2008-09-25 / Top News

More than 200 years of history enrich Jefferson Pools

By Anne Adams • Staff Writer

 

The overflow areas in the bath houses at the Jefferson Pools are a popular spot for visitors looking to relieve stress and enjoy a natural massage by having the water cascade over them as they sit. (Recorder photos by Mike Bollinger) The overflow areas in the bath houses at the Jefferson Pools are a popular spot for visitors looking to relieve stress and enjoy a natural massage by having the water cascade over them as they sit. (Recorder photos by Mike Bollinger) WARM SPRINGS - The Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs are more than just a couple of springs — they mark the beginning of Bath County's development, and The Homestead's founding, steeped in legends and famous visitors.

Bath resident Hugh Gwin, in his book, "Historically Speaking: True Tales of Bath County," described the sulphur water, saying it "sparkles like champagne and flows at a rate of 1,200 gallons per minute."

Now slated for renovation in a joint effort by The Homestead and Homestead Preserve, the landmark buildings were formerly called the Warm Springs Pools and have been famous since Native Americans inhabited this area. For centuries, many believed the sulphur water to have medicinal benefits, and folks to this day travel from all over to soak those up, or at least get a feel for what soothed so many over the centuries.

Several unpainted boards can be seen on the men's bath house at the Jefferson Pools to replace some that rotted. Several unpainted boards can be seen on the men's bath house at the Jefferson Pools to replace some that rotted. According to The Homestead's history, it was, in fact, an Indian brave who first "discovered" the mineral waters in Warm Springs, after Indians on the Atlantic coast were sent westward as Colonial settlers began arriving in the 1600s.

An Indian scout crossed Warm Springs Mountain in one day, the legend goes, and was "so very weary that when he reached our warm mineral springs he collapsed into their soothing waters," according to "The Homestead: A Brief History. "He slept in the springs all night, and awoke not only refreshed, but endowed with extraordinary powers. The spring waters had so invigorated him that he was able to run all the way to the sacred meeting ground in less than two days. And, when the conference convened, the springs had given him such sagacity and eloquence that he was elected to lead all of the tribes."

In the early 1700s, colonial explorers and surveyors began to visit the area, and they, too, used the springs to soak their weary bodies. By the early 1740s, homesteaders had built some simple wooden guest cabins near the springs, using smooth river stones to make the pools deeper.

Mold was found on this ceiling in a dressing room in the men's bath house at the Jefferson Pools. Mold was found on this ceiling in a dressing room in the men's bath house at the Jefferson Pools. In October 1756, when Col. George Washington was in his early 20s, he traveled through the area to inspect forts, and met Thomas Bullett, a surveyor and lieutenant in the Virginia Militia. Washington promoted Bullett to captain, and Bullett befriended fellow officers and surveyors, Thomas and Andrew Lewis.

In 1763, they agreed to develop the Hot Springs into a spa resort, and the following year, the Lewis brothers obtained a 300-acre land grant that included all seven of the mineral springs in Hot Springs. That property remains the centerpiece of The Homestead today, where the spa, casino, and first tee of the old golf course are located.

The resort history notes, "For many generations it was believed that Captain Bullett moved his family to Hot Springs. As more and more travelers visited his developing spa resort to 'take the waters,' Mrs. Bullett found an ever-growing number of guests knocking at her door each evening in need of food and lodging for the night. While this circumstance was clearly a sign of a successful business, it was also more than a little annoying, and so Captain Bullett built a rustic, wooden hotel, named it The Homestead, and America's premier mountain resort was born. But as always, fact is really more fun than fiction, and it turns out that Mrs. Bullett had no part in any of these events. That is because there was no Mrs. Bullett — the good captain never married."

Pictured in the 1920s, men and women enjoyed mixed drinks at popular parties in the Warm Springs ladies' pool at a time when the springs attracted all manner of elite from the era. The bathhouses are now roughly two centuries old, and little about the structures has changed, but the deterioration is evident. (Photo courtesy Bath County Historical Society) Pictured in the 1920s, men and women enjoyed mixed drinks at popular parties in the Warm Springs ladies' pool at a time when the springs attracted all manner of elite from the era. The bathhouses are now roughly two centuries old, and little about the structures has changed, but the deterioration is evident. (Photo courtesy Bath County Historical Society) As it turns out, though, Capt. Bullett did play a major role in developing the area, getting militia members to "homestead" on his property with their families. According to the history, "Under his able direction, the spring pools were improved, additional cabins constructed, and in fact a rustic, one story wooden lodge accommodating about 15 guests was completed in 1766, and it is believed that he named it The Homestead, honoring the homesteaders who had settled here and were responsible for its construction and the operation of his new spa resort."

