Ohio spring once resort
EDITOR’S NOTE: In recent weeks, staff writer John Maglinger has traveled hundreds of miles in our area visiting with interesting people. This is the first of five reports on what he found.
By JOHN MAGLINGER
SULPHUR SPRINGS, KY. – The old dance hall isn’t what it used to be and the yellow poplar hotel is missing altogether, but if you look hard enough you can find traces of what made this quaint Ohio County settlement a fashionable health resort at the turn of the century.
Tucked away some 200 yards off Kentucky 69 – just south of Dundee – a bone dry sulphur well raises its antique head beneath a cedarwood shelter.
Years ago, its water was hailed as an elixir by persons anxious to ward off certain “constitutional imbalances,” that were considered harbingers of failing health.
The surrounding countryside, lined with elm, maple and beech trees, also provided a relaxing backdrop for those interested in escaping the heat of the city.
Since his father operated the summer resort from 1918 until 1931, John Magan has more than a passing acquaintance with the fluxuating fortunes of Sulphur Springs.
“In the horse and buggy era, this was the gathering place for the folks around here,” Magan said.
In 1880, a stagecoach from Owensboro traveled the gravel roads to Sulphur Springs jostling passengers over chuckholes and causing one wry gentleman to remark that he needed a taste of something stronger than sulphur water after making the trip.
Others booked passage on the showboats that roamed Rough River, disembarking at Hartford and completing the 10-mile journey to the resort by carriage.
After its initial success, Sulphur Springs fell on hard times and when Magan’s father assumed ownership the resort was a ramshackled, overgrown mass of foliage and cracked timbers.
“My father had to have men cut down the bushes, drain off the water in the lowlands, and the dance hall was so rotted, he built a new one,” the 72-year -old Magan said.
The dance hall – which is now used as a storage area – once throbbed to the music of an 8-piece band as breathless couples swayed and pivoted across its polished floor to such “hot” numbers as “The Wang Wang Blues” and “Toot Toot Tootsie.”
“There also were barbecues and chicken dinners,” Magan said, “and people would bring their jugs, tin cups and glasses and fill up at the well.”
On a typical Sunday, the gentlemen played croquet while the younger set paired off beneath the shade trees, gossiping noisily and hoping the sun would hurry down so they could hold hands without being rebuked by their parents.
Ever so often, a lady would detach herself from a circle of friends and walk to the sulphur well for another cupful of the restorative liquid.
“The local people used to call it a ‘sulphur gum’ well,” Magan said, “because it was lined with gum tree wood. The wood was later replaced with clay tiles, though.”
Not only was the sulphur water renowned for its curative powers, but the rich, black mud that oozed from the base of the well also had its uses.
“The mud was thought to cure foot sores,” Charles Conkwright, Magan’s great-nephew said, “but the women applied it as a facial treatment.
Although there are only a few homes in Sulphur Springs today, the community once boasted a post office, drug store, two grocery stores, a church and, of course, the 20-room hotel to accommodate out-of-town visitors.
Its rough-sawed beams were constructed in 1873 – and despite a fire six years later – the building was as sturdy as ever when it was razed several years ago, according to Magan’s sister, Jessie Kester.
Mrs. Kester, whose home now rests on the hotel’s former site, recalls the furnishings in the various bedrooms:
“Each had a straw mat rug, an iron bed, a washbone pitcher and a china chamber pot,” she said.
When the property was sold to the Methodist church in the '30's, the dance pavilion was converted into a meeting hall and Magan said that the preachers would sometimes claim “the devil lived under this very floor”.
Whatever the medicinal properties of sulphur water actually were, Mrs. Kester said the bands of gypsies who used to pass through the area considered it something special.
“They would baptize their children in the sulphur water,” she said, “and give it to them to drink. I never saw a little baby refuse it – they’d even cry for more – but the dogs wouldn’t touch it.”
Sounding what was probably the prevailing opinion of the time, Conkwright – who sampled the water before the well went dry – said:
“If you’re thirsty, it tastes good. If not, you had to hold your nose to get it down.”
Transcribed as published in the Messenger-Inquirer on October 26, 1975
This article was sent to me by Terry Acton. It is much appreciated.