Waukesha Springs – June 6, 1953

This article was written by Frances Stover, who is not as well known as most Milwaukee historians. Although he was primarily an art critic for the Milwaukee Journal newspaper from 1921 to 1962, he also wrote many historical articles which have never been republished. I will try to post more from him as I get a chance. This one deals with the history of the Waukesha Silurian Springs resort which saw it’s peak in the 1890s.

Waukesha, Wis., Bethesda Springs, the pavilion

Milwaukee Journal, June 6, 1953

“Surely, you must know The Springs'”. The elderly lady in black with a white ruche who made the observation was in the drawing room of her Columbus (Miss.) home. All about were remembrances of her years as a southern belle. She could not understand that a Milwaukeean did not know all about “The Springs, the gayest summer society gathering place west of Saratoga” when she was a girl.

When she mentioned Bethesda and Silurian, the Fountain House and the Park hotel, it was all plain. She was speaking of Waukesha. Wis., when it was the Saratoga of the west. She was recalling her happiest days, the summers when with her father and mother, the family servants, the family landau and the carriage and riding horses they entrained for “The Springs” to spend a delightful three months. “Taking the waters” was an excuse for enjoying a summer social season of prebreakfast quaffings of the water, mid-morning musicales, luncheons, tennis, croquet, drives, dips in the pool, formal dinners, balls and most of all, flirtation with the young dandies from Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi to say nothing of the Waukesha boys.

On June 14, Waukesha is going to recall the 30 years during which it was the Saratoga of the west, the summer social capital of a dozen states. The restored Silurian spring is to be the scene of the celebration.

Travelers From Southern States

The rise and decline of Waukesha as “the spring city,” is material for an opera. It is a natural, too, for topical songs and handsome stage settings. We can start with the summer of 1868 when, to settle an estate, from New York came Col. Richard Dunbar, a railroad contractor who found himself afflicted with diabetes. Driving around Waukesha with his wife’s sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Carney, the colonel asked where he could get a good drink of water.

“There are several fine springs in the pasture over there,” said Mrs. Carney. Col. Dunbar drank one cup of water, drew another and another. Every day he continued to quaff the refreshing water, feeling like a new and better man. Returned to New York, he sank back into his former lassitude. “There must have been some powerful curative agency in that Waukesha spring water,” he said.

Result, he returned to Waukesha, bought the 40 acre tract where the springs were, chased off the cattle and, remembering his Sunday school days, named the spring “Bethesda” after the Jerusalem spring where an angel troubled the waters, which then took on curative powers. Now in first rate health, Col. Dunbar began the development of the Bethesda spring. He built a handsome family home; Dunbar av. was laid out; the spring itself was covered with a pavilion and rustic benches were placed in the park grounds.

The Milwaukee Daily News said in 1872, “The use of Bethesda water is no longer an experiment. No one can converse with a tithe of the hundreds now in Waukesha without being convinced of the spring water’s miraculous powers.”

News of the Wisconsin Saratoga got into national publications and summer travelers began to flock to Wisconsin instead of going to the famous Virginia springs or to Saratoga. Several outbreaks of yellow fever did their part in hurrying wealthy people from New Orleans and Mobile to the Wisconsin springs. In the main, early visitors were drawn by the boldly advertised powers of the waters to “cure” diabetes and Bright’s disease. Before long gout, rheumatism and all manner of urinary troubles were added. Waukesha’s hotels, boarding-houses and private homes, too, soon had every available room occupied and still visitors clamored to be entertained. In this emergency, from Chicago, to “take the waters” came Matthew Laflin, a keen businessman and a millionaire. Restored to buoyant health, he resolved to build a magnificent hotel. With another Chicagoan, Thomas B. Bryan, Laflin put up a $100,000 stone structure and a fine stable. This was the original Fountain Spring House.

At its opening, July 1, 1874, 250 newspaper editors were entertained and the story of the springs and the hotel spread over the country.

Each of the two grand old promoters suffered disaster. On July 30, 1874, Col. Dunbar’s son, Edward, associated with his father in the management of Bethesda, drowned while on a fishing trip to Little Muskego lake, and early in September. 1878, Laflin’s Fountain House burned, with the fire starting in a kettle of lard on a range. Seventy-one year old Laflin did not hesitate a day, and the season of 1879 opened on time with a new Fountain House, its capacity doubled. It covered three acres, built of stone and Milwaukee brick. It had a frontage of 450 feet and three of its four floors were surrounded by “galleries.” Its dining room, arranged for 500, had three domes and life sized peacocks on the balustrades. The roof had as many chimney pots as Paris, since the southerners were determined to have open fires on cool mornings.

