by Nelda Rachels (First published in Hometown)
The obsessions, the history, the survival of any small town usually depend somewhat on the total national or world picture. Somehow, the fevered obsessions of a nation can settle in even the smallest of its communities. One such fever was the 1800s health-craze for mineral water. The obsession for a health cure for ailments as diverse as female weakness, arthritis, gout, neuralgia, stomach upset, and asthma spread from Saratoga Springs in New York to Ojo Caliente Springs in New Mexico and all points in between, including Northwest Tennessee’s Austin Springs, located in the first district of Weakley County.
It’s hard to say how or where this fever started, but somewhere, someone decided that mineral water could cure almost anything. In fact, springs had long been sacred places of healing for Native Americans. In the early 1800s, many doctors, not a few quacks, and several real estate developers touted the mineral water cure through newspaper advertisements, brochures, and word-of-mouth.
Springs of all types were able to lay claim to cures from the ensuing testimonials of “cured” visitors no matter the type of mineral contained in the waters. Most springs contained either salt, silica, sulphur, potassium, iron, manganese, alum, iodide, etc., or a combination of several of these elements. As these springs became crowded with visitors (which increased with rail travel), the social aspects of the visit may have had as curative an effect on visitors (perhaps more so) than the waters themselves. Eventually, what would later become known as Austin Springs also attracted a heavy volume of tourists.
It’s difficult to say when the spring first became an attraction; however, by piecing together oral histories of the locals with newspaper accounts and Virginia C. Vaughan’s book, Weakley County, we can safely place the timeframe in the latter 1800s when Christopher Columbus Austin (better known as Chris), a farmer, owned land on Powell Creek. When Chris discovered a mineral spring on the creek’s bank, he walled it in with stone or brick curbing.
How people found out about the spring is a mystery, but by about 1888 the community sported a hotel to accommodate the many tourists who came for the spring’s healing effects. And rail travel did help. Oral histories from the community say that surreys full of visitors would come from the local train stations of Mayfield or Fulton. People who came in their own individual wagons would reside in tent cities in the campground set up near the spring; some stayed in the hotel, but all came with empty jugs to the spring’s mouth.
Most locals say that the spring water’s curative powers came from drinking it, not from bathing in it. It is likely, however, that a few folks drew up enough water to heat up and to bathe in because some felt that it took both methods to obtain the greatest benefit. Nearly everyone who has had personal knowledge of the water describe it as looking bad, smelling bad (like bad eggs), and tasting bad (like iron). It took a brave soul to drink it.
By 1889, Austin Springs had applied for a post office. Because there was already an Austin Springs, Tennessee, the post office took the name of “Unity.” The first postmaster was A.M. McQuire (1889-1893), followed by Aaron W. Duke (1893-1902) and David A. Frields (1902-1905). At various points in time, the town also contained general stores, a blacksmith shop, saloon, lock-up (jail), two gristmills, a cream station, barbershop, switchboard, restaurant, livery stable, sawmill, churches, and nearby schools. Tom Johnson built the first general merchandise store which his sons, Chap and Clyde, later continued to operate. Font Gibson (pronounced “Fount”) owned another. During the 1930s, George Harris, uncle to Howard Harris (who lives near Austin Springs and the source of much of my information), ran a general merchandise store, which contained groceries and millinery full of hats, shoes, and clothing.
Palmersville resident Vivian Rickman well remembers this store and how much she enjoyed shopping for clothes there.