret it. He ventures into the hut and hauls out a plastic box containing 20 assorted loincloths.

"For my guests."

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Yvonne Hill, right, and granddaughter Ana, 9, float by as Ed sits on his deck, watching the scenery. "I like the ladies,'' he says. "I like to flirt. But I'm harmless.''

He purchases material at a fabric store in Gainesville, where he is treated as a celebrity. He is recognized even when he wears jeans and a T-shirt at civilized North Florida locales. Newspapers have told his story, and countless canoeists have bumped into him in his own habitat.

He has a prominent bald head and a furry beard like a Dr. Seuss character, leathery skin and a lower lip usually weighed down by a cigarette.

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Ian Quinones, 17, of Gainesville takes a dip in the spring in front of Ed Watts' hut. Quinones, who was there canoeing with his father and sister, says they come there often and know Ed by name. His attire, or lack thereof, doesn't bother them.
"I'm ashamed they hooked me on tobacco," he says. "I don't drink but one or two beers a year, though. Course, if I drank every beer folks offered, I'd be an alcoholic." His beverage of choice, for people who visit the river on a hermit hunt, is cola from Winn-Dixie.

He tells visitors he eats grubs and raw animals, but he actually buys provisions at the supermarket and cooks on a hot plate or in a microwave. His other appliances are a light, a television for the weather report, a fan for summer and a telephone for emergencies, like broken bones. His electric bill is $120 -- that's for the whole year. He keeps medical bills down by refusing doctoring for broken fingers and toes. Last time he had a cold, he was talking to his mother on his phone, sneezed and broke a rib. Fortunately, he seldom is sick.

Unlike Thoreau, he hardly reads, though somebody gave him a Louis L'Amour novel he liked. Mostly he sits on his bench and watches the water and the woods for great blue herons, owls and otters. If he really gets bored, he dresses and drives over to his mother's. Sometimes he even spends the night in the little apartment behind her house.

On a summer Saturday, about a dozen paddlers somehow find his creek. In winter, paddling season in Florida, he endures hundreds. If he senses a big visitor day, he'll rev up the chain saw -- being especially careful to keep his loincloth out of the way -- and cut firewood. With his guests he'll sit at the fire and warm more than his hands. Guests have included Boy Scout troops and church groups. He has the photos to prove it. Most likely they do, too.

Sometimes, if the wind is blowing through the cypress trees, he fails to hear their paddles splashing his way and is caught skinny-dipping. "S'cuse me," he'll say and grab the loincloth on the dock. Nobody, by the way, mistakes him for Tarzan. He's got a paunch a hibernating black bear would envy.

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Ed does have a few modern conveniences, including a phone, but he shuns most of them. "I don't allow radios out here,'' he says. "I like the music of nature.''
"Well, I'm not Mr. America," he says. "And I ain't a pervert or, what do you call it, an exhibitionist. If every time I heard somebody coming down the river I ran out nekkid and yelled "Hey, look at me,' then it'd be different. But I try to be quiet about it."

He says he has had no problems with the law, though he almost gets goose pimples thinking about what might have happened one time. About midnight he heard vandals in the woods he assumed were the vandals who had disturbed his campground before.

He jumped up, limped to his pickup and chased them. He chased them down the dirt road, through the cattle gate and onto the highway. He was near the city limits of High Springs when he realized he had better go home. He was wearing only his loincloth.

During Florida's hot summer, the loincloth qualifies as sensible dress. But even Ed Watts suffers from the heat. He jumps into his spring a dozen times a day to cool off.

Water from a spring is always 72 degrees and as clear as competently made corn liquor. On a sweltering summer afternoon, a spring is especially inviting to a city man. I ask Ed if I can go for a dip. "Shore," he replies.

I strip away my ridiculous city clothing and drop, nekkid, into the refreshing water. I am careful to avoid the ominous shallows.

"There are snapping turtles in there," Ed calls from his hut. "But I still have all my body parts."

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Mostly, Ed likes to sit and watch the water and the woods. "I haven't seen too many gators or moccasin snakes. I think man is the most dangerous animal in the jungle.''

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