Smiling Eyes and Spring Water

Now began the 30 years of the Saratoga of the west. Now came the gay belles and beaux who had neither rheumatism nor gout and were only weary when they had danced all night. Now came the immense, round topped Saratoga trunks to he lugged upstairs and deposited in the extra large closets. Now came the young ladies and the matrons, the children in Fauntleroy suits and in blue sashes, the broadly smiling Negro nurses, the young gentlemen in striped blazers carrying both tennis rackets and silver cups to drink the water, not because it would cure them of something they did not have hut for the flirtatious moments around the bubbling spring.

Gaily the “dipper boys” filled the ladies cups, or glasses if they did not carry their own. Eyes above the rims, they drank, then tinkling a dime in the cup, they handed it back to the dipper boy, who rinsed it, in the spring, of course, and then returned it.

Now began the jaunts in their own carriages, to Pewaukee lake, to Mr. Dousman’s trout pond near Brookfield, and to Nashotah lake. Several times a week there were hayrides for the youngsters and tournaments and much progressive visiting on the balconies.

The single figure which typifies this gay social life was Miss Bettie Brown of Galveston, Tex., the sparkling queen of the spa. The season was not considered to have opened until Miss Bettie had arrived with her 16 trunks, her maid, her carriages, her grooms, her coachman and her horses. She was a true southern lady, golden haired, of the Grecian type, gracious to everyone but allowing no presuming. She had studied painting in both the United States and Europe but to exhibit was too commercial for her. Her costumes were the talk of the place. People never forgot a black velvet princess gown, molded to her elegant figure, its train heavily embroidered in gold bullion. She invariably led the grand march at a Fountain House hop.

Cotillions and pink balls with powdered hair and patches were favored. Older ladies presided at favor tables where such delightful trinkets as sachet bags, card cases, glass vinaigrettes and long handled button hooks were given to the ladies while the gentlemen received silver filigree necktie pins.

The guests wore moire and silk faille and albatross and china silk with point lace, diamonds, Marechal Niel roses and they carried Mary Anderson fans. They knew exactly how to swing a court train over one arm, how to smile above a jewel scintillating fan and cast roving eyes at the young men.

It was only human that the Waukesha girls should resent the southern belles absorbing all of the attentions of the local boys.

“Let ’em stick to their southern boys and not try to grab off our fellows,” the Waukesha misses said.

In the fall of 1883 the enraged town girls pledged each other that no local boy who had paid court to the southern girls in the summer should be invited to the winter’s parties.

They carried out their pledge too and the Waukesha young men had to look on enviously while the Waukesha girls danced with partners imported from Milwaukee.

Auto Spelled Doom of Resort

After the end of the century the gay life was changed. There were several shiny red automobiles and a White steamer in the carriage house along with the landaus and breaks and dog carts. Too, the northern woods were beginning to make inroads. A period of lessening formality was just around the corner. Fishing became the fad and high laced boots were beginning to take the place of silver buckled slippers.

In the summer of 1905 the Fountain Spring House was sold by the heirs of Matthew Laflin to the Metropolitan Church Association of Chicago. The Waukesha springs with their romantic names:

“Silurian, Bethesda and Horeb
Hygela. Glen Rock and Henk,
Crescent City, Almanarius and Clysmic,
Arcadian. Sotarian, Acme and White Rock . . .”

were “springs” again and not celebrated summer trysting places.

The June 14 exercises will recall when Silurian was a joyous place of daily band concerts given at the casino. There was a theater on the edge of the park where stock companies and traveling troupers gave the best of the old plays and some new ones. Often local groups presented light operas. In the summer of 1899 Arthur Cyril Gordon Weld of Milwaukee directed a presentation of “The Mikado” with Miss Bessie Greenwood, now Mrs. William D. McNary, and James C. Wall of Milwaukee in the cast. Hermann, the magician; Capt. Magnus Anderson of Viking ship fame and Edison’s Vitascope in 1895 were some of the attractions.

Before being moved downtown and refitted as a movie house, the once gay casino was the scene of serious political discussion when both Senator John C. Spooner and Robert Marion La Follette in his first campaign for the governorship spoke from its stage.

Mrs, Edith Tallmadge, historian at the Waukesha county museum, knows well the story of the old Silurian casino as well as the history of the spring. In the late 1890’s she worked a year as a stenographer for the Silurian Spring Co. in an office about 300 feet west of the spring. One of her jobs was to follow the itinerary of Ringling Brothers circus with the proper shipping labels and datings for carloads of bottled spring water, the circus people taking no chances on the drinking water for their employer.


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