Elixir of life: Rural Heritage Museum explores the history of Hot Springs

JUMP RIGHT IN: In 1886, the Mountain Park Hotel opened. Among the resort's many features was its large outdoor swimming pool, lined with marble and filled with hot mineral water. Photo courtesy of the Rural Heritage Museum

Inside the Rural Heritage Museum at Mars Hill University, site manager Les Reker admires the recently installed panels for the museum’s upcoming exhibit, A Fountain of Youth in the Southern Highlands: A History of Hot Springs, North Carolina. Set to open Saturday, Feb. 2, the collection explores the area’s rich history as a health resort, former timber town and present-day haven for outdoor recreation.

After a moment’s reflection, Reker reads aloud a passage from the show’s introductory panel — an 1877 excerpt from the Raleigh Observer. According to the paper, the town, known then as Warm Springs, offered guests the chance to drink from and soak in the region’s springs, which the newspaper described as “the elixir of life; the certain panacea for all the ills to which the flesh is heir.”

Reker pauses once more to consider the description. “Very Shakespearean,” he muses before pointing out an accompanying image of the Warm Springs Hotel, the town’s first major resort. Built in 1832, it was often referred to as the “White House,” Reker says, on account of its columns.

Advertised as a place for health, pleasure and peace, the Warm Springs Hotel made claims similar to those of the Raleigh Observer. For example, an 1883 advertisement promised travelers “speedy and radical cures in almost all cases of Chronic and Sub-Acute Gout and Rheumatism, Dyspepsia, Torpid Liver, Paralysis, Afflictions of the kidneys Scrofula, Chronic Cutaneous diseases, Neuralgia, Nephritic and Calcelous disorders, Secondary Syphilis, and some other diseases peculiar to females.”

Pat Momich, the exhibit’s curator, laughs out loud at the exhaustive list. “They thought the springs would cure everything,” she says.

Of course, Reker notes, the overall history of Hot Springs is more complex and far more interesting than mere wishful thinking and hyperbole. “You can look at the town’s development as a microcosm, not only of Madison County, but also of the development of the United States,” he says. “From the 1700s to the 21st century — it’s all reflected in Hot Springs.”

Butchers, barbers and boatswains

As visitors wind through the exhibit, Reker’s observation becomes apparent. A Fountain of Youth in the Southern Highlands brings the impact of regional, national and international events to the local level. Set in chronological order, each of its 18 panels focuses on a particular industry, event or person relevant to Hot Springs. This includes detailed accounts of Cherokee mythology, the establishment of the railroads, the region’s involvement in the Civil War and the creation of the Pisgah National Forest.

HEALTH BENEFITS: Rural Heritage Museum director Les Reker stands before the introductory panel for the museum’s latest exhibit, which opens Saturday, Feb. 2. Photo by Thomas Calder

For both Reker and Momich, one of the exhibit’s most intriguing panels looks at the town’s lesser-known role during World War I. In April 1917, after the United States declared war on Germany, a number of German civilian ships were seized at American ports. By June, more than 2,500 Germans were brought to Hot Springs and interned at the Mountain Park Hotel complex, the former site of the Warm Springs Hotel.

With the addition of these new arrivals, Momich notes, the population of Hot Springs more than quadrupled. Deemed “enemy aliens,” these German civilians — which included butchers, barbers, boatswains, musicians, machinists and masseurs — were held in the mountains of Western North Carolina for 19 months.

In addition to rare photographs from this time period, the exhibit also has a series of artifacts from the internment camp. This includes paintings and sculptures made by some of the German prisoners, who often engaged in arts and crafts, as well as sports, music and gardening to help pass the time.

‘An enigmatic place’

The more you research a topic, says Momich, the more conflicting information you discover. Invariably, this leads researchers further down the rabbit hole. “You end up gaining a book’s worth of knowledge,” she says.

And while knowledge may be power, it also presents quite the challenge for curators trying to compress information into the standard exhibit format. “You have to boil the information down to about a paragraph of the best stuff,” Momich explains. “People go to an exhibit because they want to learn something, but it’s not supposed to be a book on a stick.”

To salvage some of the lost material, the Rural Heritage Museum has produced a 42-minute film covering additional aspects of Hot Springs’ history. Along with photographs, the production also includes interviews with present-day members of the Hot Springs community, including lifelong resident and Mayor Sidney Harris, Hot Springs Resort and Spa manager Heather Hicks and Sunnybank Inn owner Elmer Halls, as well as former state Sen. and Mars Hill resident Ray Rapp, who currently serves on the N.C. Railroad Commission.

Harris, 78, says the springs continue to attract guests to the area as they have throughout the town’s history.

Hicks agrees. Each year the resort’s hot tubs soothe over 50,000 guests, she says. Located on the former site of the Warm Springs and Mountain Park hotels, the Hot Springs Resort and Spa keeps alive the town’s reputation as a place of relaxation and healing.

Magnesium, explains Hicks, is the springs’ most plentiful mineral, “which speaks to ailments in the body, especially muscle aches and skin irritation,” she says. “People with rheumatoid arthritis or even bee stings and poison ivy see the most benefits [from the tubs].”

These healing powers, while a far cry from the town’s 19th-century claims, contribute to the ongoing allure of Hot Springs, says Hicks. “It is an enigmatic place,” she notes. “I think it always has been. It really draws people in.”

Reker is hopeful a similar appeal will attract visitors to the Rural Heritage Museum’s latest exhibit. “I hope guests come to learn about the complex story of Hot Springs,” he says. “There are all these side stories about all these people that came and were impacted by the place and returned here again and again, as they do today.”

WHAT: A Fountain of Youth in the Southern Highlands: A History of Hot Springs, North Carolina

WHERE: 80 Cascade St., Mars Hill avl.mx/5l2

WHEN: Exhibit opening runs 2-4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2, and will continue through Saturday, Aug. 31. Free



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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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