View of the Past

April 11, 2019

History Springs From Ralls Landmark

By Nellie Ann Lanham

October 6, 1977
The spring still runs through a century-and-a-half old wooden pipe. The lake created by the spring reflects back the ruins of a dance pavilion and a bath house. The odor of mineral water hangs like a whiff of rotten egg in the air. Only three houses remain, but still a sign on Route H in Ralls County declares “Spalding.” Above that sign is one that says “Speed Zone 35.”
Most people remember it as Spalding Springs. Famous for years as a health resort where people came to “take the waters,” it became in more recent times a popular dance spot, and many of Monroe City’s older generation remember dancing on the lakeside pavilion. Others have memories of “Saline Sunday,” the third Sunday in June each year, when the resort hotel was opened for the season with a dinner of fried chicken and fresh garden vegetables.
Located nine miles northwest of New London, the land on which the mineral lake is located now belongs to Mrs. Eugene Poage, who is the seventh owner of the property. She lives in one of the village’s remaining homes, and her brother, Walter Roland, lives in another.
Now just a wide spot in the road, Spalding once boasted a hotel and its adjoining cottages, a store, post office, two blacksmith shops, two churches and a school. The three-story Victorian style hotel burned January 4, 1963, although it had been closed for many years before that. In 1975, a tornado almost completed the destruction of the village as it swept away the Christian Church and one of the cottages and demolished the dance pavilion and the bath house. Today the school serves as the Christian Church.
Local legend hangs heavy around Spalding Springs. According to one, it was there that a Frenchman named Maturin Bouvet discovered a foul smelling salt lick already well known to the Indians. He returned to St. Louis and brought other men back with him to help manufacture what was actually the first iodized salt west of the Mississippi. He attempted to float his first load of salt down the river named Auhaha by the Indians, but the boat capsized. Bouvet promptly named the stream Salt River.
In 1800 Sac and Fox Indians massacred Bouvet and his salt workers, and some historians of the area say it was the famed Chief Black Hawk who led the attack. The site then became known as “Bloody Saline.” Another Frenchman, Charles Gratiot, who bought the estate, spent some months trying to persuade surveyors to validate his claim to the salt lick and several thousand acres around it for the surveyors did not care for a fate similar to Bouvet’s.
He finally succeeded, but soon other salt factories in more accessible locations cut on his profits. By 1821, just as Missouri was becoming a state, the third owner, an Irishman named William Muldrow, revived the salt operation. To help his production, he dug the first machine-drilled well west of the Mississippi. He used wooden cases made with a 2 ½ inch auger, and today the spring still flows in a steady stream through Muldrow’s wooden pipe, which is protected by a large tile. Local people assume that the minerals and salt in the water have preserved the wooden pipe. For many years a spring house further protected the pipe, but it disappeared some time ago.
Muldrow’s salt production grew steadily for a time, but his financial foresight was poor. He went bankrupt, and sold out to another man named Trabue. Trabue’s failure as a salt dealer sealed the fate of Spalding as salt center.
But in the meantime, the man who was to give the little settlement its name, Benjamin Spalding, was attracted to the village to make salt barrels. During those early years the village grew, and in fact was larger than Hannibal.
It was Ben Spalding’s son, Robert M., who in 1886 decided to capitalize on the mineral water that flowered from the Irishman’s well. The younger Spalding built a 22 room hotel, three stories high, with a veranda that swept around it and a ballroom that felt the dancing feet of visitors from Chicago, St. Louis, and many distant states. The lake, reflecting the pagoda in the center, was an attraction for as many as 100 guests at a time. Later two cottages were built to hold the overflow of people who made this one of the most popular resort areas in the region.
Guests came to Rensselaer four miles away by train, and were picked up there by surrey or spring wagon, according to Walter Roland. Although many did come for the medicinal properties believed to be in the water, Roland said he thinks most of them came just for a good time.
“The water did have medicinal qualities,” he said, “but I think it was mostly laxative.”
Still may years later, people were coming back for supplies of the sulphur-laden water, claiming that it cured their ailments.
For the braver souls, there was swimming in the lake. A bath house was built to provide privacy for the girls who dared come out in their ankle-length bathing suits. There was a charge of ten cents for swimming, although people were allowed to take or drink all the water they wanted, free.
Roland’s father, the late Albert Roland, purchased the property from Robert Spalding’s daughter in the early 1920’s, and for a few years continued operation of the health spa. But seaweed from the Gulf of Mexico had somehow been introduced into the lake. Some said Mrs. Spalding brought it there, but others claimed it was carried in by ducks on their migration. At any rate, it flourished until it had choked out much of the lake.
Gradually, guests grew fewer, and the hotel closed about 1930. But the place was not forgotten as a spot for reveling. The pavilion overlooking the lake was a scene of many a dance put on by Albert Roland until that too eased in 1958. To the whine of the fiddle and the cry of the caller couples do-si-doed and the men swept their partners as their reflections mimicked them in the lake.
Cleo Whiston, whose mother grew up near the resort remembers attending both “Saline Sunday” and dancing on the pavilion.
“Those were good times,” she said but her appreciation of them does not extend to mineral water. “It is terrible,” she says, making a face, “but there were people who claimed to like it.”
It still runs clear from the pipe today, although it contains, in addition to the sulphur, magnesium, iron and iodine. The smell is from hydrogen-sulfide gas, and as one walks closer to the lake’s edge, it is hard to believe that people actually swam in the water and enjoyed it.
But pictures in ancient scrapbooks and memories of many people testify that they did. They recall a time when this part of Northeast Missouri was a mecca for tourists, a pleasure resort and a health spa that attracted hundreds each year to the Salt River Valley in Ralls County.