As the Lewis brothers moved on to other things, they signed a "deed of partition" Nov. 21, 1766, which gave Bullet ownership.

The resort's account says the Lewis brothers probably developed the Warm Springs, and the first octagonal structure was opened to the public June 1, 1761. The pool inside is about 120 feet in circumference and holds 40,000 gallons of flowing water. It is the oldest spa structure in the U.S.

Another Homestead legend is that Thomas Jefferson designed the octagonal gentlemen's pool house before 1761. "Considering that Jefferson was only 18 years old in 1761, and that there is every indication that he was elsewhere that year, this is purely legend," according to the history. "Why, then, is this building octagonal, a shape we know Jefferson used in his documented architectural achievements? Like much of history, the reason is simple: it was much easier to build a series of eight short sides, and put them together into one large building, than to construct a large round or square building using the primitive tools and manual labor available here in 1761."

In the early 1800s, according to the resort, "Jefferson had long been aware of Warm Springs, as one of his first court cases as a young attorney involved a land title there. A few years before his visit, his granddaughter had visited Warm Springs, and no doubt her good report of the therapeutic properties of the waters, the congenial company, and fine food weighed in his decision. Suffering from the pains of what Jefferson described as 'rheumatism,' he sought relief, as did so many others, in the soothing warmth of the natural mineral springs. The Homestead Archives contain several of the Warm Springs Hotel guest ledgers, and the one for the year 1818 documents Jefferson's visit. He came in August, and stayed for over three weeks, taking the waters twice each day. On Aug. 13, 1818, Jefferson rode to The Homestead, where he enjoyed breakfast and dinner, and did some sightseeing with a local guide. He used what he called his 'Memorandum Book' to record financial information, and the entry for that date shows that his visit to The Homestead cost a total of $2.12.

"And in a letter dated August 14, 1818 to his daughter Martha, Jefferson spread the reputation of our therapeutic natural mineral spring waters at both Warm Springs and The

Homestead: he described them in glowing terms, saying that they were 'of the first merit.' This was high praise indeed, for Jefferson used this same phrase to describe things that were clearly the best of the best."

The Jefferson Pools are continuously fed by deep, natural mineral springs. The United States Geological Survey together with the University of Virginia surveyed and studied all the springs, both at the Jefferson Pools and at the main Homestead estate, finding the springs at the Jefferson Pools have about the same mineral content as those at famous European spa resorts. The Homestead acquired the properties in the 1880s.

Club Corp renamed the pools after Jefferson when it purchased The Homestead. The men's and women's buildings are now 247 years old and 172 years old, re- spectively.

The men's bathhouse was built in 1761 and the ladies' followed 75 years later in 1836. The men's house is narrower and slightly deeper than the women's, and both are fed by separate but similar springs.

Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary, along with American novelist and women's rights advocate Mary Johnston, came to "take the waters" at Jefferson Pools for its health benefits. Many doctors at the time recommended warm baths for various illnesses, and the temperature of the springs registers at just under 98 degrees.

Over the years, the springs became a social spot for affluent visitors. Groups of aristocrats toured the springs, traveling from one to another, starting with the warm, and then jumping to the hot, the sweet and finally the white, according to The Homestead's history. The Warm Springs, five miles from the hotel, marked the beginning of the tour. According to the resort's account, "There was a fearsome carriage ride down the mountain leading to the Warm, from accounts in diaries and in literature, it was all the driver could do to hold his coach on the road and keep it behind the team of horses. The fright of the passengers, great as it was, was shortly forgotten, however, in the pleasures of the valley and the brilliance of the company gathered there. The two covered pools — around which life centered at the Warm — have been preserved in their natural, if not original, condition. Time has aged the bathhouses, and the boards have been replaced from time to time, but the scene is not far from that which greeted the eyes of visitors even before the first Homestead was built at Hot Springs."

Today, the Jefferson Pools maintains a spot on both the state and national register of historic landmarks.

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