KIRKWOOD, Ill. — In this age of bottled water mania, we tend to think of the public obsession with hydration as a recent phenomenon, but its roots in this country go back nearly 200 years.
For centuries, Native Americans valued the medicinal qualities of natural mineral and hot water springs and considered some of them to be sacred. Saratoga in New York was one spot valued for its healing mineral waters, as was the area around Eureka Springs in Arkansas. After a doctor claimed his son’s eyes had been healed by a visit to Eureka in 1856, he began bottling the water and a tourist town began to grow up around one of the springs.
A quarter century later, a group of investors developed the Eureka Springs Improvement Company, which soon led to the building of hotels and railroads, and a booming tourist industry.
The year was 1882, and in western Illinois another group of investors was also seeing dollar signs. A Kirkwood correspondent for the Monmouth Review reported that just northwest of town a stream where farmer Ed Houlton had been watering his cattle had been discovered to have medicinal qualities “which will be far ahead of Saratoga or Eureka” and that it “throws out water enough to water an army.”
On March 2 of the following year it was announced that a group of leading Kirkwood businessmen and farmers had formed “The Kirkwood Mineral Spring Company,” with a capital of $20,000, which would be used for purchasing a 40-acre tract and erecting the necessary buildings.
A two-story hotel, capable of housing 100 guests, was constructed on the grounds. It had a wraparound porch and a nearby dance platform. A hydraulic ram west of the spring pumped water to the hotel and other buildings on the grounds, which included a bath house (where patrons could bathe in the healing waters), a restaurant and a soft drink stand. A decorative gazebo housed a small museum containing rare fossils and geological specimens.
A pond, large enough for boating, was located west of the spring, and to the north of the pond an ice house was built, filled with ice cut from the pond in winter.
By the spring of 1883, word of the mineral spring’s healing powers was quickly spreading and people flocked there to fill jugs and kegs. By June, it was reported that the area around the CB&Q depot was piled with barrels waiting to be shipped all over the country. An article in the Kirkwood Leader that month told of a new discovery about the water: “Dip a knife blade, pair of shears or other steel object in the water and it will be found that a fine needle will be attracted or even lifted as by a magnet. To this property, it is believed, is due the remarkable efficacy that water possesses over rheumatism and nervous diseases.”
Business in Kirkwood soon began picking up. The Tremont House hotel, which had been closed, reopened and the CB&Q began offering discounted round-trip tickets to the Mineral Springs from neighboring towns. During the first summer, the stream of visitors was impressive. On a Sunday in August, nearly 500 people attended a church service given by a Kirkwood preacher on the grounds. In September, Civil War veterans from throughout the state converged on the site for a reunion that was also attended by the Illinois governor. (Kirkwood citizens would pledge $10,000 in 1885 to build the soldier’s home there, but Quincy was eventually selected as the site.)
It wasn’t long before area residents began constructing cottages on the hills north and east of the spring. Wooded five-acre tracts west of the property — originally laid out for supplying firewood to farmers — were also snatched up for building sites.
Prior to the 1886 season, the Mineral Springs president and one of its directors announced they had leased the grounds for three years and planned to do away with a gate charge, as well as reduce the price of a bath to 25 cents. They also announced they would build a bottling plant and begin shipping water to all parts of the country. That operation was eventually abandoned when it was determined that the water lost most of its medicinal properties after it had been out of the ground for 24 hours.
The Mineral Springs entered a new era in August 1886 with the arrival of James G. Gilfillan, who billed himself as an “Indian doctor.” A native of Pennsylvania, he had gone west with his parents to Fort Scott, Kansas, then set off as a young man into Indian Territory, where he learned Native American techniques for healing the sick.
In 1880, Gilfillan relocated to Centralia, Illinois, where he practiced his medicine in a tent, before arriving at Mineral Springs, where he also worked in a tent. During the next two winters he leased space in the hotel and was assisted by Dr. H. L. Kampen, who in later years would practice medicine in Monmouth. Soon, Gilfillan’s business was thriving, and in the spring of 1887 he purchased an old hotel in Kirkwood, which he converted to a sanitarium, drawing patients from all parts of the country. He continued to practice his medicine at the Mineral Springs, while also selling his “Black Foot” medicine by mail order.
Although Gilfillan was arrested on several occasions for practicing without a medical license, he reportedly effected a number of remarkable cures and was so popular in the area that charges were always dropped. After his sudden death at age 37 in 1890, Dr. Kampen continued to run the Indian medicine lodge and sanitarium for a time.
By the end of the century, the nationwide craze for mineral springs was beginning to wane. In 1891, a Kirkwood newspaper correspondent reported that Dr. W. E. Taylor of Monmouth was overheard at the Tremont House discrediting the healing powers of the local water, saying “it is nothing more or less than water seeping from an old coal mine and in his opinion is not a healthy water to take into one’s stomach.”
Still, the resort continued to draw crowds. From 1886 through 1897, the Old Settlers Organization of Warren and Henderson counties held its reunion there nearly every year. In 1887, attendance at the reunion was 2,500. In 1900, a golf course had been added to the grounds. The following year, the Monmouth Review reported that a Mr. Sanford was negotiating to buy the Mineral Springs grounds. He had a son who was a prominent Chicago physician, and he planned to have him operate the sanitarium in town, which would have water piped from the springs. The purchase never happened, however.
In 1902, interest in the springs had dwindled to such a degree that the land was sold. L. E. Robbins of Kirkwood purchased the property in 1905 and moved many of the houses — including the hotel and bath house — to Kirkwood. Fred Houlton, brother of the farmer who watered his cattle at the spring before it was “discovered,” purchased the property in 1910 and it has remained in his family since.
After the death of Houlton’s daughter in 1938, the land was inherited by Frederick Houlton Lauder of Monmouth, who died in 1985. His two surviving daughters, Cherry McIlvain and Louise Roos of Rock Island, now own the property, which is part of a Centennial Farm called Houlton Ranch. Although virtually no trace of the once-thriving resort remains, the spring’s healing waters still flow.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking on western Illinois history for more then 35 years.