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Food Feature: Bath time

Historic Appalachian springs beckon with curative waters



The driving-tour map on the passenger seat urged me on with a seductive sketch of an old springhouse. A miniature Greek temple, four columns to a side — it was a picture of serenity and balance.

A book I'd found described what the place had looked like in the 1830s. There was a hotel with verandahs down the length of its three stories. Rows of cottages bounded the sweeping lawn. In all, the place accommodated 200 guests, plus servants. It had been Blue Sulphur Springs in West Virginia, one of the mineral springs resorts where our young country's elite traveled each summer to escape the lowland heat, to socialize and to take in the waters.

The road coiled past antique farmhouses and stony fields with flocks of sheep. With every turn, another vista of tumbling green hills unrolled. The paving was only one lane wide. It was a driver's road — a stick-shift, rack-and- pinion, disc-brake road. In the early days, though, the ladies and the infirm made the trek in bouncing carriages, while the gentlemen followed on horseback.

Finally, across a long, flat-bottomed valley, in what is now a cow pasture, stood the springhouse, all that remained of the resort. Its proportions were clunkier than in the drawing. The columns — not marble after all, but stuccoed brick — were crumbling. Where there was once a floor, weeds and wildflowers thrived. But at its center there was still a gin-clear pool, giving off an eggy odor.

From the 1700s to the early 1900s, the Appalachian parts of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee were dotted with natural springs resorts. Though two, the Homestead and the Greenbrier, still exist as expensive luxury resorts, most have vanished. A few of the historic bathhouses remain open to the public. And folks still come to others to fill jugs with water they believe to be healing.

If you're looking for a focus for a great mountain drive, head for these evocative old haunts. The earliest and most prominent of these places were in the Allegheny Mountains, where the southwest tip of Virginia meets West Virginia. In the 19th century, wealthy Southerners, along with much of official Washington, made an annual circuit of them.

Families, with retinues of servants, stopped a week here, two there, ostensibly to drink or bathe in the waters. Each spring's water was supposed to have specific curative properties, and every resort had its own regimen — a glass of water before each meal, say, or a dip of prescribed length each afternoon.

The claims now sound quaintly preposterous. Bathing in Virginia's Sweet Springs, wrote an 1839 observer, "is serviceable in the varieties of dyspepsia ... calculus and nephritic complaints ... chronic enlargement of the liver ... hemorrhoidal affections, and uterine derangement."

But with endless festive reunions and farewells, picnics and dances, and gut-busting dinners, springs life wasn't really meant for the sick. Folks from coastal states caught up with cousins from farther west. A planter's son could hunt with the president in the morning and court the chief justice's niece at dusk.

By the turn of the 20th century, Southerners could easily reach cooler Northern summer colonies like Saratoga Springs and Newport by railroad. Medical beliefs were changing too. A century later, many of the resorts have vanished, and the others are mostly in ruins.

One that is not — and which can be a base for exploring others — is the rambling, red brick Pence Springs Grand Hotel, on a hilltop in tiny Pence Springs, W. Va.

Rooms are done up in an ersatz traditional style that won't win any design awards. But they're reasonable, with packages that include breakfast and dinner starting at $125. Nobody bathes in the Pence Springs water these days — though many drink it — but the hotel offers a range of massages and other body services.

From there you could plot your own course, using the richly pictorial book Historic Springs of the Virginias. This might take you, for instance, to Warm Springs, Va., a pleasurable hour's drive away, mostly over back roads.

There, I visited Jefferson Pools, two simple octagonal wooden bathhouses — one for gentlemen, one for ladies — that date from 1761 and 1836. Thomas Jefferson bathed at the older one. So did I, in blissful solitude — save for the gracious attendant, an employee of the stately Homestead, down the road, which maintains the Warm Springs, open to the public.

Or, you could forego navigating on your own, and simply follow the "Springs Trail" driving tour map, available from the Monroe County (W.Va.) Historical Society. It takes in eight of the old resort sites. They're close enough to do in a single day, but it's more fun to break the tour up, leaving time to poke around, and return to the Pence Springs Grand in the afternoons for a massage.

Salt Sulphur Springs, in a moist cleft of hills, has an age-old calm. Opened as a resort in 1820, the handsome surviving buildings include a chapel, a store, a springhouse and part of an 1836 hotel — all built of honey-gold limestone quarried on the site. Sweet Springs is stately, with its sweeping lawn, with multiple white-columned porticos, and a charmingly decrepit, roofless bathhouse.

Heading back to Atlanta, you can stop at two more historic springs sites, just south of the Virginia-North Carolina border, near Crumpler. At Historic Healing Springs, walk beneath a flower-draped trellis to the springhouse and fill your jug. Nearby Shatley Springs offers much the same. It also has a restaurant serving classic Southern meat-and-three — the kind of place where it's possible to eat so much heavy food you'll welcome a draught of mineral water that is "highly endorsed in the treatment of gastric irritability."